Film studies professor publishes cultural history

Assistant professor of English and film studies Jun Okada recently completed a new book titled Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movements. Rutgers University Press published her book in March. At 5 years old, Okada immigrated to the United States from Japan, living in California until coming to Geneseo in 2006.

She discussed her own life experiences as one of the major influences in her work exploring the identity and community of Asian Americans in relation to film. “Being from California … and experiencing racism firsthand, as well as the cultural diversity around me, definitely shaped the project that ended up becoming my book,” Okada said.

The University of California, Los Angeles—where Okada earned both her master’s degree and doctorate—played an important role in fostering discussions at universities similar to those found in Okada’s book.

“‘To me, ‘Asian-American’ is related to the ethnic studies movement that happened in the 1970s––particularly in universities in California–– which was created on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s,” Okada said.

Okada explained that UCLA is especially important to film. “There was a group [at UCLA] that splintered off from the regular film school and they called themselves ‘ethno communications,’” she said. “They were a film school for students of color.”

According to Okada, the broad issue at the heart of the ethnic studies movement was the need for “a discipline … where we people of color can feel like we exist and that our histories are being taught as legitimate fields of knowledge.” The students in the ethno communications school took a direct approach to this issue. As a result, these students made films about cultural histories that many others did not know about, such as Japanese-American internment during World War II.

Even with these victories aside, Okada emphasized the idea that there are still obstacles remaining. “There’s always intolerance and racial prejudice that comes with the inclusion of racial and ethnic difference,” she said.

For years, Asian-American film was largely tied to public media—particularly PBS. “Asian American actors, writers, directors were knocking on those Hollywood doors and Hollywood wasn’t answering … unless they needed some stereotype as supporting cast,” Okada said.

Okada noted that both the histories and identities of Asian Americans are ever changing and there are still issues to address. Her book explores the ways in which the Asian American community has sought—and is still seeking—“recognition, not just for the histories and identities of their ancestors, but who they are in the U.S.”