Justice for Vincent Chin?

By Kaitlin Wright

The 1980s documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? was structured in such away that allowed for critical thought on the social issues at hand. Bill Nichols in Historical Consciousness and the Viewer: Who Killed Vincent Chin? describes the film’s organization as “collage structure.” In this definition, he is referring to the clips of material from various sources that are joined together to “narrate” the story. There is no true narrator present in this documentary, so the film is driven by various interviews, news clips, etc. This structure, as previously mentioned, encourages the audience to “actively make connections left unstated by the film” (Nichols). It doesn’t blatantly spell out the issues of racism and the failure of our justice system, but it does steer the viewer in that direction of thought. I found it interesting that Nichols observed the documentary as providing a “will to transform.” The film was used to open the eyes of the population to the unfair nature of the Vincent Chin case and perhaps inspired impetus for change.   

To set up the documentary in time and space, and to allude to a motive for the beating of Vincent Chin, the documentary leads with an explanation of the city trying to deal with a high unemployment rate caused by overseas automobile makers. It sets up the story to show that the city was angry; for instance the film shows images of workers smashing a Japanese car. Once we have established that tensions were high, we start to learn a little bit more about the night of the beating. When the attacker, Ron Ebens, is interviewed in his home, he does not see himself at fault for the death of Vincent Chin. As described by Nichols, Ebens defense is a “refusal to see” that he consciously and maliciously murdered Chin. Ebens says, “it was like this was ordained to be, I guess it just happened.” By pulling phrases like this out of his testimony, the documentary directors shed a somewhat irrational light on Ebens thought process. We, as viewers, are then given the job to sift through what he thinks is legitimate reasoning and actually determine the truth that Ebens is holding back. 

Although statements from Ebens such as, “I didn’t do it on purpose… I didn’t walk up and shoot someone” don’t make sense, I think that there is a greater social consciousness that we have to remind ourselves of. The way that Asian Americans like Vincent Chin were treated at large provides scores of ambiguous and probably repressed opinions towards this minority population. What I mean to say is that what Ebens did was wrong, but the way the court handled the trial and punishment of Ebens highlights an inconsistency in American thought when it comes to protecting Asian Americans. Glen Mimura in Ghostlife of 3rd Cinema writes that “American have placed Asians “within” the U.S. … yet linguistically, culturally, racially marked Asians as “foreign” and “outside” the national polity” (Mimura 16). Vincent Chin appeared to be a well-assimilated Asian American citizen, but popular cultural thought had him ear-marked, consciously, or not, as an “other”. As seen in the Vincent Chin court case, there appears to be an uneven distribution of “power, resources and opportunities in modern society” (Mimura 11). Labeled as perpetual foreigners prevented the Asian American community in Detroit to persuade their case, even though, above the question of race, Vincent Chin’s human rights were taken away from him and handed right over to Ron Ebens.  

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