It is easy in these days and nights of all-war television programming to miss some of the regularly scheduled programming that is truly special. Becoming American: The Chinese Experience, a three-part documentary starting tonight on PBS, is one of those rare television programs that has something original to say and says it in a compelling way. It is the kind of film that rightfully gives rise to talk of this being a golden age of documentaries on television.
Co-written and produced by Bill Moyers and Thomas Lennon along with a large team of others, the documentary is book-ended by two watershed legislative acts, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Immigration Reform Act of 1965. The Exclusion Act is one of America's greatest acts of shame, and it gives lie - at least when it comes to Chinese immigrants - to much of the nation's elevated, Lady Liberty rhetoric about immigration.
As American historian L. Ling-chi Wang says in the film, "Up until 1882, America was open to everybody who wanted to come. We welcomed everybody. The only people that we excluded by law at that time were prostitutes, lepers and morons. In 1882, we added the Chinese to that list."
The greatest triumph in terms of storytelling is the way Moyers and Lennon bring the 19th-century Chinese-American experience to life and then go on to explode stereotypes and show how economics drove racial politics and shaped attitudes toward the immigrants. Borrowing a page from Ken Burns, the core strategy is to tell history through mini-biographies.
While that might sound relatively easy to do, the trick is to find compelling life stories that represent and resonate with the larger forces and issues shaping the age as is done here. Viewers meet Yung Wing, who came to the United States to be trained as a missionary and graduated from Yale in 1854. Here was a man who loved America, but America wouldn't love him because of the color of his skin.
Viewers will also meet Lalu Nathoy, brought here in slavery to work in a mining-town brothel. One of the few women lucky enough to survive the disease and physical abuse that claimed the lives of most such women before the age of 30, Lalu became Polly Bemis, pioneer woman. And then there's Denis Kearny, a one-time labor leader and immigrant himself, who became one of the most virulent Chinese baiters in the land making a career out of stirring up race hate.
The labor connection matters, because forces larger than the likes of Kearny ultimately shaped attitudes toward the Chinese. When cheap labor was needed to build the Transcontinental Railroad, Leland Stanford, California governor and railroad magnate, created a climate of welcome. But, as soon as times got tough and there were more laborers than jobs, Stanford was the first to denounce and scapegoat the Chinese.
Using letters and diaries, the filmmakers manage the most difficult historical task of telling a culture's history from the inside out through the eyes of the people who lived it. But Moyers and Lennon also never lose track of the mega-view, chronicling larger patterns in Chinese and American history. One of the most illuminating involves the way in which Chinese-Americans, like African-Americans, had to go to the Supreme Court of the United States to find any of the rights they were supposed to be guaranteed in the Constitution.
There is a slightly jarring shift in tone between Parts 2 and 3, as history gives way to Moyers' interviewing Chinese-Americans today, like author Helen Zia and Jerry Tang, founder of Yahoo. But the piece quickly establishes its own rhythm with one of the greatest interviewers in the history of the medium at the top of his game.
What is wonderful about watching Moyers when he's in this mode is how much listening he does. Whereas many television interviewers try to impress with long questions showing all their homework, Moyers seems to be using as few words as possible to lay out concepts and then create space for the people being interviewed to explore the ideas and reveal themselves.
Near the end of this television journey, Michelle Ling, a young writer, tells Moyers how weary she gets constantly battling the perception that she is an outsider.
"I am an American, but I have to become an American to everybody else all the time," she says.
"Why is that?" Moyers asks simply.
"I don't know. You tell me; you're the white guy," she replies.
What: Becoming American
When: 9 p.m. today, tomorrow and Thursday (pre-emption possible for war coverage)
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 22)
In brief: A long-overdue part of American history wisely told.