This review contains spoilers.
In Focus Features’ new film “Blue Bayou,” a tattoo artist in Louisiana finds himself facing deportation.
Like the deportees we hear about in the news, Antonio LeBlanc is torn from his family in the U.S. and sent back to a country he has never known. Unlike most of the deportees portrayed by the media, Antonio is an Asian adoptee. Director Justin Chon plays Antonio, a Korean American man, in this drama that highlights the deportation of transnational adoptees.
The film depicts how we seek parental figures and how their absences are created in the first place. Sometimes, they are the result of a parent’s actions, like divorce, and other times they are forces beyond one’s control, like war. But the most heart-wrenching family separations are somewhere in between, when a parent is in a situation where leaving their child would be the best possible choice.
“Blue Bayou” is ambitious in the realities it aims to describe: deportation, transnational adoptions, blended families, and policing, with New Orleans as the background. When we asked Chon why he chose this setting, he explained, “There’s plenty of Asian Americans in the South. And I don’t feel like [there is] substantial representation of it.” In one scene, Antonio meets a Vietnamese American family, the only connection he has to other Asians who have also happened to live through family separation.
Antonio’s separation from his birth mother is one of several kinds of separation depicted in “Blue Bayou.” This is compounded by his estrangement from his adoptive mother. Chon said, “[Although] adoption is usually looked at through rose-colored glasses, not all [adoptees] get placed into perfect families.”
This kind of nuance is what makes Antonio’s story compelling: No one is a savior or villain. The audience sees him as a son who has been separated from his mother, and now as a father who is torn apart from his daughter. Antonio is a flawed person with little agency, so he’s doing what he can to stay in a country he knows as home. He’s one of at least 35,000 transnational adoptees who don’t have U.S. citizenship because their adoptive parents never obtained it for them.
The people implicated in Antonio’s deportation are the people he has the closest ties to. As a result, we see frustration but not anger or resentment toward the people who do harm in the film. This is intentional, as Chon explained, “I just hope that through watching the film, people reconsider some of our policies. But I’m not telling you what’s right and wrong. I’m not forcing you to decide.”
Unfortunately, Chon’s directorial decision to humanize ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the people involved in deporting an adoptee ultimately takes away from the film.
While the film tells an important and overlooked story, some transnational adoptees say it fails to truly represent their community. Adoptees For Justice, who have been advocating for the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021, said that Chon’s omission of a call to action leads them to question his intention in making the film.
Furthermore, the reason Antonio’s story is realistic is because it’s based on the life of Adam Crasper, who did not give the filmmaker his consent or the rights to his story. In his statement, Crasper said, “When personal traumas are forcefully misappropriated for other people’s purposes — it is hurtful.”
Other adoptees have condemned the film for exploiting rather than empowering the adoptee community.
“We desperately need more awareness around this adoptee citizenship omission,” said JS Lee, a transracial adoptee, in an email interview with Mochi. “If done perfect[ly], it should’ve been pitched to one of the many adopted filmmakers in our community. If done right, it should have obtained the rights to Adam’s life story and be done with his approval each step of the way.”
For people who have limited agency in their lives, telling their story without their permission only does more harm. Chon’s refusal to condemn any of the harmful individuals in Antonio’s life — and depicting a redeeming narrative instead — commits harm. A person who aids in the deportation of immigrants is not and cannot be a friend of immigrants in any sense of the word. Supporting characters get the opportunity to help Antonio, but ultimately, as white Americans, they don’t face the risks he does and he doesn’t have the agency they do.
While “Blue Bayou” brings attention to an urgent issue and moves the audience, its ambiguity makes it a weaker film. Deportation is inhumane, and humanizing deportation agents invalidates the pain and risk that undocumented adoptees live with — adoptees whom Antonio is supposed to represent. Ultimately, the making of “Blue Bayou” is yet another instance of writing over the stories of adoptees and silencing the very people Chon claims to highlight.
“Blue Bayou” is playing in theaters starting September 17, 2021.
Read Adam Crasper’s statement on “Blue Bayou.”Send a letter of support to your Member of Congress to pass an inclusive Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021. Sign NAKASEC’s petition to demand Congress and the White House to pass a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Photo credit: Focus Features