Ms. Geek Speaks: The Golden Globes and What Is a Foreign Language in the US?

There are things I find tedious, such as people having an opinion, good or bad, about something they have not seen or read. This was the case when I listened to a panel discussion on a movie. All of the panelists had seen that film, however, the discussion was hijacked by the moderator who was anything but moderate on the topic he wished to discuss: “Minari” and the HFPA.

The moderator was Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Vietnam-born Asian American who was raised in Pennsylvania and California (San Jose) and who in 2016 won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel, “The Sympathizer.” He is currently the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

I attended USC but we were not on the campus at the same time. I have seen Nguyen at the USC Pacific Asia Museum and listened to him speak. While I respect Nguyen, I suspect he doesn’t not really follow the Golden Globes and did not research the issue before he raised his voice in support of another Asian American who complained about it and before writing an opinion piece for The Washington Post: “‘Minari’ is about immigrants who speak Korean. That doesn’t make it ‘foreign.’: The film’s categorization rests on a narrow definition of what makes a story American.” 

As his first paragraph sets out the situation, one can readily identify the problem is based on a false assumption: 

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which runs the Golden Globes, has decided the movie “Minari,” from director Lee Isaac Chung, will compete in the foreign language film category. This is despite the fact that Chung is an American director, that he cast American actors and that “Minari” takes place in the United States (Arkansas, in fact).

It is true that the HFPA runs the Golden Globes. It is false that the HFPA “decided” which category the film would compete in. It has nothing to do with whether the director is a US citizen or resident. It has nothing to do with where the film takes place. 

Nguyen then concludes:

But of course, “international” — with all its connotations of being willfully and powerfully mobile and sophisticated — has a very different weight for non-Americans than “foreign” does for minorities in the United States. “Foreign” casts people, as well as their stories and languages, as strange, small and marginal. When one is “international,” one has the capital and the clout just to be the “best” as well. When one is “foreign,” one is, too often, inaudible and invisible.

Or, in the case of “Minari,” and the story of immigrants who speak Korean, one can be nominated for an award and simultaneously be told that one does not fully belong.

If one starts with a mistaken thesis, then one cannot come to a logical conclusion, no matter how eloquently one writes and despite being awarded a genius grant for some other field–writing fiction. 

The decision to submit this film or any film into any category is made by the production company of the film. The production company of “Minari” made the decision to submit in the foreign language film category for the Golden Globes. I have watched two panels by the “Minari” cast and they have not spoken about the issue because it was not an issue for them. 

We also cannot assume that the demographics of the HFPA skews White. Little is known about the membership in terms of demographics. I do know that backstage, if a question is to be asked in a language other than English and if it will go untranslated, the question will be in Spanish. The Spanish-speaking population is considered a minority in the US. It is an important minority in Los Angeles, California and the US. It was my coverage of the Golden Globes that made me consider and note to my editors that I thought there should be more coverage of Latino productions and should be more Latino productions , particularly in the wake of a Golden Globe award for Gina Rodriguez for Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy. That was in 2014. If your publication didn’t cover “Ugly Betty” or “Jane the Virgin,” then you missed what the Nielsens recently revealed. 

The Nielsen company came out with a study “Being Seen On Screen: Diverse Representation and Inclusion on TV,” that came to the similar conclusion.

Researchers at Nielsen, the company which also provides TV viewership ratings, looked at the top 100 TV shows each in broadcast, cable and streaming, excluding sports, movies and animated shows. NPR summed up the findings below: 

In an analysis of diversity and inclusion among those 300 programs in 2019, Nielsen found women, Native Americans and Latinx people were among the most underrepresented groups relative to their numbers in the general population.

For example, women make up 52 percent of the U.S. population, but they show up onscreen 37.9 percent of the time, according to Nielsen’s study. It uses a metric called “share of screen” –the percentage of time members of specific groups appear as recurring cast members – to measure how often TV viewers actually see these types of people.

The numbers get worse for women over age 50. This group is 20 percent of the population, but only gets 8 percent of screen time. Men over age 50, who are 17 percent of the population, get a 14 percent share of screen time – closer to their actual numbers in real life.

Some people may be confused with the difference between a foreign film or a foreign language film. Under a foreign film designation, English language films from Canada and the UK could be submitted. This happened previously at the Golden Globes.

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So there are more Latinos in the US than there are Koreans or Vietnamese or, more generally, Asian Americans. Coming from San Diego County, that comes as no surprise to me. So many place names are in Spanish and the history of California is intertwined with Spanish colonialism, and often diverges from the Anglo-centric history as generally taught about the US. Slavery was abolished in California while it was still part of Mexico and when California became part of the US, it declined to reinstate it.

Still, the study of Spanish is considered a foreign language. Studying Spanish in middle school and high school was a challenge because one was often competing with students who already spoke it in the home. Studying French was easier because there were few French-speaking people in my area. When I applied to college, I used Spanish as my foreign language requirement and went on to study the second year university level of French before beginning my studies in East Asian languages such as Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.

During my first graduate studies program, I was a teaching associated for beginning Japanese so as I am now taking first year Korean from a Los Angeles-based community college, I can say with some authority that the class is really meant for students who speak Korean in the home and, perhaps, even attended Saturday Korean language classes. The course is not really meant for or developed for students starting from ground zero as the programs that I have previously taken in Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese or Mongolian.

Yet, when students who speak a foreign language in the home, apply for universities like the University of Southern California, they may attempt to waive the foreign language requirement at USC. “The foreign language requirement applies to all students earning degrees granted by, or under the jurisdiction of, the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.” The USC website states the way of satisfying the requirement include: 

  • earning a passing grade in language Level III of a foreign language sequence at USC or its equivalent elsewhere, or
  • scoring on the placement examination at a level considered by the language program as equivalent to the completion of Course III, or
  • scoring on a national or international examination (e.g., AP or International Baccalaureate Higher Level) at a level set by the department and approved by the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, or
  • passing a competency exam of language skills, administered at USC, subject to the availability of suitable academic examiners. The competency exam will test proficiency in listening, reading and writing skills. 

International students whose native language is not English are exempt, but must establish they have the English language skills to survive at the university. Generally, freshmen are encouraged to begin taking courses to satisfy this requirement.

As a professor at USC, Nguyen should be well aware of the foreign language requirement. The USC Language Center has tests in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Classical Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Persian, Russian and Spanish. For a Portuguese placement exam, students have to contact the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. For Hebrew, they must contact the Jewish Studies Department.  For USC, even dead languages count as foreign languages.

There is no indication if USC includes Native American languages under the “foreign language” requirement. 

There was a US film produced in Spanish and Native American languages that was nominated by the HFPA in the Foreign Language category. The Native American languages used were not spoken in the areas of what is now the US so that still does make those languages foreign from the US.

Minari and The Farewell

“Minari” has not addressed this controversy. That should tell us all something. The director of “The Farewell” has. However, the director and her production company also made the choice to submit the film in the Foreign Language category and it made the final cut. Being nominated raised the film’s profile into the general public’s awareness. “The Farewell” did NOT receive any nominations for the Academy Awards nor Screen Actors Guild Awards. 

“The Farewell” was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by other organizations. “The Farewell” was nominated for Best Foreign Film by the Hollywood Critics Association and its rules allow for it to also be submitted under Best Picture and Best Independent Film. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the Chicago Film Critics Association, San Diego Film Critics Society Awards, and AARP Movies for Grownups. 

Since the argument for “Minari” has been that the director is a US citizen and the lead actor is a US citizen (the actress who plays his wife and the actress who plays his mother-in-law are South Korean nationals) and this is an American story, it should be in the Best Films category. Would it have make the cut?

Would people take less exception to the category if it was renamed to Best Film Not in the English Language. BAFTA changed the category from Best Foreign Language Film to Best Film Not in the English Language in 1990. It also had a specific categories for British-made films (Outstanding British Film) and British directors and writers (Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer).  And for those who care, Best British Short Animation and Best British Short Film. 

In the Critics’ Choice Awards, “Minari” is entered for Best Picture as well as Best Foreign Language Film.  The Florida Film Critics Circle had it as runner up in Best Foreign Language Film, it won the Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film for the New York Film Critics Online (as well as Best Film) and Best Foreign Language Film at the North Texas Film Critics Association. 

The designation of “Foreign Language Film” is not an anomaly within film critic circles. 

Let’s admit that when one attends public school in the US, including in Los Angeles, one expects the base instruction to be in English. One expects to read English textbooks. One expects to learn other languages based on the perspective of an English-speaker. At the university level, one expects the same.It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. At USC, the university where Nguyen teaches, languages other than English are considered foreign languages, thus for Nguyen to make such a fuss over references to Vietnamese or Korean as a foreign language seems disingenuous. Instead of staring with the HFPA, perhaps he should start his protest at his home university. The HFPA is just following a common practice and using the phrase “foreign language” as it is commonly used in Los Angeles. 

But, more to the point, the premise of the protests for “Minari” and the accusations of racism against the HFPA are based on a mistake made by people unfamiliar with the process of the Golden Globes. One should have first given pause when no one from the production company of “Minari” spoke up. It would have been much better if everyone involved in making these accusations had first investigated the process of the HFPA and the Golden Globes before playing the race card. The Golden Globes under COVID-19 restrictions are struggling as it is going toward their 78th ceremony. 

No matter how sincere one is, raising the cry of racism without facts helps no one, but false accusations of racism dilutes the effect voices raised in support of fact-based incidents of race. On this aspect, the HFPA is owed an apology, but even if it gets one, I fear the falsehood will survive long after this year and is another blow against the real fight against real racism. Ask questions before making rants against racism. 

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