During its annual meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) presented The Chinese Exclusion Act, co-produced by Steeplechase Films and CAAM, with their prestigious 2019 Erik Barnouw Award, which is given annually for outstanding programming on television, or in documentary film, concerned with American history, the study of American history, and/or the promotion of American history.
The film, which premiered on PBS’ acclaimed American Experience program in May 2018, is directed by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu; produced and written by Ric Burns, Robin Espinola, and Li-Shin Yu; and Executive Produced by CAAM’s Stephen Gong and Donald Young, and American Experience’s Mark Samels.
Although the focus of the film is on Chinese immigrants, some of the questions it raises connect to all immigrant groups over American history, as well as native peoples and experiences of black Americans. The film is a well-researched, tightly argued historical documentary, demonstrating how racial issues are far more complicated than we like to believe. Most of the visual images are entirely new to viewers. The number of archives listed in the credits is amazing. The directors did a great job of telling an often-complex and tragic story in a clear, coherent, and powerful manner. This excellent film laid out clearly the complicated relationship Americans have always had with immigration and immigrants. And it directly addressed the still-contested definition of what it means to be an American. It is a moving portrait of an historical issue that deserves widespread knowledge and discussion in America today, both in our classrooms and in our public policy debates. This timely film deserves recognition for its many accomplishments.
The award was presented on April 5 by OAH’s 2018–19 President Earl Lewis and 2019–20 President Joanne Meyerowitz.