From the cringy racist Chinese restaurant scene in
A Christmas Story to every blatantly abhorrent trope in the Indiana Jones movies, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been consistently marginalized in Hollywood over time. With the surge in anti-Asian hate incidents during the pandemic, families like mine have been having increasingly difficult conversations with our little ones about racism and bias. In fact, Stop AAPI Hate, a national center formed to track and respond to incidents of hate and discrimination, reported that youth are more likely than adults to be harassed.
As society slowly returns to normalcy, I worry about my child and others like him going back to school and what he might experience on the playgrounds. I worry other kids are still watching cult classics like
The Goonies without proper conversations with their adults about the problematic depictions.
Racism in entertainment normalizes and validates it, causing younger generations to inherit implicit bias and racism. To actively teach anti-racism, movies that celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander heritage and identity are essential. There is a growing catalogue of great options out there that do representation better. The following movies are a nurturing and joyful sanctuary for young minds and tender hearts as they experience and process the often scary world during these challenging times.
All is not what it seems when a 5-year-old boy rescues a “goldfish” from the ocean near his home in a Japanese fishing town. This whimsical fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli, which also produced
Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke, is the perfect introduction to Japanese animated films for young viewers. You can watch Ponyo, rated G , on HBO Max . Mulan (1998)
The ancient Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, the story of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her aged father in the army, has been twice given the Disney treatment, both in the 1998 animated film and
the 2020 live-action reboot. Though both adaptations have their problems, the social significance of being the first Disney film to feature an Asian lead in a story from Asia is undeniable. And for many Asian Americans who grew up in the 1990s, Mulan was a game changer. When our child was old enough, we were grateful to have this film as an easy way to introduce a bit of Chinese history. You can watch Mulan, rated G, on Disney+ and Amazon Prime . Abominable (2019)
Yi, a teenage girl grieving the death of her father, encounters a runaway Yeti on her rooftop and embarks on a journey from her home in Shanghai across China to take him home to the Himalayas. The details of Yi’s mom and grandmother worrying about her, her grandmother constantly cooking (those steaming pork buns!) in her lavender track suit, all hits me in the feels with the authenticity — making me miss my own lao-lao.
You can watch Abominable , rated PG , on Hulu and Amazon Prime . Up (2009)
Russell, a character based on the childhood appearance of Peter Sohn, a real-life Korean American animator and director at Pixar, couldn’t be more lovable. Voiced by Jordan Nagai, when the determined Wilderness Explorer knocks on Carl Fredericksen’s door to earn his “Assisting the Elderly” patch, the two set off on a fantastical and unexpected adventure to Paradise Falls in South America. This movie had me crying from the opening sequence and then in stitches of laughter throughout. Russell later confides in Mr. Fredericksen that his parents are divorced and his father, often absent. This plot point is a subtle and subversive counterpoint to the model minority myth, which projects perfection onto Asian Americans. The amount of heart and imagination the filmmakers were able to fit into this movie is truly astonishing.
You can watch Up, rated PG, on Disney+ and Amazon Prime . Finding ‘Ohana (2021)
A brother and sister from Brooklyn begrudgingly spend a summer at their grandfather’s house in rural Oahu, where they reconnect with their Hawaiian heritage while searching for long lost treasure. Directed by Jude Weng and written by Christina Strain, both gifted Asian American women up-and-coming in the industry, this film is a refreshing update on classic movies like
Goonies and Indiana Jones, which showcase problematic representation of Asian American characters. You can watch Finding ‘Ohana, rated PG, on Netflix . Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), the fierce female protagonist, redefines what it means to be a Disney princess. To revive her father and save the world, Raya seeks out the legendary last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina.) Set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, inspired by the cultures of Southeast Asia, Asian Americans like myself were thrilled to finally have a story about a different part of Asia to share with our kids. Disney also got it right this time by hiring Vietnamese-American writer Qui Nguyen and Malaysian writer Adele Lim to lead the screenplay instead of more white writers and it really shows.
You can watch Raya and the Last Dragon , rated PG, on Disney+. Over the Moon (2020)
Oscar-nominated animated musical about a precocious girl in China who builds a rocket to the moon to prove the existence of the mythical moon goddess during the Mid-Autumn Festival, this delightful family film features an all-star Asian American voice cast including Ken Jeong, Phillipa Soo, John Cho, Sandra Oh, and newcomer Cathy Ang. is a moving portrayal of grief, mourning, and moving onward while honoring those we’ve lost. I’m also grateful for my kiddo to see a vibrant and loving representation of family life in a beautiful canal town in China. Over the Moon You can watch Over the Moon , rated PG, on Netflix . Lilo & Stitch (2002)
When Lilo, a high-spirited 6-year-old girl from Hawaii, befriends Stitch, a troublemaking exiled alien, the rest is Disney animated history. Beyond the famous line, “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten,” the themes in this film are particularly powerful. The movie shows that you don’t have to fit in to be loved and that mistakes are forgivable. Lilo and her older sister, who is struggling but doing her best with the new responsibility of parenthood after the death of their parents, represent a non-traditional family dynamic uncommon in children’s programs, but prevalent in real life. Formalized or not, many children grow up in relative or kinship foster care and they deserve to see stories like their own represented positively.
You can watch Lilo & Stitch , rated PG , on Disney+ and Amazon Prime . Twinsters (2015)
Imagine finding out in your 20s that you have an identical twin on the other side of the world. This winning documentary film is about identical twin sisters, born in South Korea and separated at birth without knowledge of one another. One sister, Samantha Futerman, is adopted to the U.S., while the other, Anaïs Bordier, was adopted to France. Equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful, this reunion story spanning multiple continents is lovingly and intimately captured by the two sisters.
Stories about Asian Adoptees, especially written and created by adoptees, are sorely needed. People adopted from Asia represent an important segment of the diaspora — their stories deserve to be told and seen. Twinsters is a great place to start. You can watch Twinsters , rated PG-13, on Amazon Prime . Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
When the conservative parents of a British Indian Sikh teen forbid her to play soccer, a sport she is obsessed with and excels at, drama and hilarity ensues. Written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, this romantic comedy with authentic South Asian representation took the world by storm at its premiere, launching the careers of Keira Knightly and Parminder Nagra. For many,
Bend It Like Beckham was the first movie to focus on navigating cultural differences between Asian immigrant parents and their children whose dreams and goals often conflict. This classic film continues to be celebrated today. You can watch Bend It Like Beckham, rated PG-13, on Disney+ and Amazon Prime . To All the Boys I Loved Before Trilogy (2018 - 2021)
High school junior Lara Jean Covey writes love letters she never sends. All her life, she’s written them to her unrequited loves, and locked them away in a hat box in her closet. Until one day, her mischievous little sister, Kitty, mails them all out, wreaking havoc.
Like many parents, I adore movies that inspire kids to read. This Netflix teen rom-com trilogy based on the novels by Jenny Han are as sweet as they come. Not to mention, I appreciate the representation of a mixed-race family, where the main character and her sisters are half Korean American. Meaningful nods to Korean culture are sprinkled throughout the movies, culminating in a family trip to the country in the final installment.
You can watch the To All the Boys I Loved Before movies, rated TV-14, on Netflix . Whale Rider (2002)
A 12-year-old Māori girl proves to her grandfather that she is meant to be chief of her tribe, despite her gender, by achieving a legendary feat of saving a pod of beached whales in this inspiring and acclaimed film. Based on a novel of the same name, this movie provides a poignant glimpse into contemporary Māori and New Zealand society as well as a powerful message challenging patriarchy.
You can watch Whale Rider , rated PG-13, Amazon Prime . Blinded by the Light (2019)
The life of a British-Pakistani Muslim teenager in the 1980s is changed forever when he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen in this comedy-drama inspired by a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor. Also directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha, the filmmaker describes
Blinded by the Light as a “spiritual companion” to her earlier work, Bend It Like Beckham. Unlike its predecessor, this film goes one step further in its harrowing depiction of racism faced by the South Asian immigrants in the UK. With universal themes of music, friendship, and love transcending race and religion, Blinded by the Light invites audiences into the touchingly relatable lives of immigrant families. You can watch Blinded by the Light , rated PG-13, on Hulu and Amazon Prime .
On a final note, families with children who can handle more mature, historical content should check out 2020’s
Asian Americans on PBS, an educational documentary series which covers racial politics and the cultural contributions of Asian Americans over 150 years of immigration history.