Blue Bayou: Ignoring adoptee human rights while making a film about adoptee human rights | By Becky Belcore (Fall 2021 issue)
A note in advance: In the summer, the adoptee community was buzzing about an upcoming film centered on a Korean adoptee who is facing deportation from the U.S. There was a sense of euphoric relief as we realized the adoptee experience was being acknowledged by Hollywood.
This excitement, however, was soon tempered by rumors that the filmmakers had approached deported Korean adoptee Adam Crapser to talk about his well-documented experience, and that the filmmakers had then cut off communications. Crapser himself spoke up, providing evidence that Justin Chon and other producers had reached out to him at the beginning of the filmmaking process, only to abruptly cease contact.
After this side of the story came to light, some adoptees began to call for a boycott, not against the content of the film but against the way producers appeared to cash in on an adoptee’s personal story. Adoptees for Justice (A4J), an initiative of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC), that is closely linked with Adam and the fight for adoptee citizenship, released a statement decrying the “exploit[ation of] impacted members of our adoptee community by using their stories without their consent.”
For his part, writer-director-star Justin Chon addressed the claims in a Facebook Live panel discussion with Gold House, a non-profit organization that strives to encourage more Asian representation in all economic sectors. When asked about the statement by A4J, Chon readily admitted that he reached out to Adam, but then claimed that contact ceased because he had been “locked out of [his] Facebook for four years, and you can check [his] records of activity,” appearing to forget that his co-producers also contacted Adam, only to disengage just as abruptly.
“Of course, Adam Crapser is a part of this experience; it’s his story,” Chon remarked, “Along with many others… Adam got a lot of publicity for this issue, so you can’t really speak about this issue without acknowledging that he is a part of this whole thing.” He then went on to explain that he made this film because “this issue is affecting a lot of people, not just Korean Americans.”
With the recent release of the film in Korea, this controversy shows no signs of abating. A4J was asked to address the issue for Korean Quarterly. Below is the A4J statement, by Becky Belcore, the executive director at NAKASEC, and a co-founder of A4J. (By Tom McCarthy, Communications Director, Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (GOA’L), Seoul, South Korea)
My name is Becky Belcore and I was adopted from Korea in 1973 when I was one year old by a white family in Minneapolis. At that time, there were more Korean children being adopted to Minnesota than in all of the other 49 states combined.
When I was five, my family moved to the South, and I mainly grew up in Virginia and Alabama. While there is a growing Asian American community in the South today, at that time, my brother (also adopted from Korea) and I were among the few Koreans/Asians/people of color in our schools and our neighborhoods. As a result, like many other intercountry adoptees and Asian Americans growing up in the South during that period, we experienced significant racism, and I also experienced sexism as a young Asian American woman. As intercountry adoptees living with white parents, we did not find understanding or comfort from our family, and there was no local Asian American community to help interpret or analyze our lived experiences. As a result, we grew up feeling ugly, subhuman, isolated and alone.
I did not know there were adoptees without citizenship until I read the story of Adam Crapser, a Korean adoptee who had the great courage to publicly share his story. The clear injustice Crapser faced in being detained, deported, and separated from his family was the inspiration for legislation that is currently in its fourth round in the U.S. Congress, the Adoptee Citizenship Act.
This bill will provide automatic U.S. citizenship for all intercountry adoptees, including those who have been deported and have had interactions with the racist criminal legal system. With cooperation from Crapser and other adoptees, I began to organize support for this legislation in 2015. In 2018, I was a co-founder of Adoptees for Justice (A4J), an intercountry adoptee led organization whose mission is to educate, empower, and organize transracial and transnational adoptee communities to achieve just and humane adoption, immigration, and restorative justice systems.
As an organization, A4J believes in a world where every person thrives in a safe and supportive environment in which communities of color, immigrants, and adoptees are liberated from all forces of injustice, with full citizenship for all. Whether we are impacted or not, we as adoptees understand that any of us could have been Adam, as none of us had any control over who adopted us, and the vast majority of us were unaware we had an immigration status, or that it mattered. This is one of the core reasons why many adoptees who have citizenship feel so passionately about this issue.
In 2020, Justin Chon approached A4J with questions about adoptee citizenship. A Korean American filmmaker, Chon had learned of Crapser’s story and wanted to make a movie about adoptees without citizenship. We agreed to learn more about it as we wanted to ensure there was adoptee guidance and input, since Chon, while Korean American, is not an adoptee.
Our understanding was that the film, per Crapser’s request, would not be about his story and that it would include a call to action for the Adoptee Citizenship Act. After those initial discussions, we no longer received updates as to the content of the film. A screenplay was shared with us, but I did not read it, and, as far as I am aware, none of the other A4J board members at that time read it either. In August 2021, when I pre-screened the film shortly before its release, I was shocked to see that the agreements we made had been broken, as 1) the story was clearly based on Adam’s life and 2) there was no call to action for the legislation.
First, Chon’s claim that this film is not about Crapser’s life is simply ridiculous. Not only is Blue Bayou based on a Korean American adoptee who goes through deportation proceedings, there are many similarities of the main character’s situation and background to Crapser. The main character, Antonio, is also adopted from Korea at the age of three, he also has an abusive father, he also has a partner who is pregnant with his child at the time he is placed in deportation, and his partner also has an older daughter who is the partner’s child with another person, who the main character treats as his own daughter. These are very, very specific details from Crapser’s life that parallel details of the main character in Blue Bayou. Even the nature of the crime that Antonio commits that leads to a conviction and subsequent deportation (stealing) is the same as Crapser’s.
We at A4J cannot understand why Chon did not ask Crapser for permission to use his story in the film, and if he was going to use his story, why he did not invite Crapser to advise on the film to ensure the story was told from his perspective. The idea of taking someone’s story without permission, particularly considering all that Crapser and other adoptees without citizenship have gone through, is ethically and morally wrong.
Crapser can tell his own story; his story certainly belongs to him. With all that is taken from us without our permission as adoptees – our birth families, our familial histories, our native languages, our cultures – one of the few things we can have control over is the narration of our own lived experiences. We need to choose whether or not we wish to share them.
Chon with the support of eOne, MACRO, and Focus Features, took Crapser’s story without his consent. Chon claims this is because he was unable to reach Crapser after his initial contact with him. This is a ludicrous assertion. Literally thousands of people have contacted Crapser since his story first went public in the media – via email, social media, and through shared contacts.
That has been one of the many unfortunate outcomes of the release of Blue Bayou, that Crapser, who decided not to expose his life story and pain to the public microscope, continues to be contacted by many people since the release of the film. In addition to robbing him of the agency over his story, the film’s release has forced Crapser to relive trauma and be scrutinized and attacked. So we left to ask, why would Chon do this and to what end?
On this question, Chon and others who support the film have said it is important to uplift this issue of adoptees without citizenship, because the public is largely unaware of their situation. Intercountry adoptee stories and the narratives of people of color in general are rarely centered in the mainstream media. This is particularly true of those of us who are marginalized within marginalized communities, such as adoptees without citizenship within the larger community of intercountry adoptees.
We at A4J agree that our stories should and must be told; that is one of the main focuses of our work to build support for the Adoptee Citizenship Act. But, we believe in order for stories to be told correctly and respectfully, impacted adoptees must tell their own stories. An adoptee may choose to share their story because it is empowering for them. If I, as an adoptee, choose to tell my story publicly, even if other adoptees do not agree with the message or point of view, I hope the audience would know that it is still my story and perspective to share.
Chon has said he uplifted the issue of adoptees without citizenship to help them. At the end of the film, he included a statistic about the number of adoptees there are without citizenship, along with photos of impacted adoptees, so the viewer understands that this is a real issue that affects real people today.
When questioned publicly about why he did not include a call to action for the legislation in the film, Justin Chon has given two responses: 1) that he is apolitical and was unaware the legislation existed when he made the film; and 2) he did not want to include “propaganda” in his film. The first response is not believable since he simultaneously has claimed that adoptees without citizenship advised on the film, and certainly therefore had told him about the legislation. The second reason is nonsensical; under what definition can this bipartisan legislation (equally supported by Republicans and Democrats) be categorized as propaganda?
Moreover, when three of us A4J met with Focus Features’ outreach staff member, they told us that their market research showed that audiences do not like calls to action. This was very interesting to me, because every time I have explained the issue of adoptees without citizenship over the last six years, complete strangers have expressed shock and asked me how they can help. The fact that market research was the basis on which the company decided not to include a call for action is evidence that the film was more about profit than about helping people.
The weekend of Blue Bayou’s release, I saw Chon on television in a tuxedo on the red carpet with other Asian American celebrities smiling and celebrating. I was taken aback that this group was deriving so much happiness from the story of someone who currently is separated from his children. Instead of leveraging his privilege and his high profile with this popular film as a platform to help A4J get the law passed and reunite families, or even using the film to raise funding to support impacted adoptees who can barely make ends meet, Chon was receiving accolades and bolstering his own career.
The Adoptee Citizenship Act is a key solution to providing all intercountry adoptees with citizenship, and deported adoptees with a pathway back to citizenship and permission to return to the U.S. Impacted adoptees want to live in the only country they have ever called home, and with the families and children that have been cruelly separated from them.
While A4J also wants this issue to be made mainstream, the point of doing so is to apply enough public pressure to get the issue finally resolved by our government, not to make audiences cry and leave them with no means to take action. It is certainly not so that a rich well-known non-adoptee can win an Academy Award.
We have also learned that intention does not always translate to impact. Even if Chon had the intent to help adoptees, as he said when making the film, he did not take the appropriate steps to make sure that adoptees would be helped as a result of the film. He did not involve the adoptee whose story the film is based on, and he apparently did not heed the adoptees who advised him. The impact of this failure to follow through with what seemed like good intent has also caused a deep rift in our adoptee community, and a missed opportunity for Chon to use his own celebrity and the power of film to move the Adoptee Citizenship Act forward.
It was never my intent, or the intent of A4J to create divisions or harm to adoptees in our community when we called for a boycott and public objection to Blue Bayou. Our goals were two-fold. First, we sought to hold the filmmaker accountable for his exploitation of Crapser’s story without his consent. We wanted to state that this kind of harm should not happen to other members of our community. Second, we wanted to do what the filmmaker actively chose not to do – to raise up the Adoptee Citizenship Act as a critical step towards the solution to adoptees without citizenship.
By doing this, we gave Chon a second chance. Everyone makes mistakes; we know the character of that person only by what they do to correct their mistakes. There are two choices in the event of a public mistake: We can admit our mistakes, apologize and try to fix them; or we can dig in deeper to defend our self-interest. Recently we have seen an even more famous playwright and filmmaker, Lin Manuel, apologize for the mistakes he made in his film In The Heights.
Chon could have followed suit; admitted his mistakes, apologized to Crapser, and worked with Adam and others to support the legislation while promoting his film. This would have likely helped his film do better in the U.S. than it has. Instead, he denied any wrongdoing and promoted the legislation selectively.
An example of a filmmaker who has done it better is Ava Duvernay in her new film about Colin Kaepernick’s story. Kaepernick was punished by the National Football League after kneeling during the national anthem to decry racism and support the Movement for Black Lives. The football star’s personal history includes growing up as an adopted child of white parents. Duvernay collaborated with Kaepernick on the film to ensure his story was told with his input, and he is sharing in the film’s profits.
A4J will continue to call out wrongdoing in defense of our community members when we see it. We ask community members here and around the world to boycott the film until Chon and film distributor Focus Features apologize and act with accountability.
We also call for the attacks on Crapser to cease immediately – he has every right to be outraged that his story was stolen and he has certainly been through enough. At the same time, we will be persistent with the legislation and hold our government accountable to the promise that intercountry adoption will provide us with better lives.
As a result of the work of many intercountry adoptees, A4J and many other organizations and individuals, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021 now has co-sponsorship by 56 members of Congress (29 Republicans and 26 Democrats) in the House of Representatives and seven in the Senate (3 Republicans and 4 Democrats). We have until the close of 2022 to pass this bill and have it signed by the President to enact it into law.
To do this will require all of us. We need every person who is reading this article to call their U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators and ask them to co-sponsor this bill. We need everyone to sign the petition, and share it with at least three friends. This is how we will get the bill passed, so adoptees can finally have relief, live without the fear of deportation, and be reunited with their families. This is one important step in achieving real justice for adoptees without citizenship.
Becky Belcore is the executive director of the advocacy organization the National Korean American Service and Educational Consortium (NAKASEC), and has served on the staff since 2017. Prior to NAKASEC, Becky worked as a nurse, an organizer, and an independent consultant for community-based organizations and foundations, including the Woods Fund Chicago, the Korean American Resource & Cultural Center (KRCC). In addition to being a board member with Adoptees for Justice, she also is a board member of HANA Center and the Ella Baker Organizing Fund.