Despite Its Timeliness, ‘AmEx: The Chinese Exclusion Act’ Proves To Be A Rare Miss For PBS

Courtesy: PBS

Much has been said about immigration ever since Donald J. Trump was handed the White House in the 2016 presidential election.  From Muslims to Mexicans and other groups, Trump’s racism and xenophobia have led to so much talk about immigration and immigration law.  Of course, this is not the first time in America’s history that the nation has dealt with the plague of clearly racist immigration policy.  That is evidenced in PBS’ recently released documentary American Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act.  Released on DVD June 19, this nearly three-hour documentary outlines the long-forgotten federal legislation that discriminated against generations of Chinese immigrants.  In the process, it also serves as an educational point, reminding audiences about the dangers of allowing racism and xenophobia to control politics and the nation’s social climate through a series of in-depth discussions on the law and its impacts.  That story forms a solid basis for the documentary.  While the story of the Chinese Exclusion Act is engaging, the story does suffer from one obvious negative, its collective pacing and transitions (or lack thereof).  This will be discussed later.  The program’s pricing rounds out its most important elements and will also be discussed later.  All things considered, American Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act proves to be a rich, in-depth presentation that is certain to appeal to students and lovers of history and politics.

PBS’ recently released documentary American Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act may have been released this past July, but due to the rhetoric currently being spewed by Donald J. Trump about the 14th Amendment, this documentary is proving to be just as timely as ever, and a presentation that is certain to have a wide appeal.  That is due in part to the story at the center of the doc.  The story at the center of the doc focuses on the 1882 act that clearly and blatantly discriminated against Chinese and Chinese-Americans.  As the story points out, it actually went through Congress not once, but twice before eventually being signed into law by then President Chester A. Arthur.  What is truly interesting in taking in the story is that it seems that Arthur did not even want to sign the act even in its second edition, ergo showing his reluctance to give into the racist and xenophobic views controlling so much of the nation even back then.  The story takes audiences from the late 1880s right up to the mid 1900’s showing the far-reaching impact of that discriminatory legislation even as the political landscape changed.  Audiences will be shocked to learn that even after the 14th Amendment was passed, Chinese and Chinese-Americans still suffered discrimination at the hands of Americans even after its passage, reminding audiences of what those racist views caused along the way.  In watching the news, it is obvious that Americans need that reminder now more than ever.  To that end, the story presented at the center of this doc proves to be an important presentation, and one that all audiences should certainly see.  Staying on that note, while the story is an important and intriguing presentation, the manner in which it was presented proves extremely problematic.

Audiences will note in watching American Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act that this special edition of AE clocks in at a run time of almost three hours.  To be precise, its run time is listed at 160 minutes (that’s 2 hours and 40 minutes in layman’s terms).  The bonus segment “2012 Congressional Acknowledgement of the Chinese exclusion Act” – which is really the only worthwhile addition to the doc’s bonus features list – adds another 10 minutes to that run time, so push that time technically to 2 hours and 50 minutes.  Considering the doc’s slow pacing, that run time feels far longer as it moves so slow and because there is so much information.  What’s worse, the program has no clearly defined transition points at any given moment throughout that nearly three-hour run.  This combination of factors makes the doc’s overall construction extremely problematic to say the very least.  Even though it doesn’t break that three-hour mark, it still would have made more sense to either have the program broken up with those needed segment breaks, or even separated over the course of three days, with each segment being an hour in length.  Hopefully, Ric Burns (brother of famed documentarian  Ken Burns), who co-directed and co-wrote the documentary with Li-Shin Yu (and fellow co-writer Robin Espinola), will take all of this into account should he try his hand at another documentary.  That is because while the story presented here is interesting to say the least, the manner in which it was assembled dramatically detracts from its engagement.  Keeping this in mind, it makes AE: The Chinese Exclusion Act far from perfect, and lacking the impact that it could have had.  It makes the DVD’s average price point not too bad of a cost.

The DVD’s average price point is approximately $17.49.  That is found by averaging prices from PBS’ store, from Amazon, Target, Walmart and Barnes & Noble.  It is currently not listed at Best Buy or at Books-A-Million.  Considering that the program clocks in at nearly three hours, that actually is not too bad of a price, when compared to standard hour-long documentaries from PBS generally price from the company’s own store at about $25.00.  The list price on the company’s store for this DVD is $19.99.  To that end, it is not a program that will break the bank, though it may break some audiences’ engagement as noted previously due to its overall construction.  Keeping that in mind, for those willing to risk watching the doc, even despite its presentation problems, an average price point of $17.49 is actually not that bad.  That is even with the problems posed by the program’s pacing and general construction.  To that end, it is worth at least one watch, if viewers can make themselves sit through the whole thing.

PBS’ recently released special edition of its hit series American Experience, The Chinese Exclusion Act is an interesting presentation that is certain to appeal widely to the most devoted students and lovers of history and political science.  Even with that interest, it still proves to be a program that, despite an interesting and timely story, still suffers from one glaring negative, its collective pacing and construction.  Keeping that in mind, its average price point of less than $20 actually proves affordable and bearable.  It means even after sitting through such an overly lengthy and in-depth presentation, audiences will not ultimately be left feeling like they wasted their money.  That is the most important aspect to note here.  It is an interesting program that while not a waste of money, still could have been so much better, especially considering the reputation of American ExperienceAmerican Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act is available now on DVD.  More information on this and other episodes of American Experience is available online now at:










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