Though its footage was shot during the Reagan presidency, Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena’s Oscar-nominated 1987 documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? shows a Detroit that looks entirely familiar. The urban core’s even then somewhat threadbare, dark, and windswept streets are contrasted with images of an earlier and more prosperous era to show how far the Motor City had fallen, much as filmmakers more than three decades later continue to do.
The difference between this crumbling city and the new millennium’s more apocalyptic vision of decay (as seen in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Gray’s operatic Detropia from 2012) is that Choy and Tajima-Pena are documenting an economic wound, the implosion of the American auto industry, that was then still so fresh it seemed like the end of the world. The reverberations from that implosion, Who Killed Vincent Chin? strongly suggests, were so powerful they led to murder.
Recently restored and added to the National Film Registry, Who Killed Vincent Chin? was originally aired on PBS in 1989 and is being re-broadcast on 20 June to mark the 40th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin. Rarely shown, it is a crucial example of an earlier style of American documentary filmmaking, shorn of leading narration and compiled like a found-footage document whose atmospheric montages say more about the anxieties of the time than any talking head could. An eerie dispatch from the past, its violent riptides feel both distant (being a time when American industrial hegemony still felt like a birthright) and near to home (managing a crisis by scapegoating minorities).
On 19 June 1982, Vincent Chin and some friends were at a topless bar in Detroit’s Highland Park. Though meant to be a kind of ad hoc bachelor party for the soon-to-be-married Chin, the night took a turn when their group got into a shouting match with Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz. Words turned to punches turned to smashed chairs. The fight continued outside. Nitz grabbed a bat out of his car. He and Ebens chased Chin down. Nitz held Chin while Ebens cracked him in the head with the bat. Chin died in the hospital several days later. After pleading guilty to lesser charges, Ebens and Nitz were given probation and a minuscule fine.
Given the willful brutality of the killing, its happening just outside a McDonald’s filled with witnesses, and the broad agreement over the basic facts, the negligible punishment is shocking. But that alone was not why the case gained resonance. The reason is articulated in Who Killed Vincent Chin? by Racine Colwell, one of the dancers at the bar that night. Colwell claimed that before the fight really kicked off, Ebens, a white autoworker, shouted at Chin, a Chinese-American, “Because of you little motherfuckers, we’re out of work.”
The inference in the film is that Ebens, who claims not to remember saying this, was picking up on the rage coursing through Detroit as auto companies faced a dire threat from less expensive Japanese imports. The racist insult is two-fold. First is the assumption that any Asian-looking person could be assumed to be Japanese. The second was the belief that any random Japanese person was to blame for Detroit automakers losing their competitive edge.
Ultimately the filmmakers do not seem concerned whether Ebens hurled that line at Chin. They trace his and Nitz’s legal fight, which continued after a nationwide pressure campaign waged by an Asian-American activist group that included Chin’s anguished mother Lily Chin led to federal civil rights charges. The deep, widespread, and so rarely heard (especially then) pain expressed by the Asian people heard here seems to have been unleashed by the killing of Chin, which may have finally been one indignity too many.
For his part, Ebens comes across as feeling he was the one who had something to endure. The man captured in the film is a remarkably sanguine guy who seems to equate beating a man’s head in as just one of those things: “I didn’t even do it on purpose!” In a trope as common then as it remains today, Ebens bristles less at the violence of his actions than the suggestion that he engaged in it for racial reasons.
Whatever Ebens’ motivations—generally assumed to be racist, a characterization that picked up steam after Michael Moore’s 1987 Detroit Free Press interview with Ebens, who denies hating any ethnic group before noting, “That doesn’t mean I want to live with them, OK?”—the “Who” in the film’s title is a suggestive misdirect for any viewer looking for another true crime whodunnit. Again, the commonly agreed-upon story has Ebens as the man swinging a Louisville Slugger into Chin’s head, fracturing his skull and causing him to be disconnected from life support a few days later.
The other rendering of “Who” is more disparate, as it suggestively implicates a large number of Detroiters who felt their lifestyle under threat. The directors weave in scenes of auto workers drinking and grousing about the Japanese imports undercutting their business. In one of many absurdist moments of nationalistic fury from a time when the long-gestating recession and double-digit unemployment finally had a target, a random grouping of people are shown taking hammers to a Japanese car while a news crew looks on. A creepy animated attack ad showing a flood of tiny cars flooding over the ocean onto American shores comes across as a not-so-subtle updating of World War II-era yellow peril propaganda.
There are multiple threads running through Who Killed Vincent Chin?: Lily Chin’s plaintive and eventually despairing calls for justice; the contrast of ghostly grey and somnolent industrial or urban settings with picture-perfect green-lawn suburbia; and the earnest, shellshocked-seeming witnesses. But the most resonant is the filmmakers’ presentation of the rage about the disappearance of a lifestyle (secure union employment, suburban house, clearly demarcated racial boundaries) that had come to be seen as the prerogative for a certain sliver of white America in the postwar years.
Who Killed Vincent Chin? does not provide a simple answer to the question in its title. But it makes a strong argument that Chin’s life was ended by more than a baseball bat.