Appeal for historically accurate Hollywood movie about farm workers

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The following is an open letter written by FANHS member Devin Cabanilla that was published in the International Examiner Sept 16, 2015 issue:

An Open Letter to James Franco About Farm Labor Movement Filming

Dear James Franco,

First, I want to thank you for seeking to film part of In Dubious Battle in Yakima, WA.  I saw your extras casting call on my sister’s facebook feed.  It was awesome.  Secondly, thank you for highlighting the amazing work of John Steinbeck.  He is arguably the best 20th century American author I’ve enjoyed.  Your own work in film has been something I have enjoyed greatly as well.  In lighter fare, I thought This is the End was hilarious with the cameos and camp.  More recently, you deserve extra kudos for The Interview and your decision to stand up to the oppressive regime and policies of the DPRK.  I want to encourage your continued courage in film and admirable efforts by asking that you please specifically call for Asian American actors as part of your extras casting in Yakima. (You only asked for bearded guy extras.)

The reason I am asking you to highlight and include Asian Americans is because they were integral to the farm work and labor movement of California and America.  Steinbeck effectively highlights class warfare, and socialist labor union efforts in his work.  Race issues are definitely part of that schema. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean farm workers were part of early California’s population, and at one point they were barred from coming to America by racist laws. Filipinos began migrating to the United States to supplant the farm labor force and were still among the most oppressed.  During the 1930’s Filipino Americans in particular began organizing farm labor unions amidst riots. All ethnic groups travelled to wherever agriculture needed harvesting.  Asian Americans continued to seek the American Dream in their new homeland and sought to gain acceptance.  Even John Steinbeck accepted Asian dilemmas in the United States. He wrote in an integral and intelligent Asian character in the form of Lee for East of Eden.  Steinbeck was authentic, ahead of his time, and honored the Asian American population of the era.  Like him, please highlight the reality of the era with Asian American cast inclusion.

I did make some effort and reviewed the cast of In Dubious Battle on IMDB for hints of diversity. There were some likely Hispanic actors cast in memorable roles like “Apple Picker” and “Migrant Woman #2”.   I did not notice any Asian names in the list.  Also, your instagram pictures I found  seem to show a mostly white cast on set.  Granted your film is probably almost done, and you’re in post-production; this my overall request may seem a bit late. However, I’m not even asking for anything drastic like re-shooting the whole movie.  I just want you to have more historically accurate Asian American extras which you can definitely find in the Pacific Northwest.  Washington for sure has real good apple trees.  We for sure had Japanese American apple pickers in Washington state too, their descendants are here still. Cast them. Additionally, the Yakima area is actually home to one of the largest Filipino communities on the west coast in Wapato. They would be some of the most authentic extras. Some of them are even still farmers!  Maybe you want a late Lee character cameo now. Chinese people? They’re here still too.

I wish you the best success and want to constructively guide you, not just criticize.  I am just a hobby historian, and maybe a concerned citizen at best, but I can recommend groups who can testify on this history and give you advice on accurate ethnic casting.  I recommend the Filipino American National Historical Society (I’m a member), the Japanese American Citizens League (I’m not a member), and the Chinese Citizens Alliance (I like their food).  All of them have, or know, legit historians.  There is even a new documentary film maker named Marissa Aroy who made a piece on the Filipino Farm Labor Movement you could track down.  Maybe it’s best you just go to a university and grab an ethnic studies professor to spruce things up in post-production.

This whole letter may have a Chinaman’s chance to change things, but more personally, I ask you on behalf of the past relatives I’ve had here in the United States who suffered through farming in the 1930’s to include historically accurate Asian American extras. Don’t whitewash your film.  Do not oppress or be part of a system that ignores social history.  While I’m getting real here, honestly I haven’t even read In Dubious Battle. Even more honestly white farm laborers would have been in separate work camps from other groups; but artists have a choice to express fiction in truer realities.  Please, be authentic like Steinbeck by better honoring the ethnic labor and class landscape in the story that you are telling the world.  Cast AAPI’s.  

Sincerely & Satirically,

Devin Israel Cabanilla, MBA
4th-generation Asian American
Migrant Office Worker #3

“There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.”

John Steinbeck, East of Eden
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