Film Spotlights Landmark Asian American Civil Rights Case

A new and timely restoration documents the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin


October 9, 2021

On a summer night in 1982, a young man named Vincent Chin went out to celebrate his bachelor party in Detroit and wound up with his skull crushed with a baseball bat. Chin, 27, died days later.  Hundreds of wedding guests attended his funeral instead. His killers were two autoworkers who served no prison time. Key witnesses, including an off-duty police officer, were not called to testify in court. 


Vincent Chin. Photo: Bettman/Getty

Chin’s death and the lenient legal treatment of his killers galvanized Asian Americans, leading to a landmark civil rights prosecution.  It was the first time the federal government pursued a civil rights claim on behalf of an Asian American person. 

It also became a case study in racism toward Asian Americans — an uncured blight that resurfaced in the rise of hate crimes toward Asian Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The murder is the subject of the 1987 documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”,  nominated for an Oscar and aired on PBS. Filmmaker Christine Choy interviewed Chin’s killers, who showed no remorse for the killing. 

A new restoration of the film premiered at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center last weekend and will be screened again on  Oct. 10.

The restoration, completed last month, encountered many hurdles. In January 2020 a fire burned down the building where the negatives were stored in New York City’s Chinatown by the Museum of Chinese in America. Most of the building was destroyed, but the film survived the fire. 

This week,  Mayor Bill de Blasio committed $170 million to rebuild the historic building on Mulberry Street that was a community hub in Chinatown and home to five non-profits.

Discussions about restoring “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” began in 2017, but fundraising stalled, filmmaker Choy said. However, the surge in anti-Asian violence and racism during the pandemic sparked momentum for the project. The impact of Covid-19 “woke up a lot of people,” Choy said.

Her film also features Lily Chin, Vincent’s mother, who sought justice for her son. Mrs. Chin was so distraught by the verdict that she left Detroit, her home for decades, and returned to China. 

Lily Chin breaks down as a relative helps her walk while leaving Detroit’s City County Building, in 1983. Source: Bettmann/Getty Images

The film was restored by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, home of the Oscar awards, and The Film Foundation, founded by director Martin Scorsese, in association with the Museum of Chinese in America.

Funding came from the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation, founded by “Star Wars”creator George Lucas, and Todd Phillips, who directed “The Joker” and was Choy’s former student at New York University.

Screenings at New York Film Festival were supported by Angela Chao, CEO of the shipping company Foremost Group, and her husband Jim Breyer, the billionaire venture capitalist.

Restoring and digitizing the film improves image and sound quality and makes wide-screen viewing more feasible. Museum of Chinese in America showed “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” just once before and now hopes to do a 24-hour marathon screening of the restored version.

Vincent Chin’s murder is a “significant marker in Asian American history and the fight for civil rights,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, the museum’s president. The museum has some 85,000 items in its collection, and the film was“one of the most symbolic Chinese American artifacts that we have. It is so incredibly important that it be re-shown.”

After criticism about lack of inclusivity, in 2016 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pledged to improve diversity of its members.

In 2018 the Academy also started a project to document “cultural equity and inclusion” in its film archives, said Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Academy Film Archive. 

Restoring “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” took on even more urgency this spring after a gunman killed six Asian women in Atlanta.

“The film’s relevance is unquestionable,” Pogorzelski said. “It explores the U.S. justice system, but also all the layers of racism and hostility toward Asians. That existed at the time of Vincent Chin’s tragic murder and at this time right now.”

More screenings might happen ahead of the 40th anniversary of Chin’s killing in 2022. The documentary helps “keep his story and his memory alive and highlights the relevance of his story today,” Pogorzelski said.


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