Distributed by Good Docs
Produced by Pamela Tom, Gwen Wynne, and Tamara Khalaf
Directed by Pamela Tom
DVD , color, 77 min.
High School - General Adult
Art, Art History, Artists, Asian Americans, Biography, Film History
Reviewed by Andy Horbal, University of Maryland Libraries
Date Entered: 1/12/2018
Tyrus chronicles the life of Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong, who was born in Guangdong, China on October 25th, 1910 and brought to the United States by his father at age nine. After a month-long detention at San Francisco’s notorious Angel Island facility, which was built explicitly to control Chinese immigration, he was finally allowed into the country in 1919. His artistic abilities were recognized first by his father (who instructed him in calligraphy), and later by a junior high school teacher, who arranged for him to go to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles on a one-semester scholarship, where he thrived. Despite the fact that they were living in poverty, his father borrowed money to enable Tyrus to keep attending the school until he completed his studies in the early 1930s.
The best part of director Pamela Tom’s film is the great job it does of showcasing the full breadth and width of Wong’s output as an artist, beginning with this period. The works completed during his adolescence, including an entire orchestra made out of matchsticks, are astonishingly good, as are the large number of pieces made during Wong’s time in art school. These early sequences set the tone for the rest of the movie as it moves chronologically through Wong’s life, from his participation in what is thought to be the first Asian-American art exhibition in the U.S. as a member of the “California Orientalist” school, to his well-known tenures as an artist for the Disney and Warner Brothers film studios, to his career as a designer of Christmas cards. Examples of his work are intercut with archival photographs and film/video footage, relevant influences, and evidence of his impact on American culture, such as an advertisement for silverware which prominently features dinnerware he designed.
All of this context enables the viewer to evaluate not just what they think about the works themselves, but to form their own opinion about their larger significance. This elevates Tyrus above other biographical documentaries in two key ways, both of which are exemplified by the film’s treatment of Wong’s time in Hollywood. First, by showing examples of artworks Wong produced as an inspirational sketch artist, first on Walt Disney’s Bambi and later as a member of the art department at Warner Brothers, side-by-side with scenes from the films for which they were made clearly shows the impact he had on them. In addition to celebrating Wong’s personal contribution, this also shines a light on an important part of the movie-making process that many people don’t even know exists and trains the viewer to look for distinctive artistic elements in films to determine who contributed what, making Tyrus an incredibly useful tool for film studies teachers.
Second, by detailing the specific consequences of the institutional and personal racism that Wong faced throughout his career and life, Tyrus reveals just how far-reaching the costs of such behavior can be to an entire society. To again focus on Wong’s career in the movies, the film conclusively establishes that racism was responsible for his being fired from Disney with a year to go in the production of Bambi and subsequently improperly credited as being merely one of many “background artists” who worked on it. In addition to resulting in many decades passing before his true role was acknowledged (and therefore understood), this incident also presumably figured prominently in Wong’s decision to decline an invitation to work on the 1998 Disney production Mulan more than 50 years later. This story and others told by Wong, such as one about a Japanese-American contemporary who never painted again after being interned during World War II, helps the viewer realize how hard it is to measure what is lost when an entire group of people is denied the right to participate fully in the life of a country just because of what they look like or where they’re from. It’s not just the art that Wong or his contemporaries didn’t produce that you have to account for, it’s also the work of the countless other artists they never got a chance to inspire or mentor.
With the F.B.I. reporting that hate crimes have been on the rise in the United States since 2014 and the country currently wracked by a wave of revelations of sexual misconduct by scores of prominent men, the latter attribute makes Tyrus a lamentably timely reminder of the price of injustice. Happily, it also affirms that it’s never too late to start attoning for it. Most of the final reel is about the recognition Tyrus Wong finally received after turning 90, beginning with his selection as a “Disney legend” in 2001 and including numerous museum exhibitions, without which this film probably wouldn’t exist. It makes you wonder how many important 20th century American artists remain similarly undiscovered. Hopefully Tyrus will inspire other filmmakers to take up the challenge of finding them.
- Audience Award, Hawaii International Film Festival
- Audience Award, Seattle Asian American Film Festival
- Audience Award, Boston Asian American Film Festival
- Audience Award, Newport Beach Film Festival
- Best Feature Documentary, DisOrient Film Festival
- Special Jury Award, LA Asian Pacific Film Festival
- Best Director - Feature Documentary, Cinetopia International Film Festival
- Legendary Film Pioneer Award, Garden State Film Festival