Elevate Difference

Tea & Justice

If your political leanings are more in line with musical acts like NWA or MDC, then Ermena Vinluan’s fifty-five-minute exploration of race and gender issues in the context of the New York Police Department may seem... tame?

Tea & Justice is a documentary about Asian women police officers in the NYPD that skirts the uneasy boundaries between a full-blown narrative of empowerment of Asian women breaking cultural and gender stereotypes to become police officers, their negotiation of the politics of being racial and gender minorities in what has historically been perceived as a racist and sexist institution, and the inherently violent nature of policing. Sometimes provocative, but generally unremarkable both politically and artistically, the film is perhaps worth watching (once) for its almost accidental exposition of the gender and cultural politics at play.

The centerpiece of the film is the personal stories of three women, who share their experiences of discrimination and defiance as part of the two percent of NYPD officers who are Asian women. Their stories are interwoven with the public’s perceptions of Asian culture, women, and police officers. Officer Ormsby, for example, tells of how being compelled to serve tea to her male colleagues at a Japanese firm prompted her to find a new career. This is against the backdrop of interviews with New Yorkers, some of whom (predictably) feel that men make better officers, while others subscribe to the great equalizing power of the gun.

In an interesting history of the NYPD, Vinluan highlights how various social movements opened up space for women in policing; for example, the NYPD got rid of regulation high-heels, lip-stick, and smaller guns for female officers in the 1970s. Somewhat disingenuously, the director also traces images of women warriors in Asian mythology to support her claim that ‘being an Asian woman cop is not so odd after all’. While Asian culture is full of examples of remarkable women, I found it difficult to believe that most people would identify policewomen with being leaders or warriors, a contradiction amplified by the inclusion of interviews discussing racially charged incidents of police brutality in the United States, such as the beating of Rodney King.

In her haste to bridge the gap between images of subservient Japanese tea-servers and Vietnamese warrior princesses, Vinluan seems to have confused empowerment and oppression. This speaks to the broader issue of the film’s selective critique of the police along gender and racial dimensions, and failure to adequately question its inherently violent role in maintaining law and order.

Interesting interviews include one with Margaret Moore (Executive Director of the National Center for Women and Policing) who claims promoting diversity in gender and race is the only way to ensure fair treatment inside departments and in policing. Moore and others also argue that since most excessive force claims are made against male officers, recruiting more women—who are ‘naturally less aggressive’—is the solution. But by essentializing qualities to women like their ‘mothering’ instincts and tendencies towards less aggression, interviewees like Lieutenant Eric Adams (100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care) regurgitate classic stereotypes of women that Vinluan’s film is supposedly aiming to debunk. By failing to attribute their ‘natural’ credentials for making better officers to the historical subordination of women in care-giving and domestic roles—aren’t we back at square one?

Vinluan’s schoolteacher voice-overs and flat animation accompanied by platitudes like ‘she’s just a regular working mom!’ work against the film’s rare moments of subtlety, leading me to conclude that those parts that can be deemed thought-provoking are, in fact, inadvertent. Am I asking too much from Tea & Justice? Maybe. But given the eight film festival laurels adorning the DVD cover, I expected more.

Written by: Kaavya Asoka, October 25th 2010