During the 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I had the opportunity to see the premiere of the documentary Mr. Cao Goes to Washington, a film about the first Vietnamese American ever to be elected to Congress and his bid for re-election in 2010. The film was produced and directed by S. Leo Chiang,who also produced the documentary, A Village Called Versailles.
The film does an excellent job of describing the unique circumstances of Joseph Cao, Republican, being elected in a predominately Democratic (75% registered voters are Democrats) and predominately African American community in New Orleans, Louisiana in the Fall of 2008. Cao labors on for two years as a Congressman, being caught in the debate of Obama’s healthcare reform – first voting for the House version of the bill, and ultimately voting against the final Senate version – due to his strong Pro-Life beliefs.
Additionally, Cao is shown trying to help his constituents during the middle of the British Petroleum (BP) Deep Horizon accident and oil spill. Cao has many up’s and downs politically and personally. Personally, Cao has to deal with the loss of his father prior to his re-election. The documentary really highlights the the the racial and political divide that Cao has to bridge as he fights for re-election, as simply counting on the Vietnamese American community, which only consists of 2% of the district, obviously does not make sense. Ultimately, Cao loses to his Democratic rival, where party politics trumps political friendships and alliances of convenience.
I had also the great opportunity to meet Joseph Cao during the San Jose reception and debut of the documentary. I had seen him speak previously in Sacramento, as Mr. Cao representing and supporting Meg Whitman’s Fall 2010 bid for governor of California. Mr. Cao was plain spoken, humble and sincere when I got a chance to speak with him as well as he answered questions after the film during Q&A. His straight forwardness and desire beyond partisan politics was appealing and I thought Cao did appropriate address how partisanship could be changed in Congress – with open primaries much like what Californians voted for. Cao is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he is also an adjunct professor there.
If you’ve ever been interested in a real life drama in the spirit in Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I highly recommend you see Mr. Cao Goes to Washington. The documentary will be making the film festival rounds, and most likely be out in DVD within a year and ideally aired in the future in PBS, much like S. Leo Chiang’s previous documentary.