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The Subversive Symbolism of Minari’s Red Hat

Today, red hats are synonymous with the alt-right, but ‘Minari’ shows that the myth of the American Dream has always been a red hot problem

Minari is a gentle movie. Director Lee Isaac Chung embraces the quiet in even the most intense circumstances in his film about a Korean-American family starting a farm and chasing the American Dream in 1980s Arkansas: the heavy breathing of a boy with a heart condition running in a field; the bright flames of a wooden shed burning down; and the quiet breeze of wind bringing to life new vegetation. 

Even the family’s clothes are hushed. Jacob (Steven Yeun), his wife Monica (Yeri Han), their two children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) and Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) wear muted yellows, faded blues and other durable tones while silently suffering under the weights of going broke and existing in a rural community unfamiliar with Korean culture. 

However, within this roaring stillness of a hard-fought life, one loud, saturated color roars: Jacob’s red hat. 

Jacob (Steven Yeun) dons a bright red cap while extolling to his son David (Alan Kim) the possibilities of life as a prosperous farmer. Photo courtesy of A24

Today, red hats are anything but peaceful. While running for president, Donald Trump released red caps etched with the now infamous phrase, “Make America Great Again.” They spread like quickfire among his supporters, effectively turning any red hat into a symbol for Trump and the alt-right. 

Red caps are all but avoided by costume designers today, unless they’re trying to make an intentional nod to Trump. “We couldn’t put a red cap on anybody just for the fact that it’s going to have that connotation,” says Salvador Pérez Jr., president of the Costume Designers Guild and costume designer for Never Have I Ever and The Mindy Project. “The audience is hypervigilant. They notice the most minute influences, and we have to be aware of that as storytellers.”

Given the staunch bigotry associated with MAGA hats these days, it’s all the more unexpected that a story about an Asian-American immigrant family surviving under American capitalist oppression has a red cap front and center. But perhaps that’s why the red cap is the perfect choice for Jacob, a well-meaning yet hardheaded father determined to sustain his family of five all on his own.

Jacob wears a red cap any time he’s giving into the American Dream. The only outsider that Jacob, an ardent self-starter, depends on is eccentric farmhand Paul (Will Patton). Photo courtesy of A24

On set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, however, the red cap wasn’t symbolic — it was colorful. “I suppose the first thought that came to mind was picking the right colors, because we’re dealing with so much vibrant color outdoors. So, I thought primary colors. That’s why David is mostly in blues and reds, and Steven has that red hat,” Minari’s costume designer Susanna Song explained to Awards Daily. 

The cap also served a practical purpose: fitting Steven Yeun’s head. “So the one that fit my fat Korean head was this red one,” Yeun told A24 in an interview with author Cathy Park Hong, who also asked about the hat’s role in the film. “I thought, Man, Trump really f—cked up red hats for everybody. Does it say something if I wear this?

Like Yeun, Chung initially didn’t think so. “I do remember one conversation he and I had about it, where we basically said, a red hat is just a red hat. Maybe that’s what we want. We want to reclaim the idea of a red hat just being a red hat,” Chung told GQ earlier this month. 

Both Yeun and Chung would eventually see ideological symbolism in the red cap as Jacob wears it, but this realization came only after wrapping production. Yeun says Jacob only wears the red hat when working in the field or otherwise consumed by his “capitalistic” yearnings for the American Dream. “When he’s humbled by losing everything, he doesn’t wear the hat anymore,” Yeun told A24. “It was never a lesson for Trumpers; the hat is more like a pair of sunglasses. It’s there to shroud the deep fear and pain that pervades the soul of this man.”

When Jacob finally realizes the real support system in his life is his family, he tosses his hat aside, alongside any semblance of confirming to the American ideal. Photo courtesy of A24

In this way, though, Jacob’s red cap isn’t just an afterthought. It’s the perfect nod to how the ill-advised idea of the American Dream can permeate and rot our perception of self-worth. Jacob, in trying to prove his strength in a society constantly denigrating and taking advantage of his worth, feels there’s an opportunity to reclaim his power by going at it alone. It’s only when things fall apart and he ditches the red cap that he realizes he will never be adequately supported by American infrastructure. 

Hats off to him.

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