In 2020, the country grappled with back-to-back police killings, including a murder in Minneapolis that eventually sent a white officer to prison for killing an unarmed Black man. Rewind to 2014 to the Bronx, New York. The victim is the same — an unarmed Black man, but this time, the killer — a cop — is an Asian American man, which flips the black and white issue on its head. This is the thesis for director Ursula Liang’s new PBS Independent Lens documentary “Down A Dark Stairwell,” available to stream on PBS until May 11.
The film chronicles the 2014 police shooting and killing of a young 28-year-old Black father, Akai Gurley, and the conviction of Peter Liang (who is not related to the filmmaker), a first-generation Chinese American, rookie NYPD officer and the first NYPD officer convicted for an on-duty shooting in more than 15 years. As a filmmaker, Liang explores the experiences of two marginalized communities — Black and Asian — as they each navigate the legal system.
Watch a trailer from the film below
The documentary is eerily well-timed for what the nation’s sentiments are today, following mass protests against George Floyd’s murder and anti-Asian hate. Liang gives an intimate view of Gurley’s family — but not of Peter Liang, whom she reached out to but was not granted an interview with — in less than 90 minutes. “Down a Dark Stairwell” also features activists from each community, who speak candidly about police brutality and racism. Additionally, the documentary gets up close and personal to reveal what oppression looks like between Black and Chinese American communities in New York City, what justice means to each, and the importance of using dialogue to dismantle white supremacy. Liang’s conviction resulted in five years probation and 800 hours of community service, but neither the Gurley family, nor the Chinese American community were appeased.
In the following Q&A, Ursula Liang spoke with Colorlines about the challenges of approaching difficult topics, the devastating effects of white supremacy on both communities, why Liang’s case is nothing like Derek Chauvin’s, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the experience like for you working on this film?
It was a tough film to make. It was tough to navigate. It was a tough story to figure out in the edit. It was also really difficult, emotionally, for everybody involved. There’s an obvious challenge in dealing with a family that has experienced very direct trauma of losing a loved one. I think you don’t really realize how many other forms of trauma there are that surround that sort of initial incident. You’ve got organizers who are also going through a lot emotionally and who are, you know, in the trauma Olympics; they’re not allowed to express it on the same level as the folks that have lost a loved one. The film team is also experiencing things from listening to and absorbing stories that are really difficult. It’s all these levels of emotion that people are experiencing, some of which are allowed to be expressed and are being addressed, and some of which are not.
You see this a lot with families that have lost somebody to violence. They are pushed into an activist role, but not given the opportunity to mourn properly.
An underlying theme in the doc is police accountability, something we’re still discussing in 2021. What do you think made Peter Liang’s case different from or similar to other cases of police killings?
I definitely think that a lot of folks saw this case as a bit of an outlier from the other cases. Number one, most of the cases we’ve seen have had some sort of visual documentation. With this one, there was no visual proof. The only folks that know what happened were the people that were in the stairwell that night, and even those folks may have memories or perspectives on it that are very fluid or driven by what’s in their own heads. I don’t think my job as a filmmaker is to make comments on what I think the case is. I think the more important part is what do the communities that were affected by this case feel about it?
From the start, I knew this case was different, because it involves an Asian American police officer, and we hadn’t seen a case like that before. And one of the reasons I thought I needed to make this film was because this was going to involve a community that, by and large, wasn’t really participating in the movement for police accountability, in part because it wasn’t being affected. One of the things I found, as I was reporting the case, was that a lot of folks hadn’t really heard about a lot of the other cases there were in these sorts of news and social media bubbles. There are folks that read Chinese language press only and this was the first time that this type of topic was being brought to them. So, I think it was different in a lot of ways. But it’s also the same thing. It’s the same question people have been asking for decades and decades and decades. “Are police going to be held accountable for what they do?” I think it’s clear that this is an ongoing, repetitive conversation.
Did you find that any of the community members whom you were in contact with felt like there was a double standard happening with this case?
The folks that were supporting Peter Liang really thought that he was being treated differently than other police officers and that it was because of his race, because of the lack of political power and voice of the [Asian] community. There were so many people that protested in this case on all sides, and every single person had a different motivation for being there. But I think the feeling was that the folks that supported Peter, it wasn’t just a question of whether or not he was being held accountable, but they felt in some ways that he was being held accountable for other incidents, in addition to this one, and they sometimes used the word scapegoat. But I think the more correct term would be sacrificial lamb, that he was being treated in a way that would appease the other cases that didn’t have justice.
How do you see the roles that race and white supremacy played in the documentary?
We wanted these systems of oppression to be a thread through the film that you would follow. We never saw the film as a film about this specific case but about bigger issues. White supremacy is a very simple term, but it’s also a very big concept. One of the things we were very aware of when making the film was that the Asian American community is still learning the language of protest, it’s still learning the language of some of these issues. And you see it in the film; folks using slogans sort of inappropriately. I never thought scapegoat was the right term. There are Martin Luther King Jr. phrases being used in protests, perhaps not in the spirit of how he would have wanted them to be used. People still use the term, All Lives Matter. White supremacy is a simple thing to say, but it’s not a simple thing to understand. The film hopes to show the ways in which oppressive forces can make us all lose.
One thing that really stood out was Liang’s reaction to his verdict, especially in comparison to Derek Chauvin’s emotionless reaction to his verdict.
That was definitely different if you looked at Chauvin’s reaction. Even with that mask on, you could see there was nothing on his face. But, I remember feeling very moved when I saw the image of Peter reacting to the verdict in the courtroom. You could feel his emotion, even if you weren’t there, if you’re watching a clip on your computer, you can still feel the emotion. As a viewer, when you are a normal, compassionate person and see somebody with pain and emotion, your heart reaches out to them. And I think a lot of folks have that feeling when they see his reaction to the verdict and that complicates the issue. Even if you’re squarely on the side of “this guy did something wrong,” your human empathy reaches out to him at that moment. And maybe some folks will watch that and feel anger. Like, “how dare you have any sort of emotion at this moment? You know, somebody else lost their life?”
As a filmmaker, what do you want viewers to take away from this documentary?
I want viewers to have listened to the folks in the film. I think sometimes the emotions get so hot on topics that you’re incapable of listening. One of our goals was to dial down the temperature so that people could feel the other person’s emotion behind their protest, even if they disagreed with their logic. I also hope that it does a little bit of work in building bridges and parallels so that people realize that this cultural nationalism that we’re all heading deeper and deeper into is a really poor way of grouping ourselves. I think we did a lot visually to try to draw lines between the communities. We don’t have the same fights, but we do have some common goals. And if we can think through those common goals and the ways in which we can build coalitions and solidarity, I think that would be a great outcome. And I’m hoping that people will proceed if that gets planted in people’s heads when they watch the film.
See images from the film featuring Gurley’s family, community members, protests and more.
N. Jamiyla Chisholm manages creative content at Barnard College and is the author of the upcoming memoir “The Community.” As a journalist, she focuses on culture, gender and sexuality, and history.