FILM FOR THOUGHT
Presented by the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities
THOUGHTS: DOWN A DARK STAIRWELL
Directed by journalist and filmmaker Ursula Liang, DOWN A DARK STAIRWELL centers on the story of Akai Gurley’s murder by NYPD officer Peter Liang (no relation to the filmmaker) in the stairwell of a public housing project in Brooklyn, NY, and the subsequent criminal prosecution of Liang. On November 20, 2014, Gurley, a twenty-eight-year-old Black man, partner to Kimberly Ballinger and devoted father to daughter Akaila Gurley, visited Melissa Butler at her apartment in the East New York Pink Houses. His chance encounter in the stairwell with rookie police officer Liang, who was carrying out “vertical patrol” in the building, resulted in tragedy when Liang, who would later claim that his gun misfired, shot and killed Gurley at point blank. “The cop shot him,” a neighbor says calmly to the 911 operator in the audio recording that plays over the opening sequence of the film. Later in the film, audio of Butler’s courtroom testimony reveals that Liang and fellow officer Shaun Landau stood by silently, offering no assistance whatsoever, while Butler tried desperately to resuscitate Gurley. These are examples of the powerful and damning evidence in the film, and yet, the heart of the documentary lies not in Liang’s trial but rather in its intimate look at racialized communities organizing for social justice. While Black community activists and a handful of Asian American allies organize to seek justice for Gurley’s murder, a galvanized Chinese American community, in NYC and across the U.S., rallies around Peter Liang, embracing him as a kind of Chinese American “first son”—a boy-child protected by his ethnic kin. With journalistic sensibilities, Ursula Liang casts a critical yet compassionate gaze on these communities, filmed in the unglamorous spaces of community halls, restaurants, apartment homes, and the streets.
This is a timely and important documentary film that explores the profound difficulties of building multiracial and multigenerational coalitions for social justice. In a moment of life imitating art, John Chan, a Chinatown leader who helps organize community support for Peter Liang, asserts, “We are the same [Black and Chinese]. We’re walking side-by-side…” words that could have been plucked directly from Spike Lee’s cinematic masterpiece DO THE RIGHT THING (1995); in the explosive final sequence of that film, a Korean American shopkeeper attempts to fend off an angry mob that has just witnessed the police murder Radio Raheem, a Black man, by claiming “We’re the same!”— a sentiment that elicits confusion and laughter from the film’s Black characters. Alternating between footage of Chinese and Black communities in NYC, DOWN A DARK STAIRWELL ponders what it would mean for Asian and Black communities in the U.S. to walk side-by-side. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked discussions about the complicity of another Asian American police officer, Hmong American Tou Thao—who, like Liang, stood by silently while a Black man took his final breaths after a murderous encounter with a cop—DOWN A DARK STAIRWELL assumes added urgency. The film quietly but insistently asks Asian Americans, who have their own complex history as a minority group excluded from and marginalized within U.S. society: which side are you on?
Asian American documentaries have long explored racial grievance, injustice, and trauma “intra-ethnically.” In DOWN A DARK STAIRWELL, racial consciousness and racial solidarity are front and center. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, incidents of anti-Asian violence have been on the rise across the U.S. One especially horrific case in this year’s spate of violent anti-Asian attacks involved two 13-year-old boys setting an elderly Chinese woman on fire in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, an incident that inspired a solidarity march in NYC’s Chinatown. Within the context of a contemporary U.S. political culture marked by fervent expressions of white supremacy and nationalism, DOWN A DARK STAIRWELL puts pressure on Asian American desires for representation and inclusion, challenging its viewers to ponder the cost of representation and inclusion in the inherently violent institutions of white supremacy.
DANIELLE SEID is an assistant professor of English at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa where she teaches courses in film, media, and narrative studies. Some of her research areas include Asian American film and media history, trans representation, TV genre and feminism, and the histories of race and moviegoing. In her research, she aims to continue the work begun by her Chinese American immigrant grandparents who produced a documentary entitled Forever Chinatown (1960) and nurtured Chinese American film community in southern California.
This essay has been produced as part of the 2020 FILM FOR THOUGHT Program in partnership with the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities.