The cases of George Floyd, Vincent Chin, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and recent murders, including the recent victims of the Atlanta spa shootings and Minnesota motirist Duante Wright , all lie along a spectrum of American xenophbia, discrimination, and racism. In other words, they are all connected by America’s harmful ideal of racial supremacy. When the assailants are white, it’s easy to create marches and rallies around a common enemy. But what if the assailant is also a person of color? Such is explored in Ursula Liang’s documentary, Down a Dark Stairwell, which makes its PBS debut today in both English and Chinese.
The documentary focuses on Akai Gurley, who was murdered by New York police officer Peter Liang (no relation to Ursula). If you followed the case when it played out in real-time between 2014-2016, you would have seen two sides of New York’s minority community playing out a battle regarding wedge politics, police brutality, and the existential fight over what it means to be an American.
According to the official description:
Down a Dark Stairwell chronicles the tragic shooting in Brooklyn of Akai Gurley, an innocent Black man, and the trial of the Chinese American police officer, Peter Liang, who pulled the trigger, casting a powerful light on the experiences of two marginalized communities thrust into an uneven criminal justice system together.
With America reeling at the time from the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and activists nationwide calling for police reform, Gurley’s death further inflamed the residents of New York City. Cries of police brutality rang out in protest over a pronounced pattern of police officers, mostly white, avoiding criminal prosecution. Officer Liang, however, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter, making him the first NYPD officer in over a decade to hear a guilty verdict in such a case. This triggered a fresh wave of debate, including protests across New York City in support of Liang, with activists speaking out against the unjust treatment of Asian Americans and racial imbalances in the criminal justice system, calling into question whether his conviction was offered up in part to quell larger national unrest.
Filmed as these events unfolded, and featuring interviews with Akai Gurley’s family and loved ones, local community members, and activists and organizers within the Asian American and African American communities, Down a Dark Stairwell offers a gripping, intimate look at the painful aftermath of Gurley’s death.
So, aside from the obvious, why is this an important film for these times? Because, as the fight for Asian American civil rights heats up, it’s worth learning how the current fight connects with the decades-long fight African-Americans have had being recognized as Americans, too. While the stereotype of the “perpetual foreigner” is something Asian-Americans must contend with, Black people also face a different type of “foreigner” status. However, we are generally seen as people who belong to one one and nothing, therefore we become fodder for the American experiment.
With Gurley becoming a symbol of America’s perpetual hatred of the Black body, and Peter becoming a symbol of Asian-Americans’ desire to belong, the case brings to mind the various ways in which both communities have hurt each other through repeating the stereotyping, discrimination and racism that is levied against them by society at large at each other.
PBS’ groundbreaking decision to create a Chinese-language version of the film can help educate Chinese-Americans living here who might not speak English within their community, particularly older Chinese-Americans. But it also can engage Chinese viewers abroad, viewers who might have internalized America’s racist ideas about Blackness or might not know America’s full history with racial trauma. By creating a version of the documentary that engages viewers all over the world, Down a Dark Stairwell can take a tragic moment in American history and create conversation and action that will hopefully take us one step closer towards racial violence being a thing of the past.
Down a Dark Stairwell will air tonight (April 12) on PBS and the PBS Video app as part of the network’s Independent Lens series.