Saturday, February 06, 2021

Down a Dark Stairwell

Because there's a clock ticking on this post, let's sort of start with this: This is a pretty darn good documentary, it's worth checking out on ArtsEmerson's site which has a pay-what-you-can price on it. Based on the title cards, it will eventually be on PBS after it disappears from that site on Sunday evening, but if you want to watch it with 45 minutes or so of post-film discussion, you've got about 29 hours after the time when I hit publish on this.

And it's pretty interesting discussion, split more or less evenly between filmmakers and activists, so you get talk about making the film and what's motivating the people seen on-screen. It's a fast-moving enough subject that it's worthwhile to have a reminder that it covers 2014-2016, and a whole lot has happened since then. In some ways, I find that what was already a pretty knotty film feels even more so now that there's been so much focus on the systematic problems with policing and incarceration over the past year; when you add that to how often the Chinese-American and Black groups in this film are broadly aligned but at cross-purposes, you might not exactly despair at how America can ever get its justice system untangled, but you certainly become aware of how big the problem is.

The panelists also brought up something that I find kind of interesting and try to be mindful of (with mixed levels of success), which is what a broad spectrum "Asian-American" is even though it's often seen as one large category the way "Latin" is. Apparently Japanese-Americans tend to be the most liberal with Vietnamese-Americans at the other end for much the same sort of Cold War reasons that Cuban-Americans are outliers. Even within that, though, it's worth noting that it's also in flux because of how Chinese immigration has changed, in that it was traditionally poor people seeking opportunity, but that the past generation has been people with means (whether Hong Kongers leaving before the handover or prosperous mainlanders sending their kids to college).

The melting pot is complicated, and it's fractal, revealing more confounding complexity the closer you look.

Down a Dark Stairwell

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2021 in Jay's Living Room (ArtsEmerson Shared Stories, internet)

That director Ursula Liang's previous documentary, 9-Man, was so rooted in the Chinese-American community may cause one to pause nervously when looking at the subject of Down a Dark Stairwell, because for as important as the events in question are for that group, concentrating on that threatens to minimize other facets of the case beyond just concentrating on a certain detail. Fortunately, Liang and her team are well aware of that, and the inevitable division of focus is what gives the film a certain tension.

On 20 November 2014, rookie policemen Peter Liang and Shaun Landau were doing a "vertical patrol" in the Pink Houses of Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood, during which Liang fired his weapon and killed resident Akai Gurley. In a true rarity for officer-involved shootings, Liang was charged with second-degree manslaughter (and other related counts), which stirred up the local Chinese-American community: How is it that the one time someone is actually charged, it's another minority?

There are a couple of spots in this movie where activists acknowledge that part of how white supremacy perpetuates and protects itself is by playing minorities against each other, though nobody in this film seems conspiratorially-minded enough to suggest that this is a deliberate move to sacrifice one cop to shield the institutions. There's no need; Liang instead shows the extent to which it is difficult to separate fighting for an ideal from defending one's group; activists on both sides find themselves facing pushback when they bring up the idea that maybe their own cause is not advanced by working against one another. Liang doesn't stay in activist war rooms to discuss that, though, and one of the strongest ways she makes that point comes toward the end, as two Black men converse about the case and the one who personally had a dangerous encounter with the police can't quite get on board with the other's personal experience.

Liang gets good access to a lot of people, and while she and the editing team tend to operate from the position that both parties have been treated unfairly, they never lose track of the fact that Akai Gurley is dead and Peter Liang is not - and that even while Asian-Americans are protesting that Liang is being used as a scapegoat, the system is arguably still working to soften the blow on his behalf. It may simply be a matter of who was willing to appear in the film, but it's noteworthy that while Gurley's close friends and family appear on screen and either speak directly to the camera or are captured in emotional moments, the Chinese-American interviewees are more arms-length. A good chunk of the movie is about how the Liang case pushed many Asian-Americans to activism after decades of avoiding that sort of confrontation by building enclaves or assimilating, but the filmmakers are always mindful to swing back to the perspective of Akai Gurley's circle whenever attention strays too far from the most important facts of this case.

They do a good job of constructing the film around what they've got overall, right from the opening segment where the low quality of the 911 recording and the claustrophobic nature of the public housing department's hallways makes it clear that there are going to be blind spots in part because there is little attention paid to this part of the city. They'll let some scenes play out for a while even when they could still make their point with tighter editing in order to emphasize the uncertainty and humanity of their subjects, while often going the other way with courtroom scenes, often shifting to voiceover while written transcripts fill the screen in order to focus the audience's attention on the facts of the case. There are a few odd decisions made - one of the most frequent talking heads on the Chinese-American side is an amiable older guy by the name of Karlin whose particular connection to things is never made clear, for instance - and a few facets that could use a little more attention. I'd watch a whole movie about the differences between different waves of Chinese-American immigrants, for instance; it's an important factor here but one that could use more space.

All of that winds up building to an uncertainty that sets this film apart from most current-events documentaries: Where many are often staking out a position by the very fact that their creators chose to spend a couple years of their life on the subject, Down a Dark Staircase is built to let the audience see just where everybody involved is coming from and take a stand on not just what is what's right and what's wrong, but what should be a higher priority. Almost everybody is right here, and in acknowledging that, the filmmakers give the audience plenty to chew on.

Also at eFilmCritic

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