A fast chase, a sudden noise, a handgun drawn, and a man dying on a kitchen floor. In a matter of moments, two rookie cops have gone from eating slices of pizza on the street to chasing a suspect through a housing complex before one of them, Officer Mike Tan, played by Kenny Leu, accidentally shoots an innocent bystander.
These gripping scenes unfold in the first few minutes of Chinese-American director Aimee Long’s debut crime drama, A Shot Through the Wall – a testament to how fast things can go wrong and a life can end.
“Lucky for you, this one is pretty clear cut: it’s hard to prove intent when you shoot someone through a wall,” Tan is told by police union representative Ritchie Barrett, played by Dan Lauria. “Don’t worry, you’ll be back on the street before you know it,” he adds.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
But the case takes a sharp turn a week later when Tan becomes the first New York Police Department (NYPD) officer in over a decade to be indicted for an on-duty shooting. He later stands trial on manslaughter charges.
The gut-wrenching opening of Long’s film, which premiered at the Bentonville Film Festival in the US state of Arkansas in August, isn’t just a clever storyline; the plot was inspired by real events.
On November 20, 2014, a Hong Kong-born NYPD officer, Peter Liang, fatally shot African-American Akai Gurley while on patrol with his partner Shaun Landau in Brooklyn, New York.
In a dark stairwell at the Louis H. Pink public housing complex, Liang drew his handgun and it discharged when he was startled by a noise. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and into the chest of Gurley, who had been walking 14 steps below with his girlfriend at the time, Melissa Butler. Gurley died, leaving behind a two-year-old daughter, Akaila.
Liang, who grew up in New York’s Chinatown, was indicted for Gurley’s killing in February 2015 and the decision sparked outrage in Chinese-American communities across the US.
For the African-American community, it was yet another unjust police killing and accountability was crucial. For Chinese-Americans, however, there was a question of political motive: why was the first NYPD officer indicted for an on-duty shooting in over a decade an Asian-American? Thousands of Chinese-Americans gathered at New York City Hall in March 2015, protesting that Liang was being used as a scapegoat.
Liang was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct in February 2016, and faced up to 15 years in jail. In April, 2016, his conviction was downgraded to criminally negligent homicide and he was sentenced to five years’ probation and 800 hours of community service.
“We felt that he should lose his job and pay a price, but not be charged with something that could land him in prison for 15 years,” says New York State Senator John Liu.
The Taiwan-born senator has long been active in protesting against cases of police brutality in New York, including the tragic shooting of African-American man Sean Bell in 2006 and the killing of African-American man Eric Garner, who suffocated after a police officer put him in a prohibited chokehold four months before Gurley died.
Liu says the Gurley case was complicated. “It was yet another case of an unarmed black man being killed by police,” he says. But there were other considerations, he adds, such as the New York City Housing Authority’s failure to repair lights in the building’s stairwell, and the NYPD’s policy of sending newer officers on dangerous patrols.
“The culpability could be spread far and wide, but apparently it was only Peter Liang that was going to face consequences,” he says. “He was paying for the wrongdoing of so many officers.”
Asked why Liang was indicted, Liu says” “Because he’s not white.”
“Not only was Peter Liang being faulted and potentially penalised, there are also systemic issues in the NYPD in training and their assignment of rookie officers in perceived dangerous situations,” he adds. The Louis H. Pink complex Liang was patrolling was notorious for violent crime.
Filmmaker Long, born in Beijing, decided to write a fictional script inspired by Liang’s prosecution one evening in 2015 when the Black Lives Matter movement was in its early days, and after a heated discussion about the Liang case over dinner at a friend’s place.
In writing the script she explored the theme of racism in the Chinese community. In the film. The words “racist murderer” are graffitied on the fence outside Officer Tan’s parent’s home one night and he decides to see a counsellor. “They used to be scared of black people because of the news,” he confides to the therapist, before blurting out: “I just don’t see things the way my parents see it.”
Tan’s girlfriend Candace Walker, played by Ciara Renee, is an African-American (Peter Liang was not known to have had an African-American partner). For most of the film, Tan keeps his girlfriend’s ethnicity secret from journalists, but community hysteria gets the better of him one night and, in an attempt to prove he isn’t racist, he sends media a photo of the couple.
A Shot Through the Wall shines a light on the fine line non-white communities in the US are often forced to tread. While they all have to deal with discrimination in one form or another, the prejudices they face can be vastly different.
Long says recent events have shown how minorities can support each other. “With George Floyd, the Hmong officer brought the Peter Liang and Akai Gurley case back up as a topic,” she says, referring to Hmong-American policeman Tou Thao, who was present when Floyd, an African-American man, was killed by a white police officer who knelt on his neck in Minnesota in May.
“I can’t breathe”, Floyd said, pleading with the officers – words that later became a slogan of the Black Lives Matter protests, appearing on banners, posters, face masks and on social media.
Thao’s passive involvement in Floyd’s death raised questions about the role of Asian-Americans in race relations. It also made observers consider the conditional status of ethnic minorities in the US.
“Culturally, I was always told to not ruffle any feathers, to not wash dirty laundry outside and to keep my head down,” says Long. Her stance has since changed, and she believes Asian-Americans should show solidarity with other minorities in the US.
A lot of people from all walks of life are weighing in with different opinions on policing and racism, but no matter what injustices may be occurring, legitimate or not, there are people dying
Filmmaker Aimee Long
“We can’t afford the luxury of sitting on the sidelines and just watching. What’s justice, what’s right, it’s also about the people who get left behind.”
A Shot Through the Wall is one of two films inspired by the Gurley case, and one of several works this year that examine the complex ties between different minority communities and how politics can drive wedges into those relationships.
The other film was made by US-based journalist and filmmaker Ursula Liang, of Chinese and German heritage and no relation to the NYPD officer. Liang’s film, Down a Dark Stairwell, premiered in June at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2020.
Similar films include Latasha Harlins: A Rose That Grew from Concrete, directed by Shannon Dion, and A Love Song for Latasha, directed by Sophia Nahli Allison and now screening on Netflix.
Both Dion’s and Allison’s short films were inspired by the fatal shooting of African American Latasha Harlins, 15, by Korean immigrant Soon Ja Du, 51, on March 16, 1991.
Harlins was shot dead in Du’s Los Angeles store Empire Liquor after Du accused her of stealing a bottle of orange juice. Du was convicted of manslaughter but not charged. It was one of several events, including the brutal beating of Rodney King by police 13 days earlier, which led to the violent riots that tore through the city in 1992.
“We have a very significant problem here in this country in regard to police procedures and how those procedures create bad apples among the ranks of very good police officers. That is a big issue right now, the need for police reform,” Liu, the New York state senator, says.
For her part, Long says the violence must stop. “A lot of people from all walks of life are weighing in with different opinions on policing and racism, but no matter what injustices may be occurring, legitimate or not, there are people dying,” she says.
“Ending the killing has to be our number one priority as a society.”
More Articles from SCMP
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.