‘Gook’: Q&A with Ava Duvernay and why Independent Filmmaking and Representation Matters

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by Tom Nguyen

The indie film ‘Gook’ by director/writer/actor Justin Chon (‘Twilight’) opens in LA theaters today, and has been highly talked about, not only for its provocative title. The story of two Korean-American siblings who own a store in a predominantly African American Los Angeles neighborhood, and the consequences of their friendship with a young black child during the first day of the LA riots, won the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT Audience Award and was acquired by Samuel Goldwyn Films for national release — a rarity for an independent film written, produced and directed by and starring folks from a minority community…but I’ll get into Hollywood’s diversity problem and Chon’s astute observations later.

The film shot in black and white follows one day in the life of a street-wise Eli (Justin Chon), intent on keeping his late father’s shoe store afloat, despite daily struggle in Paramount, a suburb next to Compton. His brother Daniel (a very funny David So of Youtube popularity) is more interested in aspirations of being a singer than helping Eli mind a store long past its better days. Kamilla (a brilliant 11-year-old Simone Baker making her debut), a young girl from the neighborhood, is the heart and soul of the movie, as an orphaned girl drawn to the store and the brothers, looking for more parental love and affection, than she receives at home from a sympathetic but absent older sister, Regina (Omono Okojie) and stern older brother, Keith (a very intense performance by Curtiss Cook Jr.).

The film is a humanizing, honest snapshot of complex race relations in a lower income Los Angeles neighborhood that isn’t often portrayed on screen. While the film starts out with what could have been tired cliches, like Eli’s multiple encounters with Latino gangsters or the racist Korean store owner across the street who pulls a gun on Kamilla, there’s a purpose to Chon’s depiction of the simmering racial tensions of this multi-ethnic community — the day happens to be the acquittal of white police officers in the Rodney King beating trial and as the riots start in nearby South Central, those tensions boil to the surface, with moral dilemmas and serious consequences for each character. Continue Reading →

Selma: MLK’s Powerful Bio-Epic Opens in LA in advance of Millions March Protest


by Tom Nguyen

I caught an advance screening of Selma at Hammer Museum last Tuesday and it was a full house. I gave my extra ticket to someone who had waited 2.5 hours in line after a long drive from Orange County. There was a similar over-capacity crowd when it screened at the AFI Fest and the film has already picked up major awards, as it is poised to sweep the country, when it opens today on Christmas in select cities and nationwide on January 9. All the attention is justified. With the nation embroiled in nationwide protests against police brutality in black communities, there could not be a more timely and much-needed film right now for us to reflect on how far we’ve come as a country, but also how little has changed for many of us in communities of color.

Claudia Bestor, Director of Public Programs at the Hammer, gave an impassioned introduction to the film. She lamented that the depicted events occurred only 50 years ago and not only are racist attitudes still troubling our country but they seem even more overt and bold during this Obama presidency. Bestor struck a positive hopeful note saying the film is “a great reminder that Americans used to know how to organize muscular mass movements for social and economic justice and we can do this again…this film is coming at a perfect time to show us and remind us how it’s done.”  As grassroots activists prepare for Millions March LA this Saturday, Dec. 27, inspired by the massive marches in NYC, the film is a potent reminder the power of mass movements for social justice and political change.

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Cesar Chavez a Timely Reminder the Fight Continues: Full Q&A with Diego Luna and UFW President

On March 7, 2014, there was a special advance screening of Cesar Chavez, the upcoming biopic about the civil rights activist and labor leader’s fight for farm workers’ right in California. The movie deftly weaves the chapters of Chavez’s long, hard struggle to organize immigrant farm workers, from the early 60s to the mid 70s. The movie hits all the important highlights of this often forgotten chapter in the Civil Rights era without ever feeling long-winded.

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Watch Out, The Muslims Are Coming!

The documentary, The Muslims Are Coming, recently screened at USC School of Cinematic Arts. Bearing the name of the tour a few Muslim comedians took along the Bible Belt of America, the documentary is a good way to see how the media creates fear in Americans from their ignorance of a religion different than their own. Directors Negin Farsad and Dead Obeidallah, along with fellow Muslim comedians Kareem Omary, Aron Krader, Preacher Moss, Maysoon Zayid and Omar Elba, document their tour and the reactions and receptions they receive. Jon Stewart, Janeane Garofalo, David Cross, Colin Quinn, Rachel Maddow, Lewis Black are among those interviewed giving their own perceptions on how this “Muslim takeover” scare tactic from those in the right wing has controlled the conversation of what being a Muslim is really about.

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Double Oscar Entry Feature: Two Lives and I Am Yours on Fri 11/22

two lives
This Friday, November 22, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica will be showing a free double feature of Two Lives, Germany’s official Oscar entry and I Am Yours, Norway’s official Oscar entry. Both films deal with the fallout of intermingling between cultures. The event is free with RSVP and there will be a wine & cheese reception following with directors Georg Maas and Iram Haq and actress Amrita Acharia in attendance!

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20 Feet From Stardom: Must See History of the Black Backup Singers behind all the Iconic Songs – Opens June 14 Weekend with special Q&As!

20 Feet From Stardom is a new documentary that is a poignant, heartbreaking and well-deserved celebration of the backup singers behind the most iconic popular rock and pop songs and the legendary bands they supported. The film traces the history of the huge impact these talented, yet unknown black female singers made to the music and the bands millions of people know so well. Their voices are instantly recognizable but the stories of their contributions to music as well as the sacrifices they made both professionally and personally are untold until now.

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Free Screenings of Contemporary South American Cinema at USC April 5-7

April 5-7, another set of free film screenings open to the public at the USC School of Cinematic Arts will be showcasing recent cinema from South America. These films aren’t the most recent coming from South America and I’ve seen quite a few of them already, but from dramas to comedies to horror, this series is a good representation of the different genres of quality film and diverse stories coming from South America cinema. You can click on the film titles in the lineup to RSVP. Continue Reading →