ArtsEmerson screens film ‘Down a Dark Stairwell,’ hosts post-film discussion


Photo: Courtesy/Ursula Liang

Still from “Down a Dark Stairwell”

By Lucia Thorne, Living Arts Editor

During a post-screening chat about her new documentary “Down a Dark Stairwell” hosted by ArtsEmerson, journalist-turned-director Ursula Liang said she was drawn to Akai Gurley’s case–who was shot and killed by NYPD Officer Peter Liang–mainly because she saw this story as an opportunity to start an important conversation. 

“I saw the film as an access point for Asian American communities to come into this conversation about police accountability, and I thought it was very important that this was a story with Black and Asian points of view because our communities definitely need to have a conversation right now,” Liang said during the post-screening panel. 

The documentary focuses on the case and community reaction–specifically Black and Asian-Americans’ reactions–to the death of an unarmed African-American man, Akai Gurley, at the hands of Chinese-American officer Peter Liang. Gurley was walking down the unlit stairwell of the Brooklyn housing project he lived in when officer Liang shot him.

From Feb. 5 to Feb. 7, ArtsEmerson screened the film on demand through their website as a part of their “Shared Stories” film series. On the night of the premiere, ArtsEmerson hosted a post-screening discussion. The discussion was moderated by University of Massachusetts Boston Professor of American Studies Denise Khor with panel guests director Ursula Liang, co-writer and editor Jason Harper, former Boston public school principal and community activist Suzanne Lee and executive director of Center for Empowered Politics Alex Tom. 

The fatal shooting and the trial that followed led to rising tensions between the Black community and the Asian American community as shown in the documentary, leading to protests by both groups. When discussing the socioeconomic and cultural divides within the Asian American community, Alex Tom praised Liang’s ability to showcase all sides of the story. 

“I feel like this film provides a lot of those complex viewpoints of the diversity of the views within the Chinese community but also even within the [BLM] movement,” Tom said.

During the discussion, Khor asked Liang about the unconventional lack of narration and audience-leading in the documentary. Liang avoided focusing too much on the case itself as she felt it was more necessary to cover the community reaction to Gurley’s death and officer Liang’s sentencing.

“We wanted to find a way to draw the viewer away from the specifics of the case to think about some of the larger systemic issues of solidarity and systems of oppression,” Liang said. “In order to make change, it’s important for people to not be talked at. People come out with stronger convictions when they have their own experience.”

Liang said with her journalistic background, her instinct was to highlight the different viewpoints from these communities, especially since they’re communities of color. 

“It’s all the voices of people of color we were trying to center because we don’t get heard enough,” Liang said.

As stated at the end of the documentary, Peter Liang is the only NYPD officer convicted of a police involved killing in the last 14 years. Meanwhile, at least 113 Black men have been killed at the hands of NYPD officers during this time period. As a result, the documentary showed Asian-Americans in dozens of cities protested the conviction of Officer Liang, stating they believed he was being used as the NYPD’s “scapegoat.”

Suzanne Lee discussed the proper sentiment behind the protests against a Chinese-American being the only NYPD officer convicted of killing in recent history, but also stated that they needed to address the blindspots of their activism as a community. 

“When so many people came out [to protest], they were not against the Black community. They were against the institution that created the situation, but they didn’t articulate it that way,” Lee said. “We’re not saying that Peter Liang should not be charged, but all the other cops should be charged too. The Chinese community and Asian community need to come out in support of the demand that all cops need to be charged.”

Liang said mainstream news outlets were opting to show the more “loud and salacious moments” by using intense moments from the protests for the sake of entertainment. To Liang, the sensationalism of such a complex issue drove her to focus on the discussions within the movements to more accurately portray the situation.

“One of the things we tried to do was to pivot away from what the mainstream media was doing and sort of tone down the volume a little bit and give it to quieter safer spaces so that people could really hear what was being said,” Liang said.

Editor Jason Harper also shared this sentiment when asked about the editing process and the importance of these personal discussions between activists and communities during the panel. 

“The intimate conversations in the wake of that are where a lot of the movement happens,” Harper said. 

“Down a Dark Stairwell” will premiere on PBS and the PBS Video app on Apr. 12.