Deep Focus

Read time: 5 minutes

Cover Photo by Jih-E Peng

Filmmaker Ursula Liang brings empathy and nuance to a difficult subject in the timely documentary “Down a Dark Stairwell.”

It’s difficult for Ursula Liang, ’96, to remember a time when she wasn’t at least curious about, if not preoccupied with, the idea of race. Born to a Chinese American father and a white German American mother, Liang spent her childhood in a predominantly white neighborhood outside Boston, where, she says, “I always felt like the ‘other.’ I was one of those kids who would look in the mirror and pinch my nose to see what it would look like if it was skinnier.”

Her desire to understand the implications of her own ambiguous appearance, and the broader impact of race in American life, has influenced much of Liang’s own life since. It also helped guide her into an unexpected career as a filmmaker: “Down a Dark Stairwell,” her second feature-length documentary, debuted in April as part of the PBS Independent Lens series. The film documents the fallout from the 2014 police killing of Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man, in a dark stairwell in Brooklyn. It also follows the trial and ultimate conviction of the Chinese American officer who pulled the trigger and the competing calls for justice from two marginalized communities.

Liang couldn’t have known that a subject that was so relevant at the time of the killing — Gurley’s death came just four months after another unarmed Black New Yorker, Eric Garner, died in a police chokehold — would feel even more so seven years after the fact. A rash of violence against Asian Americans in the past year, and the #StopAsianHate movement that arose in response, give the story added weight; they also emphasize Liang’s unique qualifications for telling it.

“I try to come at things from a journalistic perspective, but I always hope to do some good.”

While at U-M, Liang double majored in psychology and Afroamerican and African studies, the latter sparked by her brewing interest in race and ethnicity. It provided a robust field of study that didn’t force her to choose between focusing on her own Chinese and German heritage.

“I didn’t want to feel like I was making that choice in my family, between my two identities,” she says. She was also inspired by Evans Young, the late U-M professor whose longtime role as assistant director of the Afroamerican and African studies program gave her confidence that “it was a legitimate possibility for me to be in this space.”

As a junior, while many of her classmates were doing semesters abroad, Liang spent her fall semester at Spelman College, the historically Black women’s institution in Atlanta. “As a mixed-race person, my phenotype was a little confusing to people, but I politically and culturally identified as a person of color, she says. “I wanted to immerse myself in an environment where that was the norm.”

She landed a job after graduation at ESPN The Magazine, where she reported on the intersection of sports and popular culture. As a woman and a person of color, she was a rarity in the locker rooms she worked; she remembers colleagues trying to set her up on dates with the only Asian American male on the NBA beat or being refused entry into an NHL locker room despite being clearly credentialed.

“There were definitely things that happened to me in that world that didn’t happen to other people,” she says. “Gender and race kind of collided in that space for me; I don’t know if I was thinking so much about race at the time, but I was thinking a lot about access and storytelling.”

A few years later, she ended up at T: The New York Times Style Magazine. As The New York Times company expanded its digital offerings, Liang saw an opportunity to widen her skill set. She took film editing classes, got a camera, and started teaching herself how to make films. Not long after, with no formal training, she began work on her first feature.

Released in 2014, “9-Man” documents a streetball variation on volleyball that is largely unheard of outside the Chinese communities in cities across North America where it thrives. She cringes looking back at her rawness as a filmmaker, but her confidence as a storyteller shone through, earning the “9-Man” positive reviews in The New York Times and elsewhere as well as a number of awards on the festival circuit.

Close-up image of "To Stair" wall sign

Liang was still touring that circuit with “9-Man” when she learned about Akai Gurley’s death and the identity of the NYPD officer charged — an inexperienced patrolman named Peter Liang, born in Manhattan, raised in Brooklyn, and now facing charges of second-degree manslaughter.

“He had my name and my brother’s first name,” Liang says. “I felt like I couldn’t ignore it.” It was the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, and protests demanding justice for the victim were soon countered by protests from the Chinese American community, which saw an unusually aggressive prosecution of a police officer as a sign that Peter Liang was being scapegoated because of his ethnicity.

“Down a Dark Stairwell” follows the aftermath of the shooting, documenting the pain and anger of two communities fighting for competing ideas of justice, the politics that frame and influence the trial, and the very different but parallel protest movements that tried to sway the outcome. The end result leaves neither side fully satisfied: Peter Liang was convicted of manslaughter, a charge later downgraded to criminally negligent homicide, and was sentenced to probation and community service, with no jail time.

Scott Jung, a pioneering Chinese American rapper and producer known as “CHOPS,” first worked with Liang when he co-scored “9-Man.” On “Down a Dark Stairwell,” he contributes an original song co-written by the film’s composer, Andrew Orkin, and Raymond “Gizz” Smith, a friend of Gurley’s. Of Liang, he says, “I can’t imagine anybody who would’ve been able to make this documentary as well as Ursula. Just the nuance — you can tell it was labored over to make sure it was balanced and showed empathy for everybody.”

Liang acknowledges her hope that the film “dials down the volume enough that people can listen to one another. I try to come at things from a journalistic perspective, but I always hope to do some good.”

Ryan Jones has written for Middlebury Magazine, Harvard Business School Alumni Bulletin, Oregon Quarterly, and Denison Magazine, and is the former editor of Slam, the monthly basketball magazine. He lives in central Pennsylvania.

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