Cinema Asian America: Interview with ‘Aoki’ Filmmakers Ben Wang and Mike Cheng


One of the founding members of the Black Panther Party, a life-long activist and Oakland-resident until his death in 2009, Japanese American Richard Aoki is one of most significant – and unheralded – figures of the civil rights movement. A long-time friend of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton who would rise to become the Black Panther’s Field Martial, Aoki was an Asian American activist who united the many communities he was part of, and in many ways, offers a window into the complex dynamics of race, class and activism which originated in the 1960s, and still are vital today.

This month Cinema Asian American on XFINITY On Demand presents Ben Wang and Mike Cheng’s ground-breaking documentary portrait, “Aoki,” which charts the life and activism of this trailblazing figure.

That a third generation Japanese American should be a founding member of the Black Panther Party in many ways makes much sense. Can you briefly give a portrait of the social forces which shaped Richard Aoki’s politics and led him to the Black Panthers?

BW: Richard’s life was impacted by many historic events such as World War II, the Japanese American internment camps, the Vietnam War, and growing protest movements in the United States. Richard was also heavily influenced by his upbringing in West Oakland, a predominantly African American community—that was often a target of police violence, racial injustice, and social inequality. The political issues that Richard would later take on were often shaped by his personal experiences.

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MC: I think Ben covered the main social forces that shaped Richard’s politics from a historical perspective, but I think the social forces around Richard in terms of personal friendships helped shape his politics and involvement in the Black Panther Party as well. I think the friendships and bonds he made with many families in the West Oakland such as his childhood crew “The Saints” shaped his sensibilities and personality which influenced his political principles on things such as racial justice and self-defense. The fact that he was a close personal friend of both Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale is also an important aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Black Panther Party wasn’t just an abstract political group that Richard just heard about and decided to join, this was a group founded by his personal friends who had a mission he believed in and was determined to support.

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Both of you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a large and very politically active Asian American community. What new ways of looking at its history and politics did you uncover through making this film?

BW: Richard was a very important figure in the Bay Area’s Asian American movement. Due to his unique role in the Black Panther Party and Asian American groups, Richard played a strong role in building solidarity between communities of color. Working on the project definitely impressed upon me the importance of strengthening solidarity across racial lines in order to build an effective social movement.

MC: Many of the Asian American organizations, institutions, services, and even academic programs that are established today come from that earlier period in the 60’s & 70’s where they did not exist and had to be fought for. Spending time with many of the Asian American organizers who were involved in those struggles definitely helps deepen that understanding.

There have been a number of films which have explored Asian American involvement in the Civil Rights movement; why was it important for you to tell Richard Aoki’s story?

BW: Growing up, I didn’t learn anything about the Asian American Movement or the Black Panther Party, so I had no idea someone like Richard Aoki even existed. Meeting Richard when I was in college was a great experience for me. He was always willing to share his wisdom, perspectives, and stories with me—whether it was about lessons learned from his Panther days, the current state of student activism, or actions to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I think both Mike and I gained greatly from having Richard as a mentor, and we wanted to share that experience with many more people.

MC: The first important factor for me was the fact that Richard came from a political perspective that was radical and revolutionary. He wasn’t interested in simply pursuing reforms, he believed social justice could only be achieved by radically changing and revolutionizing how our society’s economic and political structures could operate. That revolutionary perspective of the Black Power and Third World Liberation movements isn’t explored by the mainstream media as often as the more liberal perspective of the Civil Rights movement so I felt like that was an important distinction which allowed our film to explore a lesser known history. The second important factor for me was the fact that Richard was more than just a film subject for us. As Ben touched on, Richard was a mentor to us who not only shared great wisdom, knowledge, and insight but still walked the walk through his last days as an active participant in several organizations and movements that we’ve been a part of. I felt like we had a responsibility to try and document his story so that those who weren’t fortunate enough to have known him or worked with him could hopefully still learn from his story and experiences.

Who are other radical and activist Asian American figures, perhaps contemporaries of Aoki, or perhaps of younger generations, whom you admire?

BW: Yuri Kochiyama (a legendary Japanese American human rights activist who has been involved in so many struggles, including fighting for the rights of political prisoners), Grace Lee Boggs (lifelong social activist and author based in Detroit), and Al Robles (Filipino poet and community activist) come to mind.

What are you working on now?

BW: I am working on “Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story,” a documentary about one of the most visible Asian American leaders to emerge from the prison system. This project will share Eddy’s personal journey from immigrant youth to politicized prisoner, and ultimately valued mentor and community leader as he faces pending deportation to a land he has not known for over 30 years. Breathin’ will feature footage of Eddy’s work in youth violence prevention and prisoner support efforts, as well as candid interviews with Eddy and his close circle of family and friends. The film will share his personal struggle toward redemption and reveal the complicated fate ahead for the growing population of Asian immigrants and refugees in prison. More info here!

MC: I’ll never say never but at the moment I don’t plan to pursue any additional documentary projects or film work, aside from dabbling in music videos from time to time. If I ever come across another story that really moves me to the point that I feel it must be shared with the world I might, but until then I’m happy to have Aoki be my one contribution to the world of film.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.
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