NPR’s Ailsa Chang talks to Eddie Huang about his new film Boogie, about a Taiwanese-American high schooler who dreams big of making professional basketball.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
During his writing and cooking career, Eddie Huang has tried to capture the piece of the Asian-American experience he knows personally, his own story of struggle as opposed to a story defined by the myth of the exemplary minority – you know, this fiction that All Asian Americans excel academically and professionally as they blend in seamlessly with America. Well, how this myth plays out in pop culture …
EDDIE HUANG: Well, I mean, we’re very weak in popular culture. We’re always some kind of doormat and the bum of a joke. And just a few years ago, I remember Steve Harvey just laughing at Asian Americans and thinking it was so absurd that any woman would want or want us. It made me very upset.
CHANG: Well, Huang breaks that mold in his new movie “Boogie”. It’s his first film – the story of Alfred Chin known as Boogie, a young Taiwanese American who is a high school basketball phenomenon with a beautiful friend. And like many teenagers, he’s a kid with a little trouble.
HUANG: Basically, Boogie is a guy to get really upset about. His father was in prison for much of his teenage life. He has a very strained relationship with his mother where love depends on his performance as an individual and his success. And he doesn’t feel loved or adorable without performing, and that is the greatest source of his anger. And second, outside the home, his anger with society is that because of his identity and race, people don’t give him credit for the things he does because other people get angry and passionate but boogie doesn’t. When boogie is angry and passionate, it’s like you’re calm. Be the humble, gentle Asian we are looking for.
CHANG: While I have to say that while boogie was a way you defied certain perceptions or stereotypes of Asian men, I found it different with the female characters in this film, especially the mother. The father is different from most of the Asian fathers we see in American films. You have this guy who had time for a violent crime. He has this emotional depth in him. But then, with the mother, she adapted in many ways to the stereotypes of Asian mothers, I thought. She is very critical. She demands. She takes care of the bill. It can be brutal at times. Is it fair of me to say that you went against the guy more for the father character or for boogie, but not so much for the mother character?
HUANG: I would ask you to look at it outside of the spectrum of stereotypes because I see a lot more Asian Asian cinema like East Asian cinema than I see Asian American cinema. You know, in a lot of Taiwanese films or Chinese fifth wave films, the mothers and women are more repressed and they mustn’t be so angry. In my opinion, I felt like Ms. Chin – she’s kind of the head of this family, and she can speak up and take control. I mean, they approach his career and life the way Mrs. Chin made the blueprint for them.
CHANG: Interesting. OK, that’s fair. Now I want to move on to how you put Asian American experiences next to Black American experiences in this film – I mean, not just side by side, but you also show how they blend together. There’s this one scene where Boogie gets into this heated conversation with his girlfriend Eleanor, who is Black. She is played by Taylour Paige. And they start to compare the weight they each feel on their shoulders.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “BOOGIE”)
TAYLOR TAKAHASHI: (as Alfred “Boogie” Chin) You don’t understand. Your parents can’t get over your head that they sacrificed everything to give you this opportunity in America.
TAYLOUR PAIGE: (as Eleanor) OK, not exactly the same, but you know how [expletive] was it hard for me to find out where I came from? My story was [expletive] torn from me. I was cut off from my ancestors.
CHANG: What did you want to say in this film about how Asian American experiences mix or sometimes ricochet off black American experiences?
HUANG: Yeah. Well, the way I approached this scene was very tripartite. # 1, I wanted black and Asian and immigrant-only viewers in general to see how much we have in common and how much common struggle we have in this country.
CHANG: Wait. But should we at all compare the struggle of the Asian immigrants with the struggle of the black Americans? Asians have never been enslaved in this country.
HUANG: Well, I don’t think I’m comparing. I just put them in the same room. The second was to give Eleanor room to stretch out and have this conversation about the struggle because I think that black Americans had the conversation and should lead the conversation and that Asian Americans, because of the work that African Americans have done, often have rooms. And the third is that we should bow to the work of black Americans and the spaces they created and the things they fought for, like the Civil Rights Act.
CHANG: Well, this film is a festival of black culture as well as a festival of Asian culture. It’s very obvious. Boogie’s arch-rival is this Brooklyn basketball player named Monk, played by the late rapper Pop Smoke, whose music basically introduced the world to Brooklyn Drill. Can you talk about it Why did you make Brooklyn Drill so prominent in this movie?
HUANG: Well, originally I wanted to use Raekwon “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx …” a lot, a classic hip-hop album from the golden era. But I met Pop Smoke and there was no denying that Pop was creating a new sound that defined New York in ways that hadn’t happened in 15 years. When I saw this, I just took it and said this was now a Brooklyn drill movie.
CHANG: Well, I want to talk about how you assumed it because while this film is a story about an Asian American and his family, it’s a film that is so steeped in black culture. And I imagine that there is a risk that you, as a creator who is not black, will be criticized for appropriating black culture. Do you think about it
HUANG: I mean, I don’t know how to part with the black culture that influenced and inspired me. And I’m just as honest and sincere as I can get, and it’s up to people to believe it or not. And if one day my work with black culture offends the black community and they no longer want me to participate, I would like to resign – knock on wood. I don’t think that day will ever happen because I’m being honest, and my experience in America really – was seen through the black lens. You know how all the culture I took in (ph) was black culture. And the friends I bonded with – they were either black or, like me, they had grown up in black culture because they couldn’t relate to the dominant culture.
CHANG: Eddie Huang. His new film is called “Boogie”. Thank you for this really thoughtful conversation.
HUANG: Thank you, Ailsa. It was much fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “AP”)
POP SMOKE: (knocking) AP, sharp – I cracked a check in my Nikes. Am i a killer Could be – two-tone, icy, AP, sharp. I cracked a check in my Nikes. Am i a killer Could be – two-tone, icy. Talk to me nicely, talk nicely to me, or don’t talk at all, or don’t talk at all. I call and it’s war. I’m calling. I’m off this Adderall. I’m off this Adderall. Talk to me nicely, talk nicely to me, or don’t talk at all, or don’t talk at all.
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