A-Town Boyz is a documentary that everyone needs to get on their radar. The film, directed by Eunice Lau, focuses on several young second-generation Asian men living in Atlanta and their struggle to live productively amid a lack of opportunities, understanding, and role models. These young men were led to the allure of gang life, which provided the protection and sense of identity these men were desperately searching for throughout their lives.
I was able to interview Lau via email about the film, her support from Spike Lee as an executive producer, and what she found to be most surprising from filming the documentary. Lau’s comments also feature input from her producer Grace Jung.
You can learn more about A-Town Boyz by visiting the film’s website, and you can help fund the release of A-Town Boyz by contributing to the film’s donation page or Tilt page. A-Town Boyz is aiming for release early this year.
What prompted the idea for A-Town Boyz?
Eunice Lau: I got to know an Asian American actress from Atlanta in a short film I directed back in Year 2010. We started hanging out after the shoot and she told me stories about the AAPI gang culture she grew up with and the struggle her parents went through to make a new life here in America. I was so fascinated by the story and told her that it should become a film. Through her, I gained access to the leader of the crew, Eugene Chung, who agreed to be interviewed. We took a camera down to Georgia in late 2011 and that’s when the journey began.
The documentary focuses on second-generation Asian men who are lured into gang culture due to various pressures, including racial stereotypes and racism in general. Why do you think this subject matter is something Americans should take a look at?
Eunice Lau: Over the years we learned that various motivations are behind young Asian American men joining gangs, but a common thread running through them is stories of being bullied and taunted in schools and their neighborhoods because of the way they look and the stereotypes about their race. Being in a gang among other Asian American boys and men gave them a sense of protection and power. Older gang members became roles model for them. That points to a bigger picture. The lack of Asian-American role models in our American culture, the lack of representation in the media—all of these things are part of the problem. And the lack of resources and intervention in schools to deal with bullying and helping second-generation minority kids fit in.
As a country, we need to look at how invisibility and marginalization can lead to problems such as this, especially because mainstream American doesn’t care to know or discuss it in the first place. We hope the film will generate the discussions and ideas we need so badly as a community, as a country right now.
America is very much in bed with the “Model Minority” myth, especially when it’s used uplift white supremacy. This documentary seems to be taking that myth head on and showing that it is just that -a myth. However, there will be those out there who will still cling to the “Model Minority” myth. In what way do you hope that A-Town Boyz can finally break through that stereotype?
Grace Jung: The “model minority myth” and the label “model minority” applied to Asian Americans is a serious problem. They are used with the agenda to pit racial groups against each other and hurt the policies of other minority groups such as black and Latino Americans who are not labeled the “model minority.” Using Asian immigrants’ success stories to reduce Asian and Pacific Islanders’ images as smart, silent, hardworking people who find the American Dream so easily attainable is an old and manipulative image that is used as a tool to hurt other communities.
The subjects of our film are not just Korean-American or Chinese-American. They are Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Taiwanese. We also have footage of refugees from Bhutan and Burma who live in Atlanta. Georgia is teeming with Asian immigrants from around the globe, and depending on their individual life’s situation, story, and circumstances (e.g. fleeing a war torn country, living in poverty, living with disabilities, living without credit or documentation), that American story will vary from the very reductive image of AAPIs as a “model minority.” This is a dangerous concept and we definitely want to address it by showing it on film.
A-Town Boyz is described as a story about identity or searching for identity. What do you think the documentary adds to America’s discussions of racial and social identity?
Grace Jung: America is a great place to discuss racial and social identity. We have the freedom to do so, and the diversity to do so. But it’s very telling from the examples we have in mainstream media, e.g. TV, movies, that the diversity we live with in this country is not shown enough. Asian Americans especially do not have enough representation on screen. This definitely affects our American culture’s social thinking. It can be damaging to Asian Americans and it can be used as a weapon by non-Asians to bully AAPIs.
The young men in our film discuss the evolution of their identity as an Asian man growing up in Atlanta. They see themselves as Americans and as Asians. They see themselves as sons of immigrants and as sons of forefathers in the US. We want the rest of America to recognize them for that, too.
How did Spike Lee come onto the project? What’s it like to have his support?
Eunice Lau: As an MFA candidate at NYU Tisch Film Graduate Program, I applied for a film fellowship that Spike Lee gives out each year and I was among the fortunate few who won it. The fellowship came with a grant that provided this production with a small but very necessary seed fund to begin filming in Atlanta three years ago. We ran out of the grant a while back, and now this crowd-funding campaign will help us pay for editing the film and bringing it to viewers, hopefully, sometime this year. During this process of making the film and re-writing it in the edit suite, Spike Lee has been my beacon of light in staying true to my story. Spike Lee is not just a great filmmaker, he is a very inspirational teacher and role model. His teaching and fellowship has helped many NYU Tisch productions over the years.
Out of all of the stories you uncovered in the documentary, which one was the most surprising to you?
Eunice Lau: All the stories we uncovered surprise me, but the biggest one is the fact that Georgia is home to so many Asian Americans. The Asian American population has grown so exponentially over the past two decades partly because of the attraction of Atlanta as a city that affords a good quality of life, and partly due to the huge refugee population. Clarkston city in DeKalb County houses the country’s largest refugee resettlement program.
Eunice Lau: We hope that audiences will recognize Asian Americans as fellow Americans in this country. Their work, contributions and stories are part of the social fabric in this country. Their stories, faces and backgrounds are diverse. They cannot be reduced because they are people. Each person is very complex because he/she is a person. We’d like our audiences to recognize this.
Do you have other documentary ideas we can look forward to viewing in the future?
Eunice Lau: I have a natural propensity toward telling meaningful stories about marginalized people and communities, and giving voice to the voiceless. Being a female filmmaker, I also strive to look at the world through the eyes of women, just like I did in my previous documentary “Through the Fire” which attempts to understand the conflict in Somalia through the eyes of three women. I hope to return to Somaliland to make a documentary in the pipeline later this year.