If any one person’s life could tell the story of the last fifty years in Asian American and civil rights history in the Bay Area, it could be Richard Aoki’s.
Best known for his leadership role as Field Marshal with the Black Panther Party in the 1960s (he helped hammer out their 10-point platform, he liked to tell people) and his involvement in the Third World Liberation Front strike in 1969 at UC Berkeley that led to the formation of the Ethnic Studies department, Aoki assumed almost legendary status in some Asian American circles before his death from complications related to kidney failure and diabetes in March at age 71. Now, a film about his political activism will premiere tonight at 8:00 at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland.
“A lot of time with elders and OGs who have a ‘name,’ people look at them as larger-than-life characters,” said one of the filmmakers, Mike Cheng, at an interview on Tuesday over burritos ad soft drinks. “Particularly when he speaks in public, Richard oftentimes can be pretty proper and formal. Capturing his sense of humor when he’s more relaxed and candid… I think we were able to get that,” said the 28-year-old, who has a shaved head, works for a software company, and has dedicated evenings and weekends over the last five years to filming and editing Aoki with his co-producer, Ben Wang, a tall, thin, 27-year-old grant writer who works for a nonprofit.
The two met as undergraduate students at UC Davis while taking Asian American Studies classes and working together in Third World Forum, a campus-based group that since the 1970s has organized student support for leftist, anti-imperial and anti-colonial political movements. In 2002, Wang re-started the group’s newspaper, which began publication thirty years earlier but had been shut down by the university at some point, Cheng said.
“That’s actually how we ended up meeting Richard,” Cheng said. “Ben set up an interview with him for the paper.”
Wang invited Cheng to accompany him to the interview with Aoki at a Berkeley cafe. “We probably talked for three or four hours,” Wang recalled. “It was pretty powerful, as young college students trying to get involved in different issues, to hear all of Richard’s stories. Not only the ‘60s and ‘70s, but his active involvement in the Panthers, the Third World Strike. Also his continued dedication and radical perspective on current issues—the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was just really refreshing to hear that kind of perspective from an elder like Richard.”
Cheng nodded. “It just blew me away that Asian Americans were even involved in the more militant Black Power and Yellow Power movements. You know, I was never taught that in school,” he said.
During that interview at the cafe, the filmmakers said, Aoki criticized many movies and documentaries about the Black Panther Party as being inaccurate or not capturing “the essence of what the movement was really about.” In response, Cheng asked Aoki if the two could make a documentary about his life.
Aoki’s life does seem to be feature film material. A third-generation Japanese American, he was born in 1938 in San Leandro. After a forced three-year stay at an internment camp in Utah during World War II, Aoki’s family moved to West Oakland. Growing up in an almost exclusively black neighborhood as “the toughest Oriental of West Oakland,” as Aoki would quip, he studied martial arts and became friends with the families of Huey Newton, who later would become a founder of the Black Panther Party, and David Hilliard, another well-known Panther member.
Years later, following an eight-year stint in the US Army, Aoki attended Merritt College and became closer friends with his longtime acquaintance, Newton, as well as soon-to-be Panther Party co-founder, Bobby Seale. The young veteran, who had by the end of his military service began questioning US involvement in the Vietnam War, became involved in a Berkeley anti-war organization, the Vietnam Day Committee and helped to plan marches on Washington, D.C. He was invited to join the Black Panther Party early in its inception.
Back in those early days, Aoki said, the main focus of the new organization was to protect African American neighborhoods from police brutality, which the Party declared was rampant in Oakland. They started small; at one point, Aoki recalled, he himself was the entire Berkeley chapter. It wasn’t until a few years later, after a police shooting in nearby Richmond, that the organization’s membership skyrocketed, he said.
In 1966, Aoki transferred from Merritt to UC Berkeley, where he joined a group that helped coin the term “Asian American” (to replace “Oriental”) and demanded the university create classes for and about underrepresented communities of color. He helped lead a student strike that lasted a full semester and ultimately led to the creation of Ethnic Studies at the university. Aoki then became the first coordinator of the newly-formed Asian American Studies program.
But back in 2002, Aoki wasn’t sold on the idea of a documentary about his life. He had declined other offers from filmmakers, Cheng said. “At the time he didn’t really know us, so he didn’t really have much of a response. Over time though, after that first meeting—he stayed in touch,” Cheng said. “He would invite us to events in the Bay Area, he’d introduce us to people and to groups. He really kind of took us under his wing.”
Then one day, a few months later, Aoki called. “He said, ‘Remember when you asked if you could do a documentary?’” Cheng said, smiling. “I had forgotten. He was like, ‘I thought about it, and if there are people out there who could learn from my experiences, then I’d like to be able to put that out there.’ So at that point, it was kind of like, OK. We’ve got to learn how to make a documentary.”
Aoki, the filmmakers said, expected the process would take about a month. “He basically gave us a bunch of old videotapes of speeches he’s done at rallies, and political meetings…and was kinda like, ‘Yeah, just go ahead and whip this all together,’” Cheng recalled.
Instead, what ensued was two years of interviewing Aoki’s friends, former Panthers, including Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver, as well as Aoki’s biographer, Diane Fujino, a UC Santa Barbara professor of Asian American studies. Then Wang and Cheng spent three years editing the film, learning as they went.
The result, today, is a 94-minute “political biography” that is a far cry from the “60-minute music video” with “flashy cuts” and a hip hop soundtrack that Wang says the two thought they would make initially. Cheng nodded as Wang continued, looking a little self-conscious. “We were pretty young. When we started out we wanted it to be a badass, real-life action movie, kinda sensational. But we wanted to tell so many stories. Every phase of Richard’s life—we wanted to go even deeper into it than we did.”
Ultimately, Cheng and Wang say, it wasn’t the dramatic moments of confrontation that characterized Richard’s life and politics. Long after the black beret-wearing and rifle-slinging days, when he and fellow Black Panther Party members would read the Second Amendment to Oakland police during neighborhood showdowns, Aoki worked as a professor and counselor in the Peralta Community College district, trying to help low-income students of color succeed in school. But, the directors of Aoki say, he remained true to his political vision.
“The theme of his life and the film is consistency and dedication,” Cheng said. “He would support any cause if he thought it was principled, go to any event, big or small. Just months before he passed he was still going to meetings to free political prisoners. A lot of elders don’t go to meetings. They’re just like, ‘We’re the elders.’”
Aoki spent his last years caring for his mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and died months before his own death. He enjoyed the company of his many friends, and watched sports and war movies (“He was really into military history and strategy,” Cheng said) in addition to such active work as support of the US Army conscientious objector Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to deploy to Iraq in 2006. In May 2008, when Aoki’s health appeared shaky, the filmmakers decided to hold a special screening so Aoki could see their progress. “He really liked it,” Cheng said, looking pleased. “Whatever ends up happening with the film, the fact that he liked it is pretty much all the validation I need.”
Many of Aoki’s friends and community are expected to be present at the premiere tonight, and the directors will take questions from the audience.