Documentary on wrongly jailed Korean immigrant mines buried history

KW Lee, a pioneering Asian-American journalist, helped free Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee in 1978 with a series of investigative news articles.

But he never expected to outlive Chol Soo, who had become like a son to him. At his funeral in 2014, KW Lee delivered a raw, aching eulogy that was also an angry call to action, said Julie Ha, a journalist who was in the crowd that day and one of the creators of a new documentary, Free Chol Soo Lee.”

Ignoring the podium, the aging journalist faced the crowd of activists, officials and community organizers who had gathered at a Buddhist temple in San Bruno to commemorate Chol Soo, who died at the age of 62. He held the microphone in one hand and a Buddhist monk’s walking stick in the other. He hit the air with it while speaking in a cracked and hoarse voice.

“He wanted to know why the Chol Soo story was still underground after all these years,” Ha said. “Why this story of a pioneering pan-Asian American social justice movement was all but forgotten.”

There was a heaviness in the room that transcended sadness, Ha said. That day she began work on Free Chol Soo Lee, a documentary that would take up the next seven years of her life.

Co-directed by Eugene Li, the documentary tells the story of Chol Soo, his immigration at age 12, his early years in San Francisco, his wrongful imprisonment for the 1973 murder of a Chinatown gang member, and his later struggles with addiction and Addiction Mental Health.

It’s a masterful reporting of a story that, while receiving national attention at the time, has largely been forgotten.

At the time, coverage of Chol Soo’s case in this newspaper and elsewhere tended to single out J. Tony Serra, an eccentric former civil rights attorney who took over his case. A Los Angeles Times story called Serra a “true believer,” a phrase that later became the title of a 1989 film dramatizing the events of Chol Soo’s exoneration.

Last week I saw True Believer for the first time. I thought it was a candid, idealistic film full of charismatic rants about racism and a flawed criminal justice system.

A charitable take on the film might argue that Serra is an interesting character, and casting James Woods and Robert Downey Jr. as true heroes and Asian Americans as silent observers might have helped give the film wider exposure. It should be noted that although the film came out after Chol Soo was released in 1983, the film’s existence probably drew positive attention to the case, which helped Chol Soo’s cause.

But all too often, Hollywood obscures the story in this way, intentionally or not. A white-dominated industry took an Asian-American story, cut out the Asians, and made two white heroes, each making millions of dollars in the process.

Ranko Yamada, one of Chol Soo’s earliest supporters and organizer of his defense committee, called it “so clean”.

“That’s what the public wants to hear. That’s pretty much a clean story,” Yamada said. “You don’t walk away because you feel bad about something or because you know a whole people are going through that kind of treatment. That wasn’t our film.”

The film paints an easily condemned caricature of white racism. The villains are clearly marked with giant red Nazi flags, members of the murderous, anti-Semitic Aryan Brotherhood. And that decision, whether intentional or not, diverts focus from the real, widespread, and systemic racism that defined Chol Soo’s case.

A key flaw in Chol Soo’s prosecution was that the San Francisco police lacked the language skills to interview most witnesses at the scene — a crowded Chinatown intersection — because no police officer could speak Chinese.

A white detective with no Chinatown contacts identified three white men as key witnesses. And although it is later shown that these men were unable to tell the difference between different types of Asians, their testimony lands Chol Soo in prison for life.

The Hollywood version circumvents these difficult racial discussions by changing the killer’s race to a non-Asian person. Chol Soo is portrayed as a man grateful to his lawyers but dissatisfied with the support of his community. KW Lee, whose persistent reporting on the case drew national attention, was disfellowshipped entirely.

I think the film is a textbook example of how Hollywood obfuscates history. There are no violent neo-Nazis with obvious, visible swastika tattoos setting fire to historical archives while shouting racial slurs. Systemic racism more often makes it look like normal people make choices that seem convenient, practical, and profitable.

So Free Chol Soo Lee is more than a documentary. It is an act of historical restoration. It skips simpler narratives in favor of the hard work of telling a true, complicated story. And through this lackluster, selfless work, history is being restored.

A few weeks ago, Ha watched the film with KW Lee, who has been her mentor in journalism since she was 18. After the credits rolled, he turned to her and thanked her.

“Now I feel like Chol Soo Lee is finally truly free,” he said.

All Asian Americans should learn the story of Chol Soo. It pisses me off that we forgot it because it’s full of things this community is still looking for today.

Chol Soo Lee was no ordinary civil rights activist. He was a convict who killed an inmate, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. He was a drug addict who continued to struggle with drugs after his exoneration. He was a man created by the system and destroyed by it.

But he never forgot his humanity or the unfairness of his situation. In his prison memoir Freedom Without Justice, he questions his belief in the “purity and grandeur of justice in America.”

“How can we mistakenly believe something when the opposite reality is written in large letters right before our eyes?” he writes of his experiences in the criminal justice system. “No matter how painfully this reality hurts us, we have our reasons for refusing to see it clearly.”

And he was embraced by an Asian-American community that overlooked his missteps. He persuaded conservative, church-loving Korean-American immigrants and pot-smoking activists alike to show solidarity with the detainees. Supporters wrote him letters and visited him in prison when even Chol Soo’s own mother was convinced of his guilt. Some students – including a young Jeff Adachi, the late San Francisco public defender – recorded a protest song about his plight and tried to get it on the radio.

Yamada even convinced her parents to put up her house as collateral for Chol Soo’s bail. They threw him a party when he got out of jail.

Yamada hopes people will remember this radical care and love between Chol Soo and his community more than anything else.

“I just hope that people learn not to be quick to judge and take a closer look. Not being so suspicious and paranoid and closed off. To see that great things can be achieved by expanding a little,” Yamada said.

“Asian American” was just the term in use around the time of Chol Soo’s case. But Asian Americans across the country didn’t need a perfectly defined term to care about Chol Soo.

And that caring has created her own legacy. The organizers of Chol Soo’s defense later set up service centers and legal aid funds that help immigrants in similar situations today.

Adachi’s early involvement in the case inspired his legal career and later work as a public defender. And the same was true of Mike Suzuki, who currently works as a department head in the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office.

“I think about Chol Soo every day,” Suzuki said. “I just miss him. I wouldn’t have anything I’ve gotten in the last 36 years if it wasn’t for Chol Soo.”

Why do we remember Vincent Chin, the Chinese American who was killed by two Detroit auto workers, but not Chol Soo Lee? Is it because Vincent died and Chol Soo lived and one story was easier to tell than the other?

“Sometimes we just need to look carefully in the mirror,” Ha said. “Sometimes we believe in our own flagship minority myth. Why did we choose not to talk about this movement, which is arguably the first of its kind?” Documentary on wrongly jailed Korean immigrant mines buried history

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