How two filmmakers are making sense of their own Black and Asian experiences through art
ROCK PAPER RADIO is a dispatch for misfits & unlikely optimists by your favorite hapa haole, beet-pickling, public radio nerd. It’s a weekly email newsletter that shares three curiosities every Thursday - something to hold on to (that’s the ‘rock’), something to read (that’s the ‘paper‘), and something to listen to (you guessed it, that’s the ‘radio’). Themes include but are not limited to: rebel violinists, immortal jellyfish, revolution. Thanks for subscribing and spreading the word.
This essay is part of #AZNxBLM, a collection of solidarity-inspired projects by ROCK PAPER RADIO and The Slants Foundation. The best way to follow along and to be the first to know when new projects drop is to join us on Instagram @rockpaperradio, and to keep an eye on our website here. Here’s our project’s mission:
#AZNxBLM is calling for solidarity and collaboration between members and allies of our Asian community and the Black Lives Matter movement. We are pro-community and anti-racist. We believe in the power of art and the insights of outsiders. We are cautiously but fiercely optimistic.
At first glance, Kelly Chen and Lorraine Wheat seem like an unlikely pair. Kelly, who is Chinese American and from Arcadia, California, describes her hometown as a largely Asian suburb where race wasn’t really discussed.
And Lorraine, who is Black, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida and Louisville, Kentucky in mostly-White academic spaces. When Lorraine started attending the University of Florida, she joined the diversity council on campus, serving on the leadership boards of both Vietnamese and African student organizations.
“I was always interested in unifying groups together,” Lorraine says.
When Kelly and Lorraine first met during a USC sound design class, Kelly was a sophomore studying classical piano and cinematic music production, and Lorraine was in the last semester of her MFA as a graduate student at the School of Cinematic Arts. The two were placed in a group project building out the soundscape for a lone soldier’s war scenario.
This was just before the pandemic lockdown went into effect in California. At the time, Lorraine was finishing up a short film called Searching for Justice in LA about a Black and Asian interracial relationship, and Kelly quickly jumped in to help with the composition and sound design.
They grew a strong friendship even after their sound design class, drawn to one another’s passion for uplifting underrepresented stories. Through the years, they leaned on one another when they took a stand against the administrations in their respective majors. Kelly, as a member of the Thornton School of Music’s Student Council, challenged norms around repertoires that never included Black or Asian composers. Lorraine wrote an article for Variety vocalizing student demands for the School of Cinematic Arts to acknowledge John Wayne's racist legacy and remove an on-campus exhibit.
Then, when the racial justice protests roiled the nation following the murder of George Floyd, Kelly and Lorraine turned to one another for support.
“I called Lorraine one night, so upset about the bystanding Asian American officer Tou Thao. I didn’t want him to represent my community,” says Kelly. “I was also living at home with my parents, and felt helpless not being able to join the racial justice protests.”
Lorraine shared Kelly’s fears. “We both had concerns about COVID-19 risks while in intergenerational households. So we started strategizing instead about how we could tell stories from home, which led to interviews with prominent civil rights activists.”
Inspiration struck when they met Haewon Asfaw, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Asfaw is biracial—half-Korean and half-Black, and Kelly and Lorraine were immediately compelled by her ability to understand the racial wedges that have historically divided Black and Asian communities in Los Angeles. Asfaw asked the pair questions that got them thinking: What set them apart? How were they different from other activist organizations?
“It just clicked for us!” Kelly exclaims. “We are filmmakers—that’s what we do best. We’re going to do our activist work through our films.”
And so, Cinema Latte Productions was born. Through their production company, Kelly and Lorraine were determined to tell human-driven dramas and romances, overseeing the creation of multimedia stories from development to post-production.
Cinema Latte’s first short film, Unspoken Vows, came from a script that Lorraine wrote during weekends off from her day job as a research assistant for television network police crime drama series. Unspoken Vows features an interracial engaged couple—James, a Chinese American man, and Daesha, an African American woman—navigating the aftermath of a police killing.
James moves to Daesha’s neighborhood during high school. It is years later, after they get engaged, that James’s Latino patrol partner shoots a Black teenager on-duty and the two must confront their racial disparities.
“Just like what happened to many of us with the protests last year, they’re living life normally. Then something blows up, and they’re forced to address race,” Lorraine says.
Kelly and Lorraine were intentional about subverting stereotypes and drew from their personal experiences during character development: James is an Asian American police officer from a fifth-generation law enforcement family who grew up in Compton, and Daesha is a Black woman from a wealthy Los Angeles suburb, comfortable with her proximity to Whiteness.
“I was so tired of the Asian always being a sidekick or a nerd with a weird accent. I wanted to show an Asian American as a full human being onscreen,” says Kelly.
Kelly interviewed her relative, who is a police officer, to get his perspective on James’s character. She also incorporated her own cultural and generational conflicts with her parents. As recent immigrant transplants, she says they have been skeptical about her outspokenness on American social justice issues.
Lorraine, while creating Daesha’s character, recalled childhood memories of not quite fitting in with White kids during the school year. “I decided to put all of my childhood experiences on Daesha,” Lorraine says.
In addition, James’s father unconditionally accepts Daesha as a daughter-in-law, removing portrayals of the anti-Blackness that Kelly has noticed in her Asian American community. The filmmakers agreed to focus on the racism the couple faces from the outside world, instead of emphasizing the internal, familial tensions that sometimes complicate interracial relationships. By concentrating on external bias, they aimed to let all the joy and turbulence of Daesha and James’s love story take center stage.
To make the trailer, Kelly and Lorraine had to get scrappy. They found a co-writer, applied to grants through USC, and self-financed half the project with their own savings. They pulled together manpower from both their networks, and some industry friends agreed to work for free. A week before the shoot, key members of the initial team left the project—the budget restricted the director’s vision, and the cinematographer and lead actors landed other gigs last-minute. Kelly called Lorraine panicking during the middle of her class. Lorraine, who had managed similar situations before, reassured Kelly that no matter what, they’d be able to make it work.
In the end, they were able to assemble a team that believed in their vision and successfully wrap up a two-day shoot. Their trailer for Unspoken Vows is now complete—and Cinema Latte Productions is well on their way to reaching their fundraising goal on Indiegogo. Next, Kelly and Lorraine are planning on expanding the piece to a 15-minute short film that they can submit to film festivals and develop into a TV series.
Lorraine says that they want to keep telling stories that are outside the mainstream. “Activism through storytelling matters. People on social media have been responding to our trailer, saying, we need to see this. We need stories to uplift us and capture what’s happening right now.” Long term, what they envision for Cinema Latte Productions is a full-fledged multimedia production company that not only develops films, but also provides cultural consultancy to other companies and filmmakers.
During the pandemic year’s racial reckoning and the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes, what keeps the two of them going is their relentless drive to unpack difficult racial conversations through film. The only way forward, they believe, is to wade into dangerous waters. By encasing these everyday stories in love, they hope their exploration of humanity will lead to true empathy and understanding between people of color.
“We are influenced by Black and Asian artists and activists who championed solidarity before us. Yuri Kochiyama’s deep friendship with Malcolm X, and Bruce Lee’s activism through cinema to incorporate people of color in his films grounds us and inspires us,” says Lorraine. “Bruce Lee was one of the reasons why Black Americans started practicing martial arts. We have a legacy where Black people and Asians have always been coming together to create art, and we want to honor that.”
Iris (Yi Youn) Kim is a freelance writer based out of Los Angeles who covers Asian American identity, politics, and culture.