Documentary Reveals Oakland Man's Strange Civil Rights Fight

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A documentary about a Japanese-American member of the Black Panther Party plays in the 2010 Asian-American Film Festival.

    This week at the Asian-American Film Festival in San Francisco, an unusual film tells a life story that crossed color lines.

    In 1966, spurred on by a tempest of racial struggle across the U.S., The Black Panther Party sprouted in Oakland. The group resolved to fight peacefully -- or otherwise -- to win power for African-Americans. "Black Power" was its creed.

    Richard Aoki wasn't black but Japanese. But he learned early on that the ladder of success denied more than a few rungs for people of color.

    "He grew up in a concentration camp during World War Two," said filmmaker Ben Wang, whose 94-minute documentary film "Aoki" opened in the Bay Area this week. It plays Wednesday night at San Francisco's Sundance Theater.

    Aoki's family moved to Oakland after World War Two, and Aoki dove into social issues. He counted among his friends Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton.

    When the pair went on to found the Black Panthers, they took Aoki along. "When Huey and Bobby wrote the program to start the Black Panther party, Richard was one of the people they consulted," said Wang.

    Wang and Mike Cheng were college students six years ago when they first learned of Aoki. The men were writing a story on Asian issues for their college newspaper at UC Davis. After interviewing Aoki, they realized his story deserved more than a few inches in a college paper. They traded in their college journalist hats and became filmmakers.

    Over five years, they interviewed Aoki, spoke to original Black Panthers, and cobbled together a documentary film showing the life of the Japanese civil-rights fighter.  

    "Meeting Richard, it was definitely eye opening to be able to hear first-hand experiences on all these types of social issues we were interested in," said Wang.

    The film chronicles Aoki's rise through the ranks of the Black Panthers. He told the pair, he became a field marshal in the party and supplied it with its first weapons.

    Aoki told them he was surprised when Newton first asked him to join the Black Panthers: "Richard says I'm not black, this is the Black Panther party -- unless you're colorblind," said Wang. " But Huey's response was for him -- the struggle for freedom, justice and equality transcends racial and ethnic boundaries."

    Aoki watched a rough cut of the film just before he died on March 15, 2009. Cheng visited him in the hospital the week he passed away.

    "The Oscar Grant protests and all those meetings were going in full swing," said Cheng. "Richard was in the hospital -- every time I saw him he was trying to get the updates, trying to find out what was going on."

    The pair see the documentary as a bridge between cultures and generations – the same themes Aoki's lived by.

    "His life was about discipline and consistency, commitment to solidarity with different communities of color," said Cheng.