On March 16, 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot in the head and killed by a Korean store-owner, Soon Ja Du, over a bottle of orange juice. Du served no time for the killing, and the city soon ignited in what would become the Los Angeles Riots. Yet, many outside of the Los Angeles black community, didn’t know about Harlins back then, instead attributing the riots solely to the police beating of Rodney King. Harlins’ story is now receiving widespread attention in the wake of Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin. She was just a girl.
It’s as if her soul is reimagined in Justin Chon’s feature film, “Gook,” a warm, painful portrait of the ways that people’s lives intersect across cultural divides. In the early 1990’s, brothers Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So) run a hole-in-the- wall shoe store in South Los Angeles, serving a mostly-black clientele. The brothers hesitantly employ a young black girl, Kamilla (Simone Baker), and the three form an unlikely bond which is threatened by the Rodney King verdict. Finished in muted black and white tones, the film, which premiered at Sundance, is about a city on the verge of an explosion, and the moments of humanity, fun, and ugliness preceding it. A wide shot of Eli and Kamilla sitting atop a roof as dark streams of smoke rise into the sky foreshadow the destruction to come.
The shoe store becomes a symbol of these tensions. Inside, black women slip their feet into cheap heels and buy pairs in bulk, but there’s also mistrust, and worries of being exploited and ripped off by the store-owners. The shoe store is also an extension of an underground economy that Latinos, Blacks, and Asians participate in collectively. Kamilla observes it all, helping out and ditching school in order to feel a part of a family, while her own is reeling from a tragedy that becomes clearer as the film draws on.
In one scene, Kamila enters a liquor store and buys some items from an irritable Korean store owner, Mr. Kim. I shuddered when he threatens to kill if she steals anything, thinking of Harlins. However, the store-owner doesn’t inflict any violence on Kamilla, instead getting into a shouting match with Eli, who protects her. It’s an intergenerational, racial conflict fused with surprising humor and pathos, which doesn’t justify the racism of this character, but rather attaches it to a human being, for better or worse.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Chon’s film is that he doesn’t stop at the anger that consumed so many people during this time. Here, the anger is beset by some kind of pain, trauma, or bitterness rooted in a past that has yet to be reckoned with. Mr. Kim becomes a person with a storied history, as does Kamila’s older brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.), who plans to loot the shoe store. Meanwhile, Daniel, an aspiring R&B singer, records a sultry demo in a young black man’s closet studio shortly before the riots erupt.
Simone Baker shines in her role as Kamilla, a wayward soul lost in a city that cares little about her life. A black girl before the “magic.” She finds order, and peace in the shoe store. Her bold, carefree performance will remind some of a young Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. With her wild afro and a flower perched above her ear, she’s hope in a city without it. Chon also turns in a textured, tragic performance that leaves us wondering about his character’s life and trajectory beyond the film.
With the 25th anniversary of the LA Uprising, this film comes at a moment when the country seems almost as divided as it did in 1992. Chon ponders what happens when we actually talk to one another, and when we actually look at one another. What if Harlins had been seen as a person, as a black girl with a family, and a story. As an honor roll student who loved to dance and run track. In a distinct, indirect way, this film allows her that space; a light that shines even when it seems like everything else is crumbling.
“Gook” will be released by Samuel Goldwyn Films in August 2017.