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To 'Free Chol Soo Lee,' Asian Americans had to find their collective political voice

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

In California in the early 1970s, a 20-year-old Korean American was imprisoned for a murder he did not commit and ended up on death row. Chol Soo Lee's case rallied the West Coast Asian American community, and their spirited campaign became a pivotal moment in Asian American history. Their slogan, Free Chol Soo Lee, is also the title of a new documentary. Co-director Julie Ha joins us now. Hello. Hello.

JULIE HA: Hi. So wonderful to be with you.

SELYUKH: What drew you to Chol Soo Lee's story nearly 50 years later?

HA: Yeah. Well, it's funny because I actually never had any personal aspirations to make a film, but it did feel like this story was literally beckoning my co-director, Eugene Yi, and myself. We have long known of this story, but it really wasn't until the funeral of Chol Soo Lee where I think the seeds were planted to make a film about this case. I had attended that funeral in 2014, actually, to write an obituary for the Korean American magazine I was working for. So I attended the funeral. And while I was in that space, I felt, like, just this overwhelming emotion that seemed like it was something beyond grief.

You know, many of the activists who had come to Chol Soo's aid decades earlier were there. A couple of the activists expressed how they just regretted that he didn't have more happiness in his life and that maybe they didn't do enough for him. Another activist said that Chol Soo ended up doing more for them than they did for him because some of them were inspired, actually, into their careers that work toward social justice and the public good. But just feeling like this story absolutely beckoned us, and it was our generational responsibility to tell it and that we could not allow it to stay lost in history. It needed to be known and told anew.

SELYUKH: I mean, this case was really quite remarkable, and the support, the groundswell, that came together to help Lee appeal his conviction - what was the case, or perhaps some of the evidence that was eventually uncovered by his lawyers, that made the jury eventually declare Lee not guilty?

HA: He was convicted largely on the eyewitness testimony of three white tourists who saw, you know, the killer, and they identified a man who was between 5-6 and 5-10 who was clean cut. And when you look at Chol Soo Lee, he was a shorter man. He was, you know, about around 5-2, and he had a mustache. How could the police have picked up this person who doesn't even meet eyewitness descriptions of the actual killer? But then you - you know, you realize this happens all the time, unfortunately, in our country and that, you know, he was this poor Korean immigrant who didn't have the resources to hire his own defense attorney and have the type of defense that could have cleared this up. It's such a horrendous case.

SELYUKH: Can you talk a little bit about how this case mobilized Asian Americans politically?

HA: Yeah. I think what's really remarkable about this case is that it inspired a really interesting combination of Asian Americans who came together in unprecedented fashion. You had Korean immigrants, including, like, churchgoing grandmothers, who rallied to his cause working alongside third-generation Asian American radicals and college activists. They saw something in Chol Soo Lee and his story that touched them, I think, very personally.

SELYUKH: You have a scene where Lee is at a public event much later after this, and he goes off-script from his original speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CHOL SOO LEE")

CHOL SOO LEE: The prison is evil. It destroy every human dignity and humanity has in a person. It destroys you, destroys your spirit. It destroys your mind. And it has destroyed my - I'm trying to rebuild.

SELYUKH: Your film seems in part about prison and this case and in part about life after prison. Without giving the ending away, what do you think made it so hard for Chol Soo Lee to adjust to life after prison?

HA: Oh, I think there were so many factors. At that time, reentry wasn't even a term. And then in addition, you can see the dehumanization that occurs from that incarceration. With our film, we wanted to show sort of the full arc of his life, and you can see the demons that chased him that went even beyond that injustice, being a child of the Korean War and then coming to this country as an immigrant at age 12. And then add to that you become the symbol of a landmark Asian American movement, and you feel like you owe all of these people who came to your aid and dedicated six years of their lives to freeing you. How do you ever repay that? He had all of that, you know, to carry with him.

SELYUKH: How does the story connect to today's world? What do you want viewers today to walk away thinking?

HA: Well, as we're hearing about all this anti-AAPI violence that's been happening - gosh. I mean, so many of our parents are living in fear and not wanting to go out. Some people, I think, are surprised that this kind of racism exists against Asian Americans, and I think our film and our story helps show that you can actually connect the dots of this racism that has long existed in our history. It's just that so many people don't know about it. Our film team hopes that people will also see and take inspiration from just this movement and this spirit of resistance that Asian Americans led - that they could even stand up to the institutions of America and say, you did this wrong, and we are going to right this wrong. That's such a powerful statement and act, and I think it's definitely something we need to hear today.

SELYUKH: That's Julie Ha. She co-directed the documentary "Free Chol Soo Lee." It's out in select theaters beginning August 12. Thank you so much for being here, Julie.

HA: Thank you so much. It was so nice talking with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.