‘Gook’ director Justin Chon talks filmmaking, race and the Rodney King riots The film is set in a Korean-owned store on the day the verdict comes down in the police brutality case

So far, nothing has managed to unseat Get Out as my favorite film of the year. But Gook, the new movie written and directed by Twilight actor Justin Chon, is definitely a close second.

Shot in black and white, Gook takes place in and around a Paramount, California, shoe store run by two Korean brothers, Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So). Eli and Daniel have, in a sense, adopted an 11-year-old black girl named Kamilla (played with stunning control and depth by Simone Baker). Kamilla’s mother is dead, and she lives with her older sister and brother and works in the store with Eli and Daniel. The movie follows the characters on the day the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality case is announced.

Chon, 36, grew up in Irvine, California, and often worked in his father’s shoe store in Paramount. His father, Sang, a Korean immigrant, was a child actor in South Korea, and in Gook he plays Mr. Kim, the owner of a liquor store. Chon was heavily influenced by La Haine, a 1995 film that examines the aftermath of riots in the projects of Paris when an unarmed Arab man is shot and killed by French police.

Gook’s distributor recently decided to extend its theater run, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you still have a chance.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How did La Haine influence your thinking about Gook?

I really loved the ’90s era of filmmaking where if you could get access to a camera, it had that sort of Clerks way of making films where it was all much cheaper.

[La Haine] was about three friends who were from different ethnic backgrounds, and that just represented when I was hanging out at my dad’s store and would make neighborhood friends. I met this French guy, we were talking about film and he was like, ‘Have you ever watched La Haine?’ When you think of Paris or France, you just think of the tourist aspects and how they enjoy life and how their food is so amazing. And he’s like, ‘You know, you should watch it because it’ll change your kind of a perspective of like what else exists there.’ When I finally saw it, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is exactly like what happened here.’ Same s—, different place. I’m thinking these are American problems. But then I look at them and I identified so much with them being youthful and diverse and into things like break dancing.

When I started thinking about [Gook], I just started thinking about all the social dynamics, and that film just kept popping up in my head. There’s so many similarities. It just never left my psyche. My film constantly gets compared to Do the Right Thing, and I understand that. I was a huge fan of Spike Lee growing up, and that’s just in my blood now because I’ve seen his movies so many times, but it wasn’t exactly the main influence.

Was that a Silent Bob joke I spotted in your film? There’s a minor character who simply goes by “Silent.”

Here’s the thing: I knew, no matter what, I was going to get that comparison just because of how bootstrap the film was and how minimalistic it was and the type of humor that I’m into. I mean, Kevin Smith isn’t exactly my god or anything. I don’t look at his work and say, ‘You know, that’s like the end-all, be-all’ — not even close. Let’s be honest. I really love what he’s done, but, like, I just knew I was going to get that comparison because of the single location, these guys hanging out over the course of a day.

So I was just like, if they’re going to make that comparison, I’ll just give them a little nugget, a little Easter egg. It’s like, yeah, I know what you’re going to think. Even Mr. Kim, the first time you see him, I paint him as the exact thing you’ve seen in every movie like Menace II Society. This is what you are expecting from an L.A. riots film in ’92, right? I felt like my job as a filmmaker was to slowly peel the layers away and humanize them.

You present a full picture of the tensions that exist for Koreans in Southern California, not just with black people but with Latinos. Those attitudes vary a lot depending on generation.

Especially in modern cinema, there’s a fear of offending anyone. I’m totally with that — let’s respect people. I just didn’t want to shy away from everything. If I’m going to talk about this event, this uprising, I felt like it would be detrimental for me to candy-coat anything. At the time, blacks and Koreans were not getting along. But nobody was getting along. It’s always seen as a black and white issue, but then because I’m Korean, it becomes a Korean and black issue. What do I remember? It wasn’t like it was just a black and Korean issue either. It was everybody in this community just trying to make things work.

Within the Korean people I showed — we don’t get along, either! Intergenerationally, we have huge problems because they come from the old country and we all were born here. We have a different set of morality and ethics than they do. We’re Americans. I felt like I can be very nuanced about it, but in the early ’90s there was nothing nuanced. Everything was much more in your face in terms of, like, music, like, N.W.A. — there was nothing muted about that. So I just felt, if I’m going to talk about the riots, this film really needs to be raw rather than me trying to idealize anything.

Simone Baker as Kamilla in Gook.

Courtesy of Birthday Soup Films

It’s astonishing that you have a black girl at the center of a film whose name is an Asian slur. What made you want to tell this story through her eyes?

One of the main reasons was that if I’m going to make a film outside the system, I want to represent some of the most underrepresented demographics, which to me are Asian-American men and African-American females.

At first Kamilla was Kamal — it was a boy. And I just was, like, you know what, this is a good opportunity for me to balance it out. There’s a lot of testosterone in the film. I explore themes of masculinity and how it’s toxic to every community. The archaic idea of masculinity and what our parents taught — well, at least for fathers and sons — what they taught us about how to be men:

Defend yourself. Don’t let anyone take advantage of you. All those things, a false sense of protection and ego and all that stuff. But because of that I was like, man, you know, I just need some balance. And I knew that character was going to be the bridge between these two communities. There was a point in the rewrite I figured if I make her a little girl — you just treat little girls differently if you’re a man. You’re not going to be so rough with them. I realized quickly that [Daniel and Eli] would be more of themselves. They would let their guards down. They would treat her with more respect and more gently than they would with a boy. She’s so resilient and so positive, I just thought it was refreshing to see a girl like that.

It makes the end that much more gutting.

With Keith [Kamilla’s brother, played by Curtiss Cook Jr.], how he interacts with her — I don’t think he could ever hit her. I knew when she asked, ‘Tell me something good about Mom,’ if it was a boy, being an older brother, he could be like, ‘Just toughen up. It’s all good.’ But with a girl, you’re kind of forced to deal with it at some level.

Justin Chon (left) as Eli and Simone Baker as Kamilla in Gook.

Courtesy of Birthday Soup Films

You use her to draw out everyone’s emotions, like when Daniel and Eli are dancing in the store with her. The two of them are so protective of her, and it’s sweet.

Especially when Mr. Kim comes and slaps her. It’s just like, you can’t let that happen! Who’s going to think that’s OK? That’s an important moment because the audience — you’re going to decide right there. What is this going to be like? What kind of relationship is this? How do these communities come together and what is this all about? As soon as you see these brothers stick up for her, it’s like, yes, they’re doing what should be done. It doesn’t matter whether they want her to be at the store or not. The point is that should not happen and these two brothers need to be there for her and stick up for her rights as a human being.

Everyone in this film is complicated, and you don’t see the filmmaker’s ego.

The reason I’m an actor, the reason I’m interested in directing and writing, is all because of collaboration. I really believe in a group coming together. You can’t make a film by yourself. It’s impossible. I mean, you can, but it will take a long time and it probably won’t be interesting.

We’re talking about human beings. It’s such a complicated thing, and there’s so many things that make it so beautiful and unique. Ego, in singularity, in terms of storytelling — it doesn’t serve our collective human experience.

So, you know, when it comes to fully fleshed characters, I wrote them, but I can’t play — I’m not doing Nutty Professor. I’m hiring these people because they exemplify what I was envisioning, but at the end of the day, they are still the ones that are performing. When it comes to the characters, they feel real because I included them in the process. The one person I didn’t get that much rehearsal time with was Curtiss Cook Jr., who plays Keith. At first, I didn’t tell him anything about the role. But I sent him the script after I hung out with him and he was like, ‘OK, I love this, but I have concerns.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s talk about it.’

Curtiss is like, ‘How do you feel about how you’re portraying African-American men?’

The first thing I said was Eli and Keith are the same character. They both are orphaned. They both are trying to take care of younger siblings, both trying to make ends meet and struggling to make that happen. It’s just that they can’t see eye to eye and realize that they share some of the same pain.

Curtis was like, ‘OK, that’s fine. But you have to understand that everything I do as an African-American male, I’m representing. I just want to make sure that this is done correctly.’ So we had hours and hours and hours of conversations.

I wanted him to know I was going to make his character three-dimensional. He wasn’t going to be an angry black man.

Curtiss Cook Jr. as Keith in Gook.

Courtesy of Birthday Soup Films

I’m familiar with Cook from Naz & Maalik.

That’s why I hired him — I saw the movie. He’s so good in that. He’s just so honest, so present. He’s dynamic. When you watch and you’re like, ‘OK, here’s a human just being a human.’ This guy, even if he’s aggressive in this film, he can bring the humanity and sensitivity that I needed.

What do you remember about Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old girl who was shot and killed in 1991 by a Korean shop owner who suspected her of stealing? What were the discussions of that like with your parents, within your community?

I was 11 when that happened. The thing about Korean culture is we just don’t talk about current issues. We don’t talk about trauma or problems. That was one of the difficulties making this film. Mr. Kim is my dad. And he didn’t want to do the film. He didn’t understand. He’s like, ‘Why do you want to go back to that?’ We’re so used to not talking about even family issues. We don’t have family meetings or, like, discussions. It’s just like, let’s move on. The Korean War is bad, but we don’t talk about it, so let’s move on. It happened. It doesn’t help us to revisit that. It’s a difference in cultures. So as an 11-year-old, no one was talking about that. But what I do know, though, is a lot of Koreans were angry at that verdict. Why? Because it made everyone’s life 10 times more difficult. I don’t think anyone thought you should end someone’s life. That’s crazy. I don’t think it was a conversation of whether people thought it was right or wrong. I think everyone unanimously was like, ‘OK, that shouldn’t have happened.’

It’s a very delicate thing to talk about. That’s the thing about authenticity. In my film, people ask me, ‘What kind of research did you do to accurately represent the African-American experience?’ It’s the same thing with Latasha Harlins and how we talk about this. I can only tell the story from my perspective and my experiences because I will never understand what it feels like to actually be African-American in this country.

That whole incident was unfortunate and it was not right. The fact that [the shop owner, Soon Ja Du] didn’t do any jail time, that’s — that’s f—ing crazy. So in terms of the rage, that’s just understood. That’s a given. People feel like justice was not served, and rightfully so.

Why Ice Cube should be a future Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee The film mogul is one of rap’s all-time great wordsmiths — and cultural forecasters

This week, Berry Gordy, Jay Z, and James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. They will join immortals such as Little Richard, Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, Dolly Parton, Nile Rodgers, Jerry Garcia, Marvin Gaye, Cyndi Lauper and more. This week The Undefeated celebrates future Songwriting Hall of Famers — the ones who make the whole world sing and bop, and even milly rock.


For 400 years — I got 400 tears, for 400 peers/ Died last year from gang-related crimes/ That’s why I got gang-related rhymes

— Ice Cube, from 1991’s “Us

Ice Cube pulls up on a group of friends. It’s the summer of 1989 in Los Angeles. All young black men, all from the South Central area, his friends are slanging crack. Cube, by then, is already famous, the most vicious wordsmith of America’s worst nightmare: the rap supergroup N.W.A. He rolls the window down on his Jeep.

“Yo, y’all don’t need to be out here,” he said. “All you’re gonna do is get arrested.”

His boys looked at him, puzzled. In 1980s South Central Los Angeles, the streets were a war zone. Born O’Shea Jackson in 1969, four years after the Watts riots and during the rise of the black liberation movement, Cube’s life was a courtside seat to gang and police violence. He saw black boys’ and girls’ lives cut short by violence that turned neighborhoods into prisons, and to graveyards.

Does a résumé as decorated and diverse as Cube’s obscure who he is as a songwriter?

As in many major U.S. metropolitan areas, crack was the crème de la crème narcotic. For users, crack was an escape. “It is also a drug of desperation, linked to the urban poor’s struggle to be part of the greater society,” said Joyce Hartwell, founder and director of New York’s Recovery Hotline and Addiction Anonymous Education Project. Fast money, cheap product, economically deprived ‘hoods: an elixir for violence.

Ice Cube in 1992

Waring Abbott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In Los Angeles alone, the murder rate had risen every year since 1985. In 1988, the year N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton, there were 452 gang homicides — 29.7 percent of all area murders. In 1989, 554 gang homicides accounted for 32.7 percent of all homicides. The numbers would only increase, rising to 803 gang murders (39.4 percent of all) by the time the Los Angeles riots popped off, for a long list of reasons, in the spring of 1992.

So it makes sense that Cube’s friends were dumbfounded. The songs he wrote, for example, for Eazy-E’s 1988 Eazy Duz It, weren’t soundtracks of their lives. Nor were the songs quite entertainment. Cube’s lyrics, motion picture moments on records like Straight Outta’s “8 Ball (Remix),” were their lives. Cube’s friends were trapped in a hell of crack, guns, gangs, liquor stores and funeral homes. “Everybody can’t rap,” one of his friends said. “You’re living good, so you can say s— like that. If you wasn’t making money, you’d be right out here with us.”

Cube recognized quickly his platform, and the responsibility that came with being one of the most recognizable rappers in the country. For Cube, his art was chemotherapy for a cancer the country had long ignored in neighborhoods portrayed as ground zero on nightly news broadcasts. He thanked his friend and bought him a beer.

“[I said] thanks for setting me straight. Peace,” Cube told Spin in 1989. “No, I didn’t say ‘peace,’ cause peace is a fictional word. Peace is a dream.”


Thirty years after the Straight Outta Compton album, Ice Cube is a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. He’s sold over 15 million albums through his solo work and compilations and as a leader of N.W.A. and Westside Connection. Cube has long since established himself as a force in Hollywood as a producer, screenwriter and actor, starting with 1991’s timeless ode to life in South Central, Boyz N The Hood. From there, cult classics such as 1998’s The Players Club, acclaimed smashes such as 1999’s Three Kings, as well as his Friday, Barbershop and Ride Along series strengthen his portfolio as he heads into thriller territory. Come later this month, he’ll have successfully placed Allen Iverson back on a basketball court with the creation of his BIG3 basketball league. And just last weekend, Cube gave Bill Maher a lesson in the use of the N-word. But is one of rap’s finest lyrical storytellers the victim of society’s selective amnesia? Does a résumé as decorated and diverse as Cube’s obscure who he is as a songwriter?

“It’s Ice Cube’s lyrics that forced people to take the West Coast seriously.” — Todd Boyd

“Ice Cube is the first guy outside of New York to get recognition and visibility for his lyricism,” said Todd Boyd, professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He’s the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture. “It’s Ice Cube’s lyrics that forced people to take the West Coast seriously.”

Cube’s relentless output during the late ’80s and early ’90s writes its own chapter of American history. He’s one of gangsta rap’s main creators, along with Ice T, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. His music shed light on the despair, anger, yet resiliency of life in the ’hood. Cube’s 360-degree view of the black experience in America was a persuasive counterpoint to politicians and critics who painted black individuals and groups with broad strokes.

It was Cube’s call of duty to tell South Central Los Angeles’ story — which, in turn, spoke for the millions nationwide dealing with similar situations. By doing so, he warned America of a simmering resentment. His graphic street scriptures, however bold and outright disrespectful of women, law enforcement and whatever else, function as the Old Testament for what exploded on television screens across the world in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.

The first three songs on the album Straight Outta Compton, which sold 3.5 million copies (and led eventually to the acclaimed and successful 2015 biopic of the same title), became part of a 1988 hip-hop trifecta, along with Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and the launch of Yo! MTV Raps, which changed the culture, and music as whole. Straight Outta Compton represented art by fire. And Cube was its lead arsonist.

“Straight Outta Compton”: Straight outta Compton, crazy m—–f—– named Ice Cube/ From the gang called N—–s With Attitude/ When I’m called off, I got a sawed-off/ Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off/ You, too, boy, if you f— with me/ The police are gonna have to come and get me/ Off you a–, that’s how I’m going out

“F— Tha Police”: F— the police, coming straight from the underground/ A young n—- got it bad ’cause I’m brown/ And not the other color so police think/ They have the authority to kill a minority/ F— that s— cause I ain’t the one/ For a punk m—–f—– with a badge and a gun/ To be beaten on, and thrown in jail/ We can go toe-to-toe in the middle of a cell

“Gangsta, Gangsta”: Here’s a little something about a n—- like me/ Never should’ve been let out the penitentiary/ Ice Cube, would like to say/ That I’m a crazy m—–f—– from around the way/ Since I was youth, I smoked weed out/ Now I’m the m—-f—— that you read about/ Takin’ a life or two, that’s what the hell I do/ You don’t like how I’m living?/ Well, f— you!

“Not all of what we say on records describe us,” MC Ren said in 1989. “We also describe the exploits of people around us. So this is telling it again, like it is and how people really behave.” As N.W.A.’s acclaim and infamy spread, so did its influence. Fishbone’s 1991 The Reality of My Surroundings, the Geto Boys’ 1990 “City Under Siege” and Public Enemy’s 1990 “Fight The Power” further enunciated a desperation. For Cube, it wasn’t about taking — or making — rap music literally, lyric for lyric. It was a reclamation of identity.

“[Black people] lost 400 years of teaching, of schooling of any kind of knowledge of our culture,” Cube said in a 1991 interview. “Right now, we’re in the process of getting that back through rap music.” Cube’s music was the crystal ball. On 1990’s “The N—- Ya Love To Hate,” Cube advises: The day is coming that you all hate / Just think if n—-s decide to retaliate … then Kicking s— called street knowledge / Why more n—-s in the pen than in college.

But it’s his second solo album, 1991’s Death Certificate, where final warnings were spelled out. This was Cube masterfully executing a concept album in the early ’90s, a new task for the still-infant genre, yet Death is comparable to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 What’s Going On, or Stevie Wonder’s 1973 Innervisions. Aside from Cube’s spectacular songwriting was his attention to sequencing detail. While the first half of the project revolves around life in the ghetto (“The Wrong N—- To F— Wit,” “My Summer Vacation” and “A Bird In The Hand”), the second half is Cube offering cultural and societal critiques (“Us,” “True To The Game” and “Color Blind”).

Certificate’s complex commentary provided validation that Cube was far more — if more was required — than a “gangsta rapper.” And importantly, gangsta rap itself was far more than violent imagery. “Cube was of that moment,” Dr. Boyd says. Racial and political tensions were high in the early ’90s. “And if you were tapped into that moment, you understood something was about to pop off. You didn’t know what it was. You didn’t know what form it was going to take. But you felt it. Cube personified that.”

His music shed light on the despair, anger, yet resiliency of life in the ’hood.

On Death’s “I Wanna Kill Sam,” Cube skillfully lacerates the federal government: Tied me up, took me outside/ And I was thrown in a big truck/ And it was packed like sardines/ Full of n—-s who fell for the same scheme/ Took us to a place and made us work/ All day and we couldn’t have s— to say/ Broke up the families forever/ And to this day black folks can’t stick together/ And it’s odd/ Broke us down, made us pray — to his God.”

Cube’s cutthroat examination of the medical discrimination black people receive in South Central also goes under the microscope “Alive on Arrival:” Woke up in the back of a trey / On my way to MLK/ That’s the county hospital, jack, ha/ Where n—-s die over a little scratch/ Sittin’ in the trauma center/ In my back is where the bullet entered/ “Yo, nurse, I’m gettin’ kinda warm!”/ B—–s still made me fill out the f—— form.

For “Black Korea,” Cube experienced backlash for his attack on Korean-Americans: So pay respect to the black fist/ Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp/ And then we’ll see ya/ Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into black Korea. “Korea” was largely viewed as a lyrical retaliation for the March 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins by a Korean-American store owner — a death that, along with the Rodney King verdict, is canonized as the two biggest sparks for the riots. Cube apologized for the song in February 1992, saying the record was not an indictment of all Korean-Americans but a rebuke of a select few stores “where my friends and I have had actual problems.”

Two months after the apology, the four Los Angeles Police Department officers who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted. To Ice Cube and residents of South Central, the verdict wasn’t surprising. This was no isolated incident. And soon, the Los Angeles skyline was painted with smoke rising from the flames that enveloped Los Angeles streets. The deplorable conditions that Cube had lamented for years, attempted to explain in interviews and broadcast to an entire country had finally come to fruition.

“That’s the only way you can get white people to hear what black people have to say. If you tear s— up,” Cube said of the riots. “This country uses violence for its justice. But then the country gets mad when we use violence for our justice.”

Ice Cube didn’t necessarily predict the L.A. riots as much as he diagnosed urban illnesses. Communities were ravaged by drugs. Resources provided to other parts of the vast city were omitted from South Central. Desperation led to violence. Although rap music had its faults, and didn’t please a lot of people, Cube’s music wasn’t created with the intention of making people feel good.

It was created with the intention of the listener feeling the pain and hopelessness of so many of the people Cube grew up around. He peeled back American hypocrisies and, in his own way, changed the course of American pop history. Cube did it for his people. He did it for those same friends he pulled up on in his Jeep, some of whom may not even be alive anymore.

“When it comes to records,” he recently told Apple’s Beats 1 radio station, “I just think you gotta be a voice for the voiceless.”

Daily Dose: 4/28/17 LaVar Ball overplays his hand

We all know how much President Donald Trump loves Twitter. It’s basically his main mode of expression, which is a tad concerning for the man leading the free world, but it is what it is at this point. The funny thing is that if you go back and read his history, there’s basically a tweet outlining a stance that is completely contradictory to what he’s doing now that he’s in office. It’s genuinely quite remarkable. That said, we’re nearing the 100-day mark, so let’s take a look back at that time in his social media feed.

The franchise of Dear White People holds an important space in the cultural landscape. The film, released in 2014, was an eye-opening look at what black college life can be like at predominantly white colleges, which is basically all of them that aren’t historically black universities. The film clearly made waves in the mainstream, mainly because of the title, which automatically put a lot of people off. They’re back with a new series for Netflix, which is a fantastic evolution for this story. We need this show.

If you’re wondering, Michelle Obama will not be running for office. It’s been a strange pipe dream for quite a few of her fans who seem to think, understandably, that she would make an excellent public official. But one would think family time would be a priority after eight years in the White House. Getting involved in an election is a time commitment that takes over your life — never mind doing the actual job. Can’t imagine she’s looking to uproot all that anytime soon. But she was more definitive than Chelsea Clinton is about it, recently.

LaVar Ball is finally dealing with the big boys. For all of the entertainment he’s provided from a media and meme standpoint, his antics are not looked upon well by major corporations. Which, ultimately, was everyone’s concern to begin with: that he might actually be hurting his children’s ability to earn money at this point. Well, that’s exactly what’s happened. Nike, Under Armour and Adidas have all said that they don’t want to sign Lonzo Ball, who could potentially be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Mega wow.

Free Food

Coffee Break: The 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots is this week, which is kind of wild to think about. It feels like far longer ago. But from a media standpoint, that moment in history was made all the more intense by the fact that we had so much footage of everything. It was early in the 24-hour-news lifetime, and video really shaped a lot.

Snack Time: We use Slack at our office. Most people do. It’s a fun little chat system that, when utilized well, really can improve productivity. Why a dating service needs to be integrated with it, we have no idea.

Dessert: New Gorillaz. Get on it.