Appearances by the man himself is ‘Aoki”s best aspect

"Aoki" is a documentary about late political activist Richard Aoki, a key member of the Black Panther Party.

No, we’re not talking about Steve Aoki – the subject of Ben Wang and Mike Chang’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival documentary competition entry is Richard Aoki, a key member of the Black Panther Party and a civil rights activist who deserves to be known and acknowledged by anyone with a pulse.

Aoki was shot during the final five years of Aoki’s life – he passed away over a year ago at the age of 71. Interviews from those five years, however, along with archival footage, have captured Aoki’s essence well. Also included are revealing interviews with fellow Black Panther members, activists who have worked with him over the years, Aoki’s biographer, and young people who have been inspired by his work.

The documentary is very well-rounded. The sources are insightful and talk about more than Aoki’s role in the Black Panther Party (He was the only Asian-American member in a leadership position), but also his life as a child and adolescent in West Oakland after his family lived in an internment camp following the Pearl Harbor bombings, his career in the military, and his role in other movements and organizations such as the Third World Liberation Front. Seeing Aoki himself in his glory days and in the post-civil rights era is the best part of the film. Even when viewers see him in his older years, he still gives off humor and badassness. He’s very lively and an intriguing story teller. However, the most poignant moments in the film are the candid shots of him silently walking through the UC Berkeley campus and reuniting with his fellow Panthers after 40 years. As he reflects upon his revolutionary past, only one can wonder what it must have been like to live a life like his.

The sequencing of the documentary is sloppy. A chronological order of his life rather than a subjective organization would’ve been easier to follow and keep viewers interested from beginning to end. Instead, many random lulls in the sequencing of footage and interviews distracted from the main focus of the film. The editing is especially choppy. As far as the aesthetics of the entire film, I could have borrowed one of the HD Canon camcorders from SFSU’s journalism department, spent some days or weeks to edit on Final Cut Pro, use the Impact font on the title cards, and export the video to stream on a website. Heck, any high school student looked like they could have made this documentary by his or herself.

Those technical flaws negatively impacted what otherwise is a pretty good and important film. Yes, it’s very amateur and a bit of a jumble in its storytelling, but it still manages to captivate viewers in all its raw power. I wish this film had come out while I was still taking my Ethnic Studies classes in my early college career. Aoki is an important figure not only in the Bay Area’s local politics, but in a spectrum beyond that – national, multicultural, and for equal rights. My personal hope is that high school and college educators will screen this film in cultural / social studies and history classes so that more people are exposed to what Richard Aoki has done for minority communities and more.

(Information on DVD purchases can be found on the film’s official website.)


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