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Writer And Director Eddie Huang Challenges The Model Minority Myth In 'Boogie'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Throughout his career as a writer and chef, Eddie Huang has tried to capture the piece of the Asian American experience that he personally knows, his own story of struggle as opposed to some story defined by the model minority myth - you know, this fiction that all Asian Americans excel academically and professionally as they seamlessly blend into America. Well, as for how that myth plays out in pop culture...

EDDIE HUANG: Well, I mean, we're very weak in popular culture. We're always kind of the doormat and the butt of a joke. And even a few years ago, I remember when Steve Harvey was just laughing at Asian Americans and, like, thought it was so preposterous that any woman would desire or want us. It made me very upset.

CHANG: Well, Huang breaks that mold in his new movie, "Boogie." It's his first film - the story of Alfred Chin, known as Boogie, a young Taiwanese American man who is a high school basketball phenom with a beautiful girlfriend. And like many teenagers, he's a kid with some anger.

HUANG: Basically, with Boogie, he's a guy that has a lot to be upset about. His father has been in jail for a good portion of his adolescent life. He has a very strained relationship with his mother, where the love is conditioned on his performance as an individual and his success. And he doesn't feel loved or worthy of love without performing, and that's the greatest source of his anger. And then secondarily, outside of the home, his anger with society is that because of his identity and because of his race, people don't give him the credit for the things he does because other people get to be angry and passionate but Boogie doesn't. When Boogie's angry and passionate, it's like, be quiet. Be the humble, meek Asian guy that we're looking for.

CHANG: Though I have to say, even though Boogie was a way that you defied certain perceptions or stereotypes of Asian men, I found it different with the female characters in this movie, particularly the mom. The dad, he is different from most Asian dads we see portrayed in American movies. Like, you have this guy who served time for a violent crime. He has this emotional depth to him. But then with the mom, she, in many ways, I thought, conformed to stereotypes of Asian moms. Like, she's super-critical. She's demanding. She cares about appearances. She can be brutal sometimes. Is it fair of me to say that you went more against type for the dad character or for Boogie but not so much for the mom character?

HUANG: I would ask to consider her outside of the spectrum of stereotypes because I watch a lot more Asian Asian cinema, like East Asian cinema, than I do Asian American cinema. You know, in a lot of the Taiwanese films or the fifth wave Chinese films, the moms and the women - they're more repressed, and they're not allowed to be as angry. So in my opinion, I felt like the Mrs. Chin character - she's kind of the boss of this family, and she gets to speak out, and she takes control. I mean, they end up approaching his career and life the way Mrs. Chin created the blueprint for.

CHANG: Interesting. OK, that's fair. I want to turn now to how you place Asian American experiences side-by-side with Black American experiences in this movie - I mean, not just side by side, but you kind of show how they blend. Like, there's this one scene where Boogie gets into this heated conversation with his girlfriend Eleanor, who's Black. She's played by Taylour Paige. And they start comparing the weight they each feel on their shoulders.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOOGIE")

TAYLOR TAKAHASHI: (As Alfred "Boogie" Chin) You don't understand. Your parents don't hold it over your head that they sacrificed everything to give you this opportunity in America.

TAYLOUR PAIGE: (As Eleanor) OK, not the exact same thing, but you know how [expletive] hard it was for me to find out where I come from? My history was [expletive] ripped from me. I was cut off from my ancestors.

CHANG: What did you want this film to say about that, about how Asian American experiences blend or sometimes bounce off of Black American experiences?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, it was very three-pronged, the way that I approached that scene. No. 1, I wanted Black and Asian and just immigrant audiences generally to see how much we have in common and how much common struggle that we have in this country.

CHANG: Wait. But should we even be comparing the struggle of Asian immigrants with the struggle of Black Americans? Like, Asians were never enslaved in this country.

HUANG: Well, I don't think I'm comparing it. I'm just placing them in the same space. The second one was to also give Eleanor space to stretch out and lead this conversation about struggle because I do think Black Americans have led the conversation and should lead the conversation and that Asian Americans have spaces many times because of the work African Americans have done. And the third one is that we should kind of bow our heads to the work Black Americans have done and the spaces that they've created and the things that they've fought for, like the Civil Rights Act.

CHANG: Well, this movie is as much a celebration of Black culture as it is a celebration of Asian culture. It's very evident. Boogie's arch rival is this Brooklyn basketball player named Monk, who's played by the late rapper Pop Smoke, whose music basically, like, introduced the world to Brooklyn drill. Can you talk about that? Like, why did you choose to make Brooklyn drill so prominent in this film?

HUANG: Well, originally I was going to use a lot of Raekwon "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...," which is a classic golden era hip-hop album. But I met Pop Smoke, and it was undeniable that Pop was creating a new sound that was defining New York in a way that had not happened in, I'd say, 15 years. So when I saw that, I just embraced it, and I said, this is now a Brooklyn drill film.

CHANG: Well, I want to talk about how you embraced it because, you know, even though this film is a story about an Asian American man and his family, it is a movie that's so infused with a lot of Black culture. And I imagine there is some risk that, as a creator who is not Black, you could be criticized for appropriating Black culture. Is that something you think about?

HUANG: I mean, I don't know how to separate myself from the Black culture that's influenced and inspired me. And I just - I'm as honest and genuine about it as I possibly can be, and it's up to people to believe that or not. And if one day my work with Black culture offends the Black community and they don't want me to participate in it anymore, I would gladly step away - knock on wood. Like, I don't think that day will ever happen because I'm genuine about it, and my experience in America is really - was seen through the Black lens. You know, like, all the culture I was intaking (ph) was Black culture. And the friends I connected with - they were either Black or they were also, like me, raised on Black culture because they could not relate to dominant culture.

CHANG: Eddie Huang. His new movie is called "Boogie." Thank you very much for this really thoughtful conversation.

HUANG: Thank you, Ailsa. It was a lot of fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AP")

POP SMOKE: (Rapping) AP, spicy - I bust a check in my Nikes. Am I a killer? Might be - two-tone, icy, AP, spicy. I bust a check in my Nikes. Am I a killer? Might be - two-tone, icy. Talk to me nice, talk to me nice, or don't talk at all, or don't talk at all. I make a call, and it's war. I make a call. I'm off that Adderall. I'm off that Adderall. Talk to me nice, talk to me nice, or don't talk at all, or don't talk at all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.