Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Boiling Pot" Stirring Up Campus Dialogues on Racism

To listen to the post-screening panel discussion, click here.

Irvine -  Just a half-dozen years ago, Russell Curry was a leading protester at University of California, Irvine - speaking out in support of muslims and people of color on campus.  He rallied activist students and staff at the flagpole and got them to "put your fist in the sky" to fight injustice.  He went to the Gaza on a peace and aid mission.  Through it all, his mission was to reach out to challenge and engage even those who disagreed with him, in rallies, one-on-one discussions, and on KUCI, where he appeared on the Subversity Show several times.

"Sonny Boy" (as he was then known by his rap name) was back on campus Tuesday, 1 March, 2016, almost six years to the day after his last major rally.  Professionally, he works a handsome male model -- but Russell Curry remains a powerful political voice of reason, even as he has now become an integral part of a new explosive film that intelligently explores, without exploiting, the current national debate at institutions of higher education around race and racism.

Russell Curry rallying Anteaters 4 March 2010 almost exactly six years ago.
Russell Curry remains true to the activist past honed at UCI, and that experience impacted the film, as he explained in the Q&A after a free showing of "Boiling Pot: The Truth is Never Black and White," although he was typically quite modest about his role, looking back. 

The film is a dramatization based loosely on two notable real-life racist campus incidents - a noose found hanging from a bookcase at UC San Diego Library, and the notorious off-campus "Compton Cookout", a "black-themed" party that served watermelon and the frat brothers wore baggy clothes, posing as blacks.  The incidents sparked disgust and even got picked up nationally in the New York Times, which ran a story 26 February 2010 under the headline, "California Campus Sees Uneasy Race Relations."

Watching the film that was shown as part of the UCI Sudent Affairs' New Narratives series, I was blown away by the tight editing and dynamic pace of what turned out to be a thriller and murder mystery.  At points I was on the edge of my seat, straining to catch it all in.  Definitely, credit belongs to director Omar Ashmawey, who also co-wrote the script with his brother, Ibrahim, for skilled directing of a multi-ethnic cast.
Ibrahim Ashmawey, Andrew Luu, Russell Curry
and Omar Ashmawey, from "Boiling Pot" panel discussion

While a few in the audience after the screening wondered whether the film was too one-sided,  I have to disagree.  The main characters were decidedly more nuanced than cartoonish,  and whether black, Arab, Asian or white, almost all were portrayed as self-analytical and ultimately redeemable.  Especially striking was Academy Award winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., who superbly portrayed a dogged bulldog of a law enforcement interrogator, Detective Haven.

Russell Curry answers questions
I was also struck by Ibrahim Ashmawey, who portrayed an Arab American, Hazem Seif, from New Jersey who was dating the female character, Valerie Davis, stunningly played by Danielle Fischel. 

Russell Curry, who played a bit part as a black student, Malik Stanton, was especially notable with his restrained acting and thoughtful face. 

Three white characters were also noteworthy: John Heard, played the racist father of Valerie, Tim Davis.  Matthew Koenig, a recent UCI MFA graduate, portrayed in quite some depth a one-time love interest of hers, Garrett Perrin.  Finally, M. Emmet Walsh played a clueless  fictional dean of students Marison - who viewed racial incidents as "isolated" and nothing to raise a fuss about.  Quite a devastating critique of campus administration, ironic since the film screened as part of a dean of students program at UCI. 

There were no "trigger warnings" thankfully at the showing, although it turns out one student in the audience would later identify himself as a high schooler.  Whether it will be shown at high schools of course an open question, given the constraints teachers and students have under varying local school boards.  But it should be.   High schoolers - many dealing with the same racism - should not be denied the opportunity to engage in "new narratives" either. 

The film is viewable online (not free) via Amazon.

After screening, Russell Curry (left) meets fans
Photography © Daniel C. Tsang 2010, 2016

-- Daniel C. Tsang.