With basketball drama "Boogie," Eddie Huang is finally "free of the shadow" of "Fresh Off the Boat"

Huang appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss the duality of Black & Asian culture, Pop Smoke and basketball films

By D. Watkins
March 6, 2021 8:30PM (UTC)
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Actor Pop Smoke, director Eddie Huang and actor Taylor Takahashi on the set of their film "Boogie" (Focus Features)

I remember running to the corner store for candy or for wings and fries or some milk or TP or Krazy Glue or basically anything we were lacking in the house. And at times, Mr. Kim, the Korean man who owned the store, and I would laugh and trade high-fives after the Orioles won, or we'd argue if he wouldn't let me go for 10 cents – often leading to me saying "F**k you!" and him kicking me out and telling me, "Never return!" which we both knew was a joke because that was the neighborhood store – located in a neighborhood with poor public transportation and no other options. I'm thankful for the times I shared with Mr. Kim, good and bad – but upset that even though he was a part of our community, we were never really a part of his. 

Mr. Kim had a wife and kids that never spoke to us. His family never attended the block parties, and even though I'd see his son dribbling a basketball, he never walked over to the court and played. I don't know why, and I never asked, but I should've. Mr. Kim's family were minorities just like mine, forced to adapt to American ideals, and probably struggled in many ways – but I never knew, and never got a chance to connect or build with the Kims because we were divided by a cultural wall that never should have been in existence. These cultural walls still exist and are a serious problem that is brilliant addressed in Eddie Huang's the new Focus Features film "Boogie," out March 5.

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"Boogie" is the story of Alfred "Boogie" Chin (Taylor Takahashi), a basketball prodigy of Asian descent from New York, with plans of making it to the NBA. Being good enough is the least of his problems. To achieve his goal, Boogie's battle extends far beyond the court to dealing with a mix of stereotypes, racism, traditions and a troubled family legacy. On "Salon Talks," I got the chance to talk to Huang, the writer, director and creative mind behind the project, which he says represents "the vision of America that I believe in." Huang opens up about the uphill battle getting a basketball film with an Asian lead off the ground and its deeper message about bridging minorities through culture – something he felt ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat," the sitcom loosely based on his memoir, was unable to do.

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Huang here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about "Boogie," the music in the film and why Huang closed up his acclaimed restaurants to pursue writing and directing full time.  

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The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I always say, if Eddie has 10,000 jobs, then I can have 10,000 jobs. How has a guy as active and productive as yourself been surviving COVID-19?

I bounced to Taiwan on March 14. The day the NBA got canceled. I just bought a ticket and I went to Taiwan because I was like, "Man, if there's no NBA, I'm out." When Tom Hanks got sick I was like, "If they can't protect Tom Hanks, this is a wrap." I had been reading that in Taiwan they were tracking and tracing [the virus] and that it was safe. After a year in Taiwan, I really missed America.

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I have a newfound respect and appreciation for America. I've never really felt American, and I'm never Team America because of so many of the hypocrisies and injustices in our country, but after not being here for a year, I just missed being in a country, participating in this experiment where we got people from all around the world trying to come together as one. I do think that there are people like me and you and others that are doing this and actually doing the experiment we're here for. Then there's some white people in Congress and some white people in these red states that don't want the experiment to happen, that wish we never came. I came home because I missed being part of such a diverse country.

It's hard to really get that perspective unless you spend time in a different place. With your new film "Boogie," you're adding director to your arsenal. I have always considered you to be a person who pushes the culture forward and a person who's very proud of where he's from, but also very, very excited to embrace all of the cultures that surround you, which is always a beautiful thing. What made you decide to do this project right now?

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It's exactly what you just said, I'm very proud of where my ancestors are from, China. Our family was part of the side that lost in the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan. My parents were born in Taiwan. My grandparents were very poor and they just sold buns under a bridge. They would just be laying on blankets. The whole family, like 12 kids, between two grandparents, they were just selling bread. That's what we come from. To make it to America and have the privilege of being born here, it's been amazing.

I was able to have this duality where my parents raised me very traditionally in our home, but then I saw what was going on outside in America, I was excited by it. I wanted to participate. That's what this film is about. It's about a kid who wants to honor his ancestors and his family and his culture, but doesn't exactly fit into it and doesn't exactly agree with it. He's very inspired by and he's very into Black culture, specifically basketball.

The love interest in the film is a Black woman [Eleanor, played by Taylour Paige] as well. What makes America wonderful is that we don't have to follow this traditional playbook of where we're from. We can take what's meaningful and what resonates with us, but then look at other people's playbooks and then participate in their culture and bring some of our knowledge to them and vice versa because that's been my experience. Whether it was on basketball courts or in kitchens, or just kicking it, I really have absorbed and become a part of the culture.

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I want to talk a little deeper about the film, but first, I want to say salute on the music. Man, you started off with "Exhibit C" from Jay Elec. I think I heard "4r Da Squaw" by Isaiah Rashad. Are those choices part of your personal aesthetic?

Absolutely. I remember the first time I heard "Exhibit C." I think it was like DJ Soul played it. I still remember first time I saw Snow Beach live was like Just Blaze was rocking it at this place, Sutra. I rolled up. I was like, "Yo, I got a get a photo with you." He's like, "Why?" I was like, "I never seen a Snow Beach in person." I got a photo with him. Then 10 years later me and Just Blaze are friends. "Exhibit C" kicks off the film. That's the culture. Blaze is just one of the illest low heads. I was like, "I kind of got to kick that off with him." I love Jay Elec, everything he stands for, a lot of that knowledge. I wanted to embed that in there as well. Of course, it's a Brooklyn drilled film. Once we were blessed with Pop [Smoke], his existence and his presence, we had to receive that power.

When I had originally planned this film, I always loved "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . ," "The Purple Tape." On "The Purple Tape," you know, you have John Woo, "The Killer," the film, narrating the whole album. I was going to have it come full circle and be like, "Yo, I'm going to have Raekwon, Incarcerated Scarfaces narrate 'Boogie.'" Then it's like Asian film gave to Black music, and Black music going to give it back to Asian film. I thought that would be really ill. Once I met Pop [Smoke], all that went out the door, because it was just this energy in New York.

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That's heavy. For him to be such a young brother, his music and how he came across a track, there is a heaviness to it. I think that heaviness fit the film perfectly.

Yes.

There's a feeling and a passion that he has. I think that was a great choice. "The Purple Tape" is still a classic. The real ones call it "The Purple Tape" because you know when we first popped it the tape was purple.

I love what you just said about Pop, because Pop, man, he has it feels like the knowledge of ancestors when he speaks. His voice and his presence is an old soul. It always felt, being around Pop, that he'd already lived 20 lifetimes.

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It's such an unfortunate situation. It's an honor that you got a chance to capture these moments. It's just, outside of the music, another way for a person to just live on. I believe we live through our art, which is why I don't fear a lot of things that people fear because I've created so much art. You have contributed so much to what's going on out here. That's kind of how we've got to live our lives. One of the layers that I think people will respect when they're watching this film in general is how you handle the complexities between minorities. All Black people don't understand what some of our Asian brothers go through, and vice versa. We're all too busy being oppressed in our own rights and trying to survive and fight above the racism that tries to hold us back. I think you did a really good job with showing the differences. Could you speak to that?

Absolutely. One of my favorite scenes in the film is the beef and broccoli scene, where there are the two main characters, the love interests, speak about beef and broccoli. I use beef and broccoli because I used to just post up at the takeout, the carryout spot, sit outside and I would hustle. I would sell T-shirts. I would sell things out on the bench. It really helped me understand how we can live in spaces together because most of the customers at the carryout was Black. I was one of the only Asian customers at this takeout spot on Fulton Street.

I remember, I would see things like all the kids in the neighborhood, what they would buy like a juice or something at the bodega, they wouldn't give them cups and ice, so they came across to the Chinese spot and get cups and ice. I'd always be, "Yo, you didn't even buy anything here, man. Why you always come and get the cups and ice here and then you don't buy anything?" They're like, "Well, because y'all are nice. Y'all give it to us." I was like, "Oh." It was kind of an honor to be that in the neighborhood. They're like, "Yeah, when we got money for wings, we come buy wings and we buy fried rice." It's like one hand washes the other. I was like, "Yo, this is the way it's supposed to be. This is the way it's supposed to be. We got to have empathy for you, and you have empathy for us, and bada boom, bada bing." That's how you can avoid things like the L.A. Riots. You know what I mean?

I started this scene because my perspective was I came from a family where I had aunts and uncles and cousins that owned takeout spots. They had spots in the hood. On the other side, when I was living in Fort Greene, and I was more on the local side of it, it wasn't my aunt or my uncle's shop, I was like, "Oh, now I see the perspective of my homie Richie or Twin who's coming in here." It's like, "Yo, man, these Chinese people came in our neighborhood, and we spend most of our money here, so if we need cups and ice, they should break us off." I'm like, "That makes sense. That makes sense because we coming into your neighborhood, making money. We've got to give back to you. If cups and ice is what you want, if extra duck sauce packets is what you – Cool. But we should probably do even more." That's why I chose beef and broccoli because beef and broccoli is this thing that our communities intersect over. Like how Timberland named their field boots "beef and broccoli."

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No doubt.

When Boogie talks about the things that are difficult for him in America, Eleanor flips it on it him and is like, "Look, cool, hold that. I empathize with you, my Asian brother, but do not forget our struggle because the Black woman's struggle, it is probably the greatest of them." When she reminds him that your family at least chose to come to this country. I was ripped from my country. I don't even know where I'm from. It really sets Boogie on a different path. I think it's one of the most powerful conversations there.

The inspiration from it sprung from seeing a lot of Asians were protesting Affirmative Action because Affirmative Action was hurting Asian kids getting into schools because there were already too many of us in good colleges. I was like, "Yo, think about other people. Affirmative Action ain't just for Asians. So it maybe negatively affects us going to colleges, but this is an important thing for the fabric of our society." It upset me that we didn't have that foresight and we didn't have that solidarity with the Black community because so much of what Black people have done to pave the way for Civil Rights in this country, we all benefit from. Every American benefits from it.

Then the gaps that we just have to close. We can't close those gaps until we start having these type of conversations. We need to understand any and everything that's happening to any of the oppressed group, if we ever, ever want to take a real step in moving forward. When you were talking about beef and broccoli, you made me think of when I was in grad school and I was writing a short story. In the short story, I went to the store to get a box of yaka mein, right? This was for my MFA program, which are notoriously white. There's not a lot of Black people going to graduate school to be writers and all that. I'm in class, and when I wrote it, the whole class was like, "Yo, what's yaka mein?" Mind you, I'm in Baltimore, a huge segment of the program were people from around the Baltimore area but they never heard of yaka mein before. It's totally like a cultural thing. They're like, "It's a noodle? Then they put a boiled egg in it? Sounds pretty good." I'm like, "Yo, it's lit."

You see even in "Boogie" we be dropping the egg in the ramen noodle too. It's like all of us, everyone that was poor in America, took ramen noodles and made meals out of it. And yeah, white people didn't necessarily understand that.

My friends who are waiting to see the film, they think it's just like going to be a straight up basketball flick, but I feel like there's a deep family dynamic and trauma that needs to be confronted. Can you just tell us a little bit about some of things you were trying to conquer, without saying too much?

I've always wanted to be a director, writer my whole life because when I was 17, my family, it's well documented, there's a lot of violence in my family. My mom and dad would fight a lot, they'd beat each other up. They beat us up. That's not to blame my parents. I'm not trying to play the victim. I love my parents. I stand by them. That's a difficult thing. I remember when I tried to get therapy, the therapist would want me to be mad at my parents, and I just walked out. I was like, "That's not in me."

Anyway, my aunt and the family knew that my family would struggle with violence, but they didn't do anything about it. I ended up watching "Good Will Hunting" at my aunt's house, and I didn't have anything in common with these two white dudes from Boston, but that film changed my life because when I saw Will Hunting go through it and talk to Robin Williams, I was like, "Yo, I can talk about this, and this film has reached me and made me feel less alone and less alien because of what's going on in my home." I was like, I'm going to make a movie one day so that other kids that go through this can feel less alien too.

Robin Williams put that big hand on him. He had to choke him out. He's like, "Never talk about my wife ever again, chief." That was it. In touching on the basketball aspect, I know you play some ball too. What basketball films were you raised on?

You know, I love all of them. Funny, I love "Love & Basketball." I was a big Omar Epps fan as a kid, so I love Quincy, even though my best friend Elena is like, "That's the most toxic character in all of film." She hates Quincy. I love him. What else? "Above the Rim." Classic.

"Above the Rim" was it. That was the one for me.

That had the best basketball. The handles was crazy, and you really felt like those were the park games. Obviously, "He Got Game," Jesus Shuttlesworth, probably the greatest name of all time. Rosario Dawson did her thing. Those are the basketball films I watched. I remember people were like, "Oh, you got to watch 'Hoosiers.'" I watched it, I can't connect to "Hoosiers."

I had "Above the Rim" on a VHS tape. We played that every day.

And that documentary "Hoop Dreams." That was a hard one.

But you need like five hours as a kid to watch it.

As a kid, it felt like I was eating health food watching "Hoop Dreams." I was like, let me just watch "Above the Rim" again, but as I got older, I was like, "Hoop Dreams is tough."

Even if you looked up to what happened to some of those dudes now, a lot of people that were in that film, like the brother and the dad, a lot of those people are dead, man. It's a tragic story all the way around. When I was watching "Boogie," I was thinking about the pressure on Asian athletes because there's already like that strong culture of academics. You better get A's. B's mean you're in trouble. You in trouble big time. Do you feel like things might be changing? Or do you feel like sports are always going to be secondary to academics, unless you're like Yao Ming's height?

You know, in all culture, especially in America, I do think there are more Asian-American kids like me that early on they may not be as good at school as their parents want them to be, and they find other ways. You see Asian skaters, Asian ball players. It's funny, if you watch Asian league basketball, we all are shorter. We're not usually as athletic, but we play like the Spurs. Even we would play the teams from the other side of town, it's like you got like five Patty Mills versus the other team. You play team ball, and you play smart, you play efficient basketball, especially with the advent of the three-pointer, I do think you're going to see more Asian basketball players.

It's an Asian game at John's Hopkins University at the college on Sundays. I used to go work out and I used to play in the game. It's a beautiful thing because it's thick. It's love.

It's a different run. I didn't grow up playing Asian league. I always just played the regular YMCA, I'd go to the park. I'd play in Brooklyn, I'd play in Fort Greene, I'd play at Pratt. Once I moved to L.A. five years ago, it was the first time I joined an Asian league. It was even different for me. But then we would play other, like the Culver City league and other teams, and we would win it. Cats after would be like, "Yo, you mother**kers can ball. You're doing the Spurs s**t."

They move the ball a lot. Where I'm from in East Baltimore, everybody who touches the ball, we hold it for like 30 minutes. You know what I mean?

Yeah, it's a lot of handle and it's a lot of iso and picking on the weak guy. We play zone. We go in there and we play our two-three zone. People, "These people playing zone?" And we get laughed at, but that zone works. Because we're not tall enough to play one-on-one, so it's a help, defense situation. But I love it. It's fun to see how every culture plays ball different. Every city. You know what I mean? I grew up in the D. I remember seeing the cats from Dunbar. I remember that Potomac area style of basketball.

With "Fresh Off the Boat" you spoke really freely about how that show really got a lot of Asians a seat at the table, but you felt like sometimes your story was a little whitewashed because it was network television. You got to fight those battles with the writers and the showrunners and all that. Do you feel like you get a freedom to tell the story you want to tell with a film like this?

I finally, for once, feel free of the shadow of that show because I was not proud of it. I felt very disappointed, even though it went on for six seasons and was a commercial success. I think when you put "Boogie" next to it, it's just like, say no more. Now, the proof is in the pudding. Everything I said we could do, I did. At that time, a lot of people, a lot of Asians, told me, "Shut up. Let this thing win for us. Let us keep our seat at the table." I was like, "Nah, we have to have a higher standard. We need to demand more. Not just of ourselves, but of the system."

That has to be a tough conversation.

It broke my heart, man. I really retreated for a while. People in my own community were trying to silence me. It just pissed me off because not only was it that story . . . My biggest issues with "Fresh Off the Boat" were, it stripped the pain and struggle from our story and made it funny. They only dealt with issues that could be solved in 22 minutes and the family end up on a couch. The other thing that upset me was it was marketed as a hip-hop show, but where were the Black people? Black people weren't getting paid on that show. They got cameos and things like that. But in "Boogie," you see, it's a truly diverse cast. This is the vision of America that I believe in.

"Boogie" feels like New York. You seem to be living the goals of like 10 different people right now. Are you satisfied as a creative entrepreneur?

Oh yeah, I'm very satisfied. This is where I belong. I just want to direct film. I closed up my restaurants. I thank all the fans, but I had my run. I had 10 years in the restaurant game. I'm going to full time direct and write film and television. This is my heart. This is what I want to do.

I always use your story and talk about your revolutionary hustle, because I do a lot of work with a lot of artists, and I think we need to see stories of people being able to be successful in television, hosting a show, with their business, directing, acting, just living out there their full everything. Is anything else you're working on that we should be looking out for?

I got a few scripts I wrote, but I wanted to tag on what you just said because that's very inspiring stuff. I'll guess I'll end with that, is just to say, at every step of this process people told me this film would never work. I actually left my former agency because they looked at this film and they were like, "Yo, no one is going to make a coming-of-age, teenage story with an Asian-American male lead because there isn't an Asian-American male actor that will sweep at the box office. Then also you're adding the element of basketball, which is expensive to shoot and difficult. You just can't get this made."

Many times they told us, "You will never sell a soundtrack with this size of film." Because this is actually an independent, this is a smaller film. It looks big because we're immigrants, we know how to squeeze every dollar out of that fucking orange. And we squeezed it. We have every one of my friends and family favors. Steven Victor, Victor, Victor, Rico, they've been super supportive. Pop's family has been supportive. This is an entire village pushing this thing.

I would just say to everyone else out there, if you have a vision and you want to do it, just do it, and do it with your village. Do it with the people that get you. Even before coming to this, the financiers, the distributors, they didn't understand the audience that I wanted to bring to this film. Now that they're seeing it, they're like, "We've never had pickup on a Focus film from like Bossip or All Hip Hop." I was like, "Yo, these are customers. These are people that need to be served that are dying for content." Same for the Asian community. The people coming to this film, it's Black, it's Latino, it's Asian, it's everybody. If you have a vision, and you have a product that your community wants to buy, man, you got to push that rock up the hill.

"Boogie" is available in select theaters beginning March 5. 


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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