Inside 'Kung Fu's Crucial Black Lives Matter/Stop Asian Hate Episode

Taking on a topical subject matter is no small task. On its most recent episode, The CW’s Kung Fu seamlessly weaves together an episode highlighting the current state of the country amid the Black Lives Matter movement and growing anti-Asian sentiment, and explores how two communities come together for a common fight in the face of adversity and tragedy. The episode was borne out of conversations with CW executives, who asked its showrunners to address the social calls for justice and change following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

In the hour, “Sanctuary,” Nicky (Olivia Liang) and Henry (Eddie Liu) learn that a young unarmed Black man — whom they had a fleeting chance encounter in Chinatown — was shot by police after they presumed him to be a suspect-at-large for an ongoing crime at a local Chinese-owned store. Later in the episode, it’s revealed that he died from his injuries. His death, entirely preventable, inspires Black Lives Matter protests and impassioned pleas for justice reform, as well as a heavy police presence. When the protesters’ safety is threatened, Nicky opens the doors to the Shen family restaurant to provide them sanctuary. 

Not everyone in the Shen family is as forthcoming to the idea of planting a flag in solidarity with their Black brothers and sisters, however. As the episode unfolds, Nicky’s parents — mainly Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) — recount their own experiences with racism, illuminating the reasons behind their complicated emotions. Penned by A.C. Allen and directed by R.T. Thorne, the powerful episode propels the Shen family forward through the rest of the season.

Showrunners Christina M. Kim and Bob Berens open up about how the episode came to be, the scenes that struck a personal chord and what audiences can expect in the coming weeks on Kung Fu, recently renewed for a second season.

ET: First of all, congratulations on the renewal.

Bob Berens: A lot of texts and phone calls from the cast. Everyone is so far flung. Everyone is from different places, so we’re planning a Zoom to actually celebrate and coordinating amongst so many of us, it may be a few days before we get to see each other’s faces and let out a primal scream of joy, but it’s coming. 

Christina M. Kim: We’re so thrilled. We wrapped production last week, so as Bob said Kheng’s in Singapore, everyone has gone to all different corners of the world. So we’re excited to see each other’s faces on Zoom at the very least. We wish we could all be together to celebrate, but we’ve been exchanging texts and WhatsApp messages all day. It’s been great.

How did this episode come about and why did you want to explore this on a deeper level?

Berens: The network approached us and I think they were asking all of their shows to address Black Lives Matter in some way or another. Of course, for all of us, it was top of mind. It was pretty much near the peak of the George Floyd protest. At the same time, Trump was attacking, stirring up a lot of anti-Asian sentiment and racism in the country, specifically anti-Chinese sentiment. All these things were very much top of mind for us. It was very important to us that in tackling Black Lives Matter as a subject matter we also address anti-Asian racism and show how that impacted our cast of characters as well. We were all very concerned about getting it right and honoring both the spirit of our show and doing justice to these important subjects. I know Christina had many conversations about, “Well, you know, do we wait a little later? Do we hide it at the end of the season?” And it felt a little inauthentic to wait. I don’t think anyone in our writers’ room wasn’t thinking or talking about this stuff. We knew that there was some risk involved in that, but once we got a hold of a story that encompassed all of our characters and revealed a lot about them as individuals and as a family, we realized early was the right time. We decided to go for this as our fifth episode of the show.

Kim: We were excited to be able to tell this story and to show that this subject matter affects the Shen family and how good television in the context of this world that we’ve created. Something that was important to us was showing different perspectives and points of view, even within the same family. The younger generation has about eight different perspectives than the older generation, and Jin and Mei-Li also have their perspectives. But in the end of this episode, through the course of the events in the episode, it has sparked a conversation. And to see the family come together and understand the different points of view, was something we thought was very beautiful and inspiring.

One of the things that struck me most about this episode was Mei-Li’s story and the past experiences she’s had. 

Berens: When we zeroed in on where she was coming from this whole episode, I think we were very careful not to depict her as any kind of reactionary or conservative exactly. But she does have different views than her kids do. The structure for turning back that layer where we see her clench up and close herself off to what’s going on, I think audiences may project that this is coming from a place of racism, and in truth, it’s coming from a place of trauma. Once we figured that out, it really did become, on a certain level, Mei-Li’s episode. It’s Nikki’s journey because she gets to stand up to her mother on righteous grounds and spur some growth and some disclosure, some honesty from Mei-Li, but it was turning back that layer and coming to understand where this is coming from and that Mei-Li is not clenched up out of racial animus but out of trauma because a minor act of vandalism is bringing back a significant act of racist vandalism from her past. That whole structure really unlocked the episode for us. And we knew that Kheng would hit it out of the park.

Just a small thing too, is that Mei-Li is a very tricky and complex authority character, and that’s what we love about her. What was really exciting was to show a secret she’s kept where once we understand what that secret is, we completely understand why she kept it. It’s a little miniature story; in a sense this episode because we come to understand she kept a secret from her family that was entirely rooted in a desire to protect them from some of the worst racist aspects of being an Asian American, being a Chinese American, even in a liberal city like San Francisco. I think for her, that was when it all gelled for us when we kind of fell in love with the story for her.

Is there a scene or a moment from this episode that elicits an emotional response?

Kim: There are a few moments. The moment when Mei-Li and Jin are finally revealing the story of what happened 25 years ago, for me, really resonated. I think about my own family and I think about my own parents and what it was like for them to come to this country, at this point more than 40 years ago, and things they had to go through, the racism they faced. And they didn’t tell me a lot of those stories until I was much older. When I watch that scene, I have a real emotional connection to the story.

Berens: The Joe and Ryan kiss at the end was really significant and meaningful. There’s a theme of Black-Asian solidarity that runs through the whole episode that was really important to us. But what I think would really touch and move me, in particularly, in Jon [Prasida] and Bradley [Gibson]’s performance of the scene is beyond the issues of the episode is grappling with. These are two human beings who have just gone through something together. Underneath it all, there’s a human need for connection and for each other. Ryan is struggling how to be an ally, how to be there. And just that moment where Joe needs Ryan to be there for him as a person, as a boyfriend, as a lover. I think that moment for me is always very emotional and very important.

Speaking of relationships, Althea and Dennis’ engagement and the fraught relationship that Althea has with Dennis’ parents… Where do they stand and where do you see them moving forward?

Kim: The beautiful thing about their relationship is they are the relationship that we aspire to have, which is they have such a wonderful understanding of each other and the way that they are handling all these huge issues — issues between the two families, the prenup coming up, the social class and economic class difference between the two families. There’s the issue of Althea’s secret and her career, and whether to work or not. We love being on this journey with them and watching how the two of them navigate those waters. We love that we’re showing a very healthy, adult relationship on TV.

Berens: At the same time, Althea has not yet disclosed to Dennis something that’s weighing very heavily on her. Their relationship has been built with her carrying that burden alone. Over the next few episodes, we’ll see that that continues to weigh on Althea, that she has not — in the interest of being a people-pleaser, in the interest of keeping those two aspects of identity of her life and her experience separate — it will continue to mount pressure on her. We’ll see how she reacts to that as a few more curveballs are thrown her way. 

If Althea does reach a point where she’s mentally and emotionally ready to tell Dennis about her past trauma as a sexual abuse survivor, could that potentially change their dynamic or relationship?

Berens: It’s hard to say without spoiling. I’ll just say that we’re very respectful that this not become a story about her owing him the whole truth or anything like that, that ultimately this is Althea’s story to figure out on her own terms when she’s ready to let people in, just as she chose on her own terms when to let Nicky know what had happened to her. We didn’t want to force her hand through dramatic cheap tricks. It is a story about her own journey and when she’s ready to tell others, when she’s ready to come forward.

With Nicky and Henry testing the relationship waters, where does the love triangle with Evan stand?

Kim: Things are heating up with Henry, but we are going to be seeing a different side to Evan. We’ll see what the person that Nicky loved back in the day. And I think that will complicate things in a really messy and delicious way, we think. We’re having a lot of fun with that storyline. The love triangle is indeed in place and going strong for this season.

What else do you want viewers to know about upcoming episodes?

Berens: We’re very excited about [episode] six, which is the action kicked into high gear. [Episode] five was a relatively action-free episode. There’s a lot of kick-ass action in six. There’s some romance and a little lovers conflict between Henry and Nicky. I can’t give any spoilers, but it’s a little bit of a midseason finale for the show, so a lot of the stories we’ve been playing come to something of a head in a fun and unexpected setting. We’re really excited for everyone to see it.

Kung Fu airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW. For more, watch below.

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