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For filmmaker and Rosemount native Naomi Ko, Hollywood is racist, sexist, ageist and, to add to the list, regionalist. But the 29-year-old Korean American has never shied away from confronting those very issues while writing a film or a pilot episode of a TV show. The best way to tackle white supremacy, Ko jokes, is to satirize it.
Ko may be best known for her pilot, “Nice,” a 30-minute pilot that won strong reviews as an official selection at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. In it, Ko plays Teddy Park, a 20-something Korean American woman from Minnesota, who’s obsessed with fantasy football. Despite the title, a nod to the phenomenon of “Minnesota Nice,” Teddy is anything but nice when she finds out she has breast cancer—again. In 2014, Ko also starred as Sungmi in “Dear White People,” which was filmed a few doors down from the governor’s mansion in St. Paul.
Ko is currently developing Good Genes, a feature film about a group of female scientists of color. After they create their own personal genetic ancestry company, the lab results reveal the not-so-white ancestry of even white supremacists. At the moment, Ko is a couple of bad drafts into the process, she said.
In Hollywood’s #OscarsSoWhite era, it would seem like the right time for Ko to make a breakthrough. (Never mind that growing up, she said, there were only a few quality characters who looked like her on screen: namely, Sandra Oh, in Grey’s Anatomy, and the pink Power Ranger.)
But the film industry (like so many other American industries) suffered a blow when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. More than 170,000 industry workers lost their jobs after studios and film shoots went on hiatus. Fleeing the economic crisis in Hollywood—and her roommate, who worked in a hospital in Los Angeles—Ko moved home. (On the way, she heard some racist coronavirus-related comments, directed toward Asian people, in the bathroom of LAX.)
Back home in Savage, Ko is scrambling to find a home for her pilot while also producing new projects amid a pandemic. On top of that, Ko runs the Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) Minnesotan Film Collective in St. Paul’s East Side, which provides aspiring artists and filmmakers with mentors and training opportunities. Oh yeah, and she’s ruthless on Twitter, where she tweets about the United States Postal Service and calls out racists. In other words, Ko is busy working.
Sahan Journal spoke with Ko about racism in the film industry (hint: it’s not subtle), the economic crisis artists are facing in a pandemic, and what it was like coming home just before the police killing of George Floyd. The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
How are you spending your time in quarantine right now?
With my parents which is…interesting as a grown adult. But I feel like I’ve been busier than ever with the pandemic and the revolution in the Twin Cities. I’m just naturally a busy person, but the pandemic really kind of exacerbated it and highlighted the reality of what artists, and especially Black, indigenous artists of color, face in the country.
Artists in general are just not valued. And then artists of color are super, super not valued. So the pandemic really brought to light the wage disparities in the industry.
Can you walk me through what it was like coming back for a seemingly indefinite period of time, during a pandemic and the George Floyd protests?
I split my time between Los Angeles and Minnesota. At the time, my roommate in LA was a resident at a hospital. So I was just like, peace out. I went back to my parents’ in March, and that was interesting. But it’s also hard to watch what my parents are going through, because they’re U.S. postal workers.
Also, I’m Korean American and we all know how Trump was blaming China for COVID-19. And how many Americans cannot differentiate between different East Asian identities and nationalities. So flying back to Minnesota was pretty difficult.
In January, I was coming back from Minnesota to LA and someone was like, “You’re the reason why COVID-19 is happening,” in my face in the bathroom of LAX. And I just looked at her like, “I just flew from Minnesota.” I said that really aggressively, because I don’t have time for that bullshit anymore.
But coming back to what happened with George Floyd was really difficult, because I wasn’t surprised. I was born and raised in Minnesota. My family used to live in Cedar–Riverside, so I know how people treat Black folks in this state. And in some ways, I just knew. It’s so hard to articulate, because I feel like I’m still processing it. It was heartbreaking, because I wished we were better than that, that our community was better than that, but we’re not.
It’s really hard for me to answer this question because I have such conflicting feelings about it. It makes me so angry that it happened in Minnesota. But then it also makes me really angry that it had to take George Floyd to have Minnesota finally care about these issues.
Some folks rose up and some folks didn’t, and that made me really angry. And then it really made me angry as somebody who is a part of the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) community in Minnesota to see how divided we were and how anti-Black some members of our community were.
Have you noticed a change in the sort of conversations that the Asian American community is having regarding racism—sort of within and without?
I remember talking with my parents about this—like, my dad who is a South Korean immigrant. And then I found out that my other Korean friends were also discussing police brutality and anti-Blackness, too. When talking with our parents, we had to equate it to how Japanese imperialists treated Koreans before the Korean War.
What about in the film industry? How has the discussion about race and “representation” progressed—or not?
The conversation about representation is kind of a double-edged sword for me. That’s my one criticism that I do have of certain members of the APIDA communities, because they are so gung ho about representation.
But what is APIDA representation? Is it rich East Asians? Because if it is, I don’t want to be a part of that. I didn’t grow up rich and even if I was rich, that’s not interesting. Rich people cannot just be a story.
There’s a lot of talk about, how do we uplift Black, indigenous and POC voices? And how are we going to do that in a way that makes long-term change? That is still to be seen. I know it’s not quite there yet. I want to see barriers eliminated, because if you say that you really care about representation, then why is the industry still making it so hard for diverse and marginalized and underrepresented voices to enter it?
It’s not a representation issue. It’s an economic issue, it’s a social justice issue. If we’re not having these nuanced conversations about representation then I just don’t give a fuck about representation.
How are these changing conversations affecting how you perceive your own role in the film industry?
I have to help bring the change because I’ve been in film and TV for six years now. “Dear White People” was my first introduction to film and television ever. You can tweet about it, and you can rant about it. But I’m tired of talking about it and I’d rather just do something about it.
That made me realize that the work that I was doing on a small scale with APIA MN Film Collective needed to expand on a larger scale. It just came down to the point where it was so hard to participate in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. I know people who are Oscar-nominated filmmakers who get into the diversity, equity and inclusion phase. Like, do you have to be that accomplished to get into this program? I thought I was okay, but no, I’m not. I’ve never won a Golden Globe before, so that’s not going to happen.
I’m kind of following what some pioneers are doing, like Ava DuVernay, who saw there’s a distribution problem for Black filmmakers. So she created her own distribution company. I think if you’re going to be an effective creator, you can’t just be like, “I’m just going to hire diverse folks,” and then not hire them because they don’t meet the qualifications.
I saw that as an opportunity. We have to provide a chance for them to build their skills so they have qualifications to go after these jobs.
Did it feel like you were just about to breakthrough? Do you feel like that progress in the film industry is on hold because of the pandemic?
For sure. Film is a medium that needs to be done in person and needs to be done with a lot of people. We had to cancel one of our onset production training programs this summer, where we pair experienced filmmakers as mentors for other film collective members, who were paid and got hands-on training. That was our most successful program to date because it actually gave folks the opportunity to learn and to have access to filmmakers.
With the pandemic, we had to cancel this year’s onset production lab. The only way to improve ourselves, to become more skilled and to become stronger storytellers is to do the work. And, all of us sitting in front of our computers on Zoom isn’t necessarily going to do that.
The pandemic has also shifted priorities from funders, investors, from people who are donating. People don’t value the arts and they don’t value artists. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t donate to doctors and nurses: We need that of course. But many times, art is the first thing to go. And it’s not just the art that’s going to be lost, it’s the livelihood of artists.
Tell me something I might not know about the network of APIDA talent in the Twin Cities? Can you give me some insight into that world?
We’re so talented! The APIDA community in Minnesota is incredibly unique because we’re so diverse. We come from strong, resilient communities, and that has directly impacted our work. What makes APIDA filmmakers here very exciting is we’re able to create narratives and talk about stories in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
There’s a lot of really great narratives that don’t necessarily have to do with what I like to call old school APIDA narratives: ‘My parents don’t understand me! They’re immigrants! Am I Asian or am I American? Two halves don’t make a whole!’
There’s a trend in the APIDA filmmakers here, and also just other artists here, where I think we’re evolving that narrative to be more than just simply identity issues.
People of color in Minnesota are really confident in our stories, our narratives and in ourselves. And we are unwilling to compromise on how we’re going to tell those stories. We’re unwilling to explain what our ethnic backgrounds are or what our religions are. We just take you right to it. You’ll figure it out.
The one thing that APIDA, and just generally BIPOC filmmakers in Minnesota do really well, is we grew up speaking in code anyway. That’s “Minnesota nice.” So we’re really good at subtext already because everything we’re saying is basically subtext all the time. Which makes us natural screenwriters because the art of film is all about subtext.
I went through this period where I hated being “Minnesota nice.” But it actually became a really powerful tool. My Minnesota nice upbringing helped me really figure out what people’s intentions were very quickly. So, thanks Minnesota, you taught me that.
Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.