“Free Chol Soo Lee” charts the complicated history of a wrongful-conviction victim who became a figurehead for both Asian-American and prisoners’-rights activists in the 1970s and beyond. Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s film benefits from ample archival material, as well as latter-day input from surviving interviewees. Even so, it’s a tale ultimately more sad than inspiring, because Lee’s case embodies the odds stacked against even an exoneree adjusting successfully to civilian life after debilitating years in “the system.” With its focus on a fairly recent if little-remembered U.S. historical chapter and surrounding community activism, this involving documentary seems a natural fit for PBS and equivalent broadcast outlets.
Lee was born in Seoul in 1952, his mother moving alone to the U.S. soon thereafter, having been ostracized by her family for falling pregnant out of wedlock. (It is suggested that she was raped.) Fourteen years later she returned to retrieve him, yanking the boy from a happy childhood in an uncle’s home and plopping him into San Francisco’s Chinatown, while she worked multiple jobs. Chol had a hard time learning English, his isolation increased by always being “the only Korean” in schools and social groups dominated by Chinese émigrés.
This led to trouble, including teenage stints in juvenile hall and a psychiatric facility. By 1973 he was, in his own words, “just a young street punk” on the verge of 21, hanging out in gang-frequented pool halls and such. Employed as a barker outside a North Beach strip club, he stupidly asked to borrow a manager’s handgun, having never even held one before. That gun turned out to have been used in the execution-style killing of a gang member nearby, and with three witnesses soon identifying him as the perp, an incredulous Lee was swiftly convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
But those witnesses were, it eventually emerged, Caucasian tourists to whom “all Asians looked alike.” There was little effort to draw testimony from the many local passersby also present at the shooting. Lee’s friends weren’t the only people who came to believe he’d been railroaded, perhaps because rising gang violence in Chinatown had driven City Hall to put pressure on a none-too-racially-sensitive SFPD. Cries for a retrial built steam, particularly among young Korean-American and general social-justice activists. It was fired further by the involvement of investigative journalist Kyung Won Lee and, eventually, flamboyant civil rights attorney Tony Serra.
This cause’s relatively high profile is borne out by extensive vintage video footage, including material shot at Deuel Vocational Institution, where Chol was incarcerated. Handsome and charismatic, he appears untouched by his surroundings. Yet that was hardly the case, as a purported contract taken out on his life (for crossing racial lines within in the highly segregated state prison) led to his killing an Aryan Nation-affiliated fellow inmate in claimed self-defense. This resulted in a second murder conviction, even as demands escalated that his first be thrown out. Nonetheless, after a decade behind bars — much spent on Death Row — he was freed.
That great victory would soon grow bittersweet, for reasons detailed in “Free Chol Soo Lee’s” later going. Expected to reassimilate into a society he’d never found solid footing in to begin with, Lee faced celebrity status and high expectations on the one hand, while having few marketable skills or coping mechanisms on the other. Succumbing first to substance abuse, then to gang alliances (for the first time, despite prior accusations), he got badly burned in an arson fire he’d been hired to set.
Contrite and in great pain, he died three years before a prison memoir called “Freedom Without Justice” was published in 2017. Despite his media profile, he’d never been fully comfortable as a public speaker. An earlier indignity had been the 1989 release of “True Believer,” a heavily fictionalized Hollywood feature that used the case as pretext for a James Woods vehicle, casting the star as Tony Serra in all but name.
Several key participants in this history are no longer with us, including student activist turned S.F. Public Defender (and sometime documentarian) Jeff Adachi, to whom the film is dedicated. Still, there’s valuable insight from numerous remaining allies, underlining the focal point that Lee’s case became for Korean-Americans within the larger Asian-American political movements of the era. We also see footage of related protests, various reenactments undertaken to determine what really happened to 1973 murder victim Yip Yee Tak and a brief animation of old jailyard clips illustrating what Lee called “the living hell of the California prison system.” His own words (adapted from “Freedom Without Justice”) are read in voiceover narration by Sebastian Yoon, himself an ex-convict turned prisoners’ advocate.
It’s a well-crafted enterprise that leaves its human subject a bit of an enigma, albeit one we empathize with enough to feel sorely disappointed that his tumultuous life never arrived at a place of security or peace. The sense of potential unfulfilled is poignantly emphasized by soundtrack use of “You’re Still a Young Man,” a minor 1972 hit for Bay Area band Tower of Power that Lee heard on the radio when he was being transported to state lockup.
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