A trailer released on Wednesday for the upcoming Sundance documentary “Free Chol Soo Lee” investigates the racial profiling of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American death row inmate wrongfully accused of a gang-related murder in the ‘70s.
The documentary will dive into Lee’s case after he was arrested and convicted of killing Yip Yee Tak in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1973, according to IndieWire. Co-directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, “Free Chol Soo Lee” will feature firsthand interviews with activists and archival footage to capture Lee’s legacy around five decades after the event that united Asian Americans to free an innocent man.
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“[K.W. Lee’s] series of stories helped trigger a landmark movement to free a wrongfully convicted man from death row,” Ha told IndieWire. “You pay attention, and it actually changes your whole world view and what might be your purpose in life. We just decided to dig in and excavate the story because we just knew it was too important not to be known.”
Tak was shot and killed on June 3, 1973, amid a gang war in Chinatown. Four days after the incident, police took Lee into custody. He was convicted on June 19, 1974 – solely based on the accounts of three white witnesses – and received a life imprisonment sentence.
On March 22, 1979, Lee was sentenced to death for killing neo-Nazi inmate Morrison Needham following an altercation, which he claimed to be self-defense.
Lee’s case ignited a movement within the Asian American community as its members fought to set a wrongfully convicted man free. Kyung Won Lee, an investigative journalist from the Sacramento Union, also started looking into the Chinatown murder case and published several articles in January 1978 questioning Lee’s life sentence verdict.
His work eventually prompted the formation of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee to help Lee get released from prison. Lee was acquitted in September 1982 for his first case, and California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal nullified his death sentence in January 1983.
“Free Chol Soo Lee” will premiere at the IFC Center in New York City on Aug. 12. A one-night-only simulcast screening event is also being planned by MUBI in more than 180 locations across the country. The event will occur on Aug. 17 during what would have been the week of Lee’s 70th birthday.
The Sundance documentary will start premiering in theaters on Aug. 19.