Joey Nolfi
August 15, 2017 AT 10:00 AM EDT

In an age when violent protesters march the streets of Virginia in the name of white nationalism, writer-director-star Justin Chon’s latest film, Gook, hits theaters as an essential piece of the race relations puzzle — one that can inspire empathy and cross-cultural understanding amid chaos and fiery contention.

“Twenty-five years later is a good milestone to take a look back and gauge where we are now,” Chon tells EW of the L.A. Riots-set film, which follows a pair of Korean-American brothers who run a family shoe store in the California city as communities struggle to coexist under the overarching burden of inequality — that, in this case, often manifested in cross-community violence and ruthless abuse of authority. “As we all know, there are certain things that haven’t changed in terms of police brutality. It’s crazy to see we haven’t progressed.”

Where society has failed, however, Chon has succeeded in honing his voice, crafting easily one of the best films of the year, filmed in black-and-white, sapping color from an already dreary socio-political landscape. One pivotal moment — which EW can exclusively reveal in the clip above — sees a young girl, Kamilla (American Horror Story‘s Simone Baker), bonding with Eli (Chon) after his car is spray-painted with the film’s titular slur.

Samuel Goldwyn Films

“In that moment, Eli has a choice. He can perpetuate the cycle of hate and teach her the racial slur, or he can decide to teach her the literal meaning of the word in the mother tongue,” Chon says of the scene. “‘Gook’ in Korean actually means ‘country’… ‘Mi gook’ directly translated means ‘beautiful country’… in that moment, Eli sees an innocent child hasn’t learned that hatred yet, and she’s a bridge between communities. He chooses to protect her, and teaches her the literal definition.”

Gook hits theaters in Los Angeles on Aug. 18, followed by a limited nationwide expansion — including New York City — on Aug. 25. Watch EW’s exclusive clip from the film above, and read on for our full conversation with Chon.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This film is so intimate yet so expansive in that it covers race relations against the backdrop of the L.A. Riots. Why did you choose to set the film at that time?
JUSTIN CHON:
 Twenty-five years [after the riots] is a good milestone to take a look back and gauge where we are. As we all know, there are certain things that haven’t changed in terms of police brutality. It’s crazy to see we haven’t progressed. In terms of inner-ethnical relations, we’ve come very far. To me, it’s always about telling a story that’s never been told. In this film, we’re talking about things people don’t talk about. Usually, we see issues between black and white, but we never talk about issues between black and Mexican or black and Asian. When a person thinks about an average Asian-American, they’d never think of them as Daniel and Eli [but] these are kids I grew up with.

When we have seen explorations of those different types of race relations, it’s traditionally been from a white filmmaker, like Paul Haggis did with Crash. Why did it take so long to see more?
We don’t get the opportunities… without a huge financial backer, it’s hard to get the money to explore a film like this… I read a few scripts and auditioned for a ton [of other L.A. Riots films] over the last 10 years, but I’d never seen any from a Korean-American’s perspective that authentically portrayed how we, as a community, feel. They’re usually from a white or black perspective; that’s not the reality I live. It’s important that I was at the table for this conversation, especially with this event, as Koreans were the most financially [burdened] by [the L.A. Riots], besides the city of Los Angeles.

Does that give you a greater responsibility to the community?
Part of me was like, will anyone even care? That was my first fear; [I thought] if they did, it’d be with a critical eye – even in my own community. I felt like I was on an island, because here I am talking about race relations and intergenerational relations, but also talking about racial slurs within my own ethnicity. It’s a lot to take on, but that’s why it’s necessary. As an actor, the roles I’ve played and things I’ve been allowed to say as an Asian-American actor, the spectrum was very small, and as a filmmaker, if I’m going to raise my own money and work outside the system, I have to go all out. I can’t shy away. Let’s talk about these things head on!

I interviewed Margaret Cho recently, and she spoke about moving the needle in a more progressive direction for Asians in media. Is the industry changing for the better?
Margaret’s a pioneer. She had her own sitcom in the ‘90s, and we’re in 2017 now. [As little progress has been made], we can’t negate the fact that within the last 15 years, since I‘ve started acting, it has changed. The biggest difference I see is between diversity and representation. Diversity is, okay, we’re at the table, we’re part of the machine, we’re allowed to be there; representation is [asking], is the material accurate, is it authentic, is it reflective of actual experiences of Asian-Americans living in America? Especially with Gook, that was huge consideration of mine.

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