Down a Dark Stairwell

A Chinese American cop shoots and kills an innocent black man; suddenly two marginalized communities must navigate an uneven criminal justice system together.

A black woman in a dim hallway wearing a Justice for Akai Gurley hoodie speaks to an unseen person behind an apartment door; the unseen person's hand is in frame holding a flier
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
April 12, 2021
90 minutes
Funding Initiative
Diversity Development Fund
Open Call
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2020 Ashland Independent Film Festival-Best Documentary Feature
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2020 Indy Film Fest-Best Documentary
  • Filmmaker Ursula Liang headshot

    Ursula Liang

    Ursula Liang is a journalist who has told stories in a wide range of media. She has worked for The New York Times Op-Docs, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, Asia Pacific Forum on WBAI, StirTV, The Jax Show, Hyphen magazine and freelances as a film and television producer (Tough Love (POV), Wo Ai Ni Mommy (POV), UFC Countdown, UFC Primetime) Show more and story consultant. The New York Times described her debut feature 9-Man as “an absorbing documentary.” The film won numerous awards, including the CAAMFest 2015 Grand Jury prize, and aired on public television’s America ReFramed series. Liang also works for the film publicity company, the 2050 Group, is a founding member of the Filipino American Museum and sits on the advisory board of the Dynasty Project. Show less

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    Rajal Pitroda

    Rajal Pitroda is a producer of fiction and nonfiction films. She most recently produced Down a Dark Stairwell, which premiered at the 2020 True/False Film Festival. Her work has been supported by the Sundance Institute, Black Public Media, Firelight Media, Chicken & Egg Pictures, the Tribeca Film Institute, SFFILM, and others.

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    The Film

    On a fall day in 2014, Peter Liang, a Chinese American police officer, shot and killed an innocent, unarmed black man named Akai Gurley. Unfolding in the dark stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, the shooting inflamed the residents of New York City and thrust two marginalized communities into the uneven criminal justice system together. In the wake of Gurley’s death, cries of police brutality rang out to join a chorus protesting the recent police killings of two other unarmed black men in Staten Island and Ferguson, Missouri. Liang, 28, had joined a high-decibel national conversation about race and the justice system, one that got louder and angrier just days later when an officer in Cleveland, Ohio, shot and killed a 12-year-old African American boy playing with a toy gun. In this raging, anguished debate, a rallying point was the pronounced pattern of police officers, mostly white, avoiding criminal prosecution. Liang, however, was hit with a charge of manslaughter and, triggering a fresh wave of debate, became the first NYPD officer in over a decade to hear a guilty verdict in such a case.