Allison Waite (Courtesy of Allison Waite)

The impact of COVID-19 continues to challenge how we continue living and celebrating our lives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has chosen to present the 2020 Student Academy Awards virtually on Wednesday, October 21.

To win a Student Academy Award is a very big deal and past winners have gone on to win Oscars and become legends like Pete Docter, Cary Fukunaga and of course Spike Lee (the one and only!).

To say that it’s competitive is like highlighting that mountains are high and dangerous to climb and oceans are so deep that the majority of them are still unexplored.

This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected 18 winners culled from nearly 1,500 entries from domestic and international universities. Walking confidently into her legacy is L.A. native (Inglewood) Allison A. Waite for her documentary “The Dope Years: The Story of Latasha Harlins.”

In the documentary Waite rewinds the clock to reexamine the tragedy of the 1991 shooting of Latasha Harlins in Los Angeles and although it’s hard to revisit it’s more than necessary since the murder of Black people continues unabated.

In Latasha Harlins’ case, just a young woman, 15-years-old, shopping in her local corner store when she was murdered, shot to death by Soon Ja Du (Hangul:두순자), a 51-year-old Korean-born female convenience store owner.

Allison Waite and her crew filming “The Dope Years: The Story of Latasha Harlins.” | (Courtesy of Allison Waite)

Allison A. Waite has skills and is well trained in her craft. The award-winning director and cinematographer obtained her MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in Film & Television Production with a cinematography concentration as a George Lucas Foundation Scholar.

Activism can come in many forms and for Waite, it’s filmmaking and an aim to give unresolved stories a voice and spark connections within her community.

Besides, to the Student Academy Award, Waite has received recognition from the Princess Grace Foundation HBO film Award.

To quote the late Malcolm X, who summed up the plights of Black women with eerie accuracy — “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

Here is what award-winning director and cinematographer Allison A. Waite had to share about being 1 of 18 winners of the 2020 Student Academy Awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her documentary “The Dope Years: The Story of Latasha Harlins.” In our phone conversation she thanked the Los Angeles Sentinel because in her research in the life of Latasha Harlins, she found 60% of her facts from stories reported in the newspaper.

LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: 1 of 18 winners selected. Congratulations. How does winning a Student Academy Award make you feel?

Latasha Harlins

ALLISON A. WAITE: Honestly, it’s still soaking it in.

LAS: Did you know the late Latasha Harlins?

AAW: No. I was born after she died. I never knew her at all. But I got to know her by the woman in the film.

LAS: How did this film come to you?

ASW: I’ve been interested in Latasha’s story for a long time. I started researching her in 2014 and when I started that research on the wrongful death of Black children [she was 15 when she was murdered] this was around the same time of the Ferguson protests [after Michael Brown’s death, 2017] so I decided to focus on that for my thesis in undergrad. I didn’t know about her story until 2014 when I started researching about how a [Black] child can also be seen as a target and how Black women are villanized or are a target.

LAS: It feels like your motivation was personal, was it?

ASW: I grew up in the same area that Latasha grew up in. I’ve even passed the liquor [convenice] store where she was murdered many times and had no idea although I had always heard about the uprising from my family members and the effect that it had on the city. But like many other people, the focus was on Rodney King, and rarely were we ever privy to that missing puzzle piece which was Latasha and once I started reading articles about her I discovered that there was only one book written about her.

LAS: Where did you find most of the research then?

ASW: I used Facebook and someone connected with Latasha’s aunt, Denise Harlins and she was a huge activist in the community after she was murdered. She took upon herself to share Latasha’s story. She died in 2018 and I built a relationship with her for over two years, or so, when she died, I realized that there was a time limit on this story. Thinking about all the people who grew up with her and went to school with her that grew up on the block around that same time, I realized that these people are leaving us and how we have a piece of history and these stories die with them.

“The Dope Years: The Untold Story of Latasha Harlins” by Allison Waite

LAS: You didn’t want people to forget Latasha Harlins.

ASW: Yes, I did not want people to forget Latasha Harlins. I wanted people to have a reference, something to go to learn more about her. You know her aunt kept a binder about Latasha and I’d say about 30 to 40% of the articles in that binder came from the [Los Angeles] Sentinel.

LAS: How old was Latasha when she was murdered?

ASW: She was 15-years-old.

LAS: And the woman that murdered Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, did she go to prison?

ASW: She never went to prison. Soon Ja Du was tried and convicted of voluntary manslaughter in Harlins’ death but served no jail time. She was given probation and paid the family 500.00 dollars.

LAS: Mercy. That’s very hard to process it, to be frank.

“The Dope Years: The Untold Story of Latasha Harlins” by Allison Waite

ASW: What was really interesting and shocking in talking with another woman that was in the film, who grew up with Latasha and they became best friends with her when they were growing up. She said that Soon Ja Du would often point that gun at other children in the neighborhood. She said [this action] was a regular occurrence.

LAS: What were you working on now?

ASW: I just finished a project. I was the DP [director of photography] on a project called “Triggers” it’s about a Black woman that balances schizophrenia. Personally, I have more focused on directing just because those are the opportunities that I have been presented with. I am just moving in that direction and I am right now directing a film about a Black woman who is in her last trimester and her experience with the American health care system.

LAS: What themes does your filmmaking center around?

ASW: My filmmaking centers around Black children. I like to research and write, and direct stories about Black children and growing up Black in different parts of the world. Their search for identity and substance and identity of self, race, and place. Growing up Black and the different complexities that come with that.

LAS: What do you want to say to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for choosing “The Dope Years: The Story of Latasha Harlins” as 1 of 18 to win the 2020 Student Academy Awards.

ASW: I think it means a lot that they are paying attention to our story because the Academy is a platform that has this huge responsibility because they are the gatekeepers of the industry. They tell us which stories and narratives are relevant and necessary and they validate them. I can see them with their new inclusion standards for their best picture category, that they are implementing in the next three years, that they are taking necessary first steps in helping the world to be exposed and pay attention to these types of stories and other lifestyles previously that have never been exposed to or were deemed as not important. I am grateful that they have paid attention to Latasha Harlins’ story and that they have put her on a platform for the world to acknowledge and for the world to learn more about and to learn from her story, and the history that followed behind it. I just want to thank the Academy for creating the space for us to further discuss Black bodies and what they are going through in different parts of the world. I think we are not where we need to be but I think it’s a first step and I am just appreciative of them acknowledging us, our work, and Latasha Harlins and her legacy.

To learn more, go to Student Academy Awards.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.