If there’s one thing D. Lee Inosanto is no stranger to, it’s martial arts. Her father is martial arts legend Dan Inosanto, her godfather was the late Bruce Lee (whom she refers to simply as “Uncle Bruce”), and Inosanto herself is a highly trained martial artist who has worked as a stunt person on projects from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Face/Off.
So when Inosanto decided to write, direct and star in her first feature film, it made sense that it would take place in the world she knows so well. But what might catch people off guard is the story she chose to tell.
Inosanto’s feature, The Sensei, is set in a small Colorado town in 1985, the early years of the AIDS epidemic. McClain (played by Mike O’Laskey) is a gay teenager who is constantly being ostracized. He tries to sign up for classes at the local martial arts dojo to learn to protect himself, but they won’t accept him either. Enter Karen (D. Lee Inosanto), the black sheep of the family that runs the dojo who returns to the town after several years away. Karen privately trains McClain, and the two develop a friendship until a secret Karen harbors changes everything.
Tackling issues like AIDS and homophobia in a martial arts setting may seem odd, but it made perfect sense to Inosanto. The inspiration came from a family friend named Gilbert Johnson who was an editor/ publisher of martial arts subjects.
“He was the first person I knew to contract AIDS,” Inosanto said. “He was a straight man, a very conservative man — the last person you would expect to get AIDS. But in his final months, he became an activist — marching alongside the gay community. He was one of my favorite people.”
By the mid-’90s, AIDS had impacted major sports figures like Magic Johnson. Inosanto’s own cousin came out around this time as a lesbian, and Matthew Shepherd was killed in a high-profile hate crime. All inspired Inosanto to write The Sensei.
“Being a child of a mixed marriage instilled in me the idea that any type of prejudice is wrong,” she said. “That was the drive behind the film.”
Shot on a low budget, the project faced many hurdles on the way to the big screen. The school where the shooting was originally to take place pulled its support after realizing the lead character was a gay teen (making news nationwide when the Associated Press picked up the story), and one of the main funders pulled out after the controversy broke.
Another possible problem was the martial arts community’s conservatism and its sometimes blatant homophobia.The Sensei’s trailer was first screened in public at a large martial arts convention in Las Vegas where Chuck Norris’ birthday was being celebrated. Inosanto worried how the trailer might be accepted, but was surprised by the reaction.
“So many people came up to me afterward and said ‘thank you,’” Inosanto said.
Since then, she has received similar reactions. Many of the strongest supporters are martial artists who are gay but in the closet, or others who cannot openly take a stance.
“This one guy in Alaska said his black belt would be stripped away if he took in a gay student,” she said. “Even with all the progress, it’s clear we still have a long way to go.”
The Sensei makes its world premiere at the 24th annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival running through May 8. The Sensei screens on May 4 at 4 p.m. at the Directors Guild of America in West Hollywood. For more info: vconline.org.
Philip W. Chung is a writer and co-artistic director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble. Lodestone’s latest production of Trapezoid runs until May 25 in L.A.: lodestonetheatre.org.