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.

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.

THE SENSEI takes place in a small, conservative town during the rise of the AIDS panic it inspired in communities in the late 1980s. Young McClain is a gay teen that is constantly harassed and ostracized in his provincial town. Karen Nakano-O’Neil, once denied her black belt for being a woman, is haunted by the memories of her fiancé, boxer Mark Corey. She returns home, after a five-year absence to make amends with her Asian American family–owners of a successful martial arts business and proud members of their local church. When three teens hospitalize McClain after a near-fatal beating and are then released on bail, Annie, McClain’s outraged mother, asks Karen to teach McClain martial arts. Fearful of small town retaliation and her family’s disapproval, Karen agrees to secretly teach McClain, training him at night to protect them both. But when McClain intercedes to protect a friend from being bullied, Karen and McClain’s teacher-student relationship is publicly revealed, becoming the town scandal. Karen and her family must ride the wave of hate and tolerance, while Karen’s own mysterious past with Mark Corey is exposed. Reminiscently told in a conversation between the young man, McClain, and a Minister, The SENSEI is an examination of the prejudices that allow hatred to continue, and the people that find their own humanity in their darkest hour.