When 17-year-old Darnella Frazier filmed the police killing of George Floyd on her phone in May, her video reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests, even prompting one supporter to name her “the Rosa Parks of her generation.” In addition to setting off policy debates about police reform, the protests have also renewed interest in books, visual art and movies, especially documentaries about race and social justice.
Ava DuVernay’s “13TH,” her Academy Award-nominated film about the disproportionate criminalization and incarceration of African-Americans from the end of slavery until today, was originally released in 2016 but has been among Netflix’s most-watched films, let alone documentaries, in recent weeks. Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” from 2015, about the rise of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and ’70s and its continuing influence in American culture and politics, has gotten new life, running as part of a PBS rebroadcast earlier this month and getting showcased on Amazon Prime Video. And on Hulu, “Whose Streets?,” the 2018 directorial debut of Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, follows a group of young, Black Ferguson protesters and their families, at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, when a white police officer killed an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, in St. Louis.
While these films span time periods and political movements, they all share an unflinching commitment to racial justice and depict Black resistance and African-American resilience as a powerful strategy against white supremacy. But they also all recognize the entrenched obstacles — be it local police forces, F.B.I. surveillance or the National Guard lobbing tear gas against peacefully protesting Americans — that are systematically used against African-Americans in their long struggle for the full rights, benefits and equal protection under the law to which they are entitled.
I met virtually with DuVernay in Los Angeles, Nelson in Martha’s Vineyard, Folayan in Philadelphia, and Davis in St. Louis for a lively and powerful discussion on race, the African-American documentary tradition, and the power of film in our current moment. These filmmakers all knew one another and were fans of each other’s work, so despite the weight of the topic and the tragedy that brought us together, this intergenerational dialogue was intimate and familiar, turning the flattened reality of a Zoom call into a family reunion on a warm, summer day. These are excerpts from that conversation.
SALAMISHAH TILLET These days, the moving image has become the primary medium through which most of us interpret African-American life and often tragically witness Black death. As documentary filmmakers, how do you think the moving image shapes our responses to racial injustice?
STANLEY NELSON Moving images have been in some ways really responsible for people getting out on the streets all over the country. I have 21-year-old twins in New York and a 30-year-old daughter in Atlanta, and they see things going on in their town, and they want to be part of it. You see that you don’t have to start a movement, there’s already something happening and you can just join in. And if you look at any of the marches, everybody is filming, everybody has their phone out, so we are going to have a whole bunch of films and images we haven’t seen yet. What we’ve basically seen is the video that was done of George Floyd being murdered.
AVA DuVERNAY The murder of him on tape affected me so differently than so many of the other very violent, racist images that I have to watch for my work, thousands of hours of it. There was something about [the video of Floyd’s killing] in the way that it was framed. Center frame, right in the middle of the camera, with the cop looking right at the sister. She’s talking to him. Everyone is talking to him, saying, “We see you doing this.” Sunglasses on top of the head, hand in the pocket, cavalierly killing this man as he begged for his life. Those images are tough images to watch.
NELSON The other images have been on the networks, and I’m glad that they are covering it but I’m surprised they are kind of back from the action. I’ve heard so many anchors say to their producers or camera people, “Be safe, get out of there now.” That’s not the documentary tradition that I come from that says, “Get in there.” I think that’s the difference between the networks and Damon’s and Sabaah’s film on Ferguson, where they were up close. I remember when we saw the first cut of that film and saw the tear roll out of a cop’s eye. They were in their faces. We haven’t seen films yet [that will emerge from] the middle of what’s going on, and I think that’s going to be amazing to see that stuff.
SABAAH FOLAYAN As first-time filmmakers, Damon and I were really keen about what a documentary can do. There are these two poles, the informational talking-head documentary and the character-driven narrative, and there was so much pressure to pick one. There was so much pressure to pick one activist. What we were trying to do was marry a little bit of this larger picture and a lot of this personal and heart work, which is why I came back to the children [of some of the activists], which is why I came back to the questions of mental health and personal sacrifice.
DAMON DAVIS We’re learning on the fly. Ferguson was a major flash point for our youth, and we just wanted Black people to be safe. We were trying to make sure that Black folks saw themselves. And we made whatever film we needed to make to protect each other. One thing I personally have learned is it ain’t just the state that is hurting Black people. Being out on the street taught me about violence against women, against trans women. And to listen and take leadership from women and queer Black people. Stuff my father didn’t have to do when he was a Black Panther. They weren’t talking or thinking about these things in the same way.
TILLET That brings up another point about your films. How important is history to the story you are telling?
NELSON One of the things that documentary films do is allow us to look back. I knew how the Black Panther Party was portrayed, and I knew there was a different story and that the Panthers were heroes for us, rightly or wrongly. So we wanted to investigate and find out what happened to their legacy. Near the end of us making the film, the Black Lives Matter movement jumped off. I remember the day, we were in the editing room and we were just like, holy crap, this is even becoming more relevant. The Panthers started because of the police violence in Oakland. It was important for us that you understand that it wasn’t like there was police violence in 1966 and then it disappeared until 2014 [with the killing of Michael Brown]. It was a continuum, it had been happening before in 1966 and been happening all through that time.
DuVERNAY I’ve tried to maintain a foothold in both narrative and doc work because they serve different purposes to the same end goal. When you’re dealing with layers and layers of interlocking systems, which is criminalization, mass incarceration, policing and racism, you have to fight with multiple weapons, I try to employ everything at my disposal — television, film, documentary, narrative. Hell, I’m working on a podcast. But, a big part of documentary film is that you can actually reimagine the production of history. You have to analyze where the silences in those historical narratives are and what’s been remembered and what’s been forgotten, and what are the inequities that are revealed through the absence of so much. That was really the endeavor that we undertook with “13TH,” which allowed me to interrogate the power structures, the systems, and the way that history is produced and just kind of accepted wholesale as the truth and fact.
TILLET In “Whose Streets?” you emphasized that Blackness is a diverse identity. You even included a Black queer couple getting married. Why were those perspectives important for you to include it in a film about Black Lives Matter?
FOLAYAN It was what was happening. We decided going in that we were going to respect what this movement was trying to say, that our perspective was to trust Black folks, trust our people, and tell the story through their eyes, and so when it became clear that the people who were putting their bodies on the line were also insisting that we look at gender differently, that we treat queer folks differently, that we not ask them to leave their identities behind, we had our mandate.
NELSON In “The Black Panthers,” we had a whole women’s section, and me and the editor who is another Black man pretty much cut it out, and the producer Laurens Grant, who is a woman, was like, “What the hell are you doing? You’ve got to put that back.” She was 100 percent right, and that’s what happens when you have diverse people around, right? Black women wouldn’t have been there, then the film would have been so much not as good.
TILLET Art cannot prevent the real-world tragedies that we’ve recently seen, but what are some lessons we could have learned from your films that shape where we go next?
DuVERNAY The thing that challenges me about “13TH” are people like, I watched it, I’m caught up. It was just supposed to be an opening to say, look at all of this history that you weren’t taught and you don’t know. That whole film was 100 minutes long and it addresses 100-plus years of Black history, and I wanted it to be a primer. The film was very basic for Black people with a certain consciousness, and revelatory for people who have never heard of it. It should be an opening to more work and more films, more reading, more learning.
NELSON I’ve done a bunch of historical films. I think that it’s a roller coaster. It’s not like this drive that just continues upward to freedom. We want to hope it is, but that’s not what it is. We continue to fight, to struggle, and we make change. At this moment, there’s so many young people out there, for the first time. And they’ve just got to keep fighting and understand that it’s a long struggle, and I’m happy that it is in their hands. I have a lot of confidence in young people to make change.
FOLAYAN In “Whose Streets?” you can learn about direct action, militarization, the media, police violence, children’s roles in the movement. But if you’re going to wait until someone dies to learn about it and then as soon as things cool off it’s back to Frappuccinos and gluten-free this, that, and a third, we’re going to be back here over and over and over again.
DAVIS I just hope that Black folks see themselves and love themselves, especially in moments like this. Instead of us trying to teach them everything, check on your folks and make sure your people are all right because all of the gas that we’ve got to burn to teach these people basic human stuff, just how to be humans, you lose yourself in it. So that’s what I hope for the audience we were talking to, that we take care of ourselves, and whatever that might be, and I hope that we learn that we aren’t crazy, the world is.
DuVERNAY We had to stop our mourning, our rage, our grief, our instinct to survive to educate. Until the society as a whole can give a damn enough about someone other than themselves, particularly Black people in this country, then you know, I think this is just going to be a really interesting time in somebody else’s documentary without having the forward movement that we need to see for real change.
Stream Their Films
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution” is available on Amazon Prime Video.
“13TH” is available on Netflix.
The post We Asked Four Documentarians: How Does Film Shape the Fight for Racial Justice? appeared first on New York Times.