Racial issues highlighted in student documentary

February 19th, 2015


Part-time lecturer of philosophy Chris Rawls and a small group of students began working on a documentary back in September. The topic? Racism. The film is not for a class, none of the students receive academic credit and no one is being paid for their work.


“Everybody’s just doing it just to see what it’s like to make a short documentary,” said Rawls.


The project first began when Rawls thought about the possibility of working on a documentary.


“I realized that I’ve been making short movies all my life, in one way or another, for fun,” she said.


“I just started brainstorming and then I realized, ‘Wait a minute, I’m at a university with a famous communications program, and a TV studio, and a radio program,’” explained Rawls.


About a month after the group first met, the members chose their topic.


Rawls said the students chose the topic due to their diverse backgrounds. “We have students from every type of background on this crew,” she added.


The group includes six students: Senior Bonnie Taylor, juniors Isaac Turner and Tim Maxwell and sophomores Ninti Crump, Brittney Seals and Erica Pollice. Assistant professor of philosophy Patrick Mooney narrates the film.


“The documentary is going to be on racism, but it’s going to be from different perspectives,” said Rawls. “And particularly though, showing how it’s still very, very much a problem in America.”


Seals, a communication major, talked about her involvement in the project.


“It’s been a learning experience because in the first couple of weeks, we did a lot of discussion, talking about our experiences with racism and how [the other students] view racism and if they’ve seen it,” said Seals.


In regards to the topic of racism, Crump said, “It wasn’t necessarily something I paid that much attention to before. But now, it’s just in my face all of the time.”


Rawls described how she first went to Diana Taylor, chair of the philosophy department, to pitch her idea for a documentary. After getting her approval, Rawls said, “The next thing I did was I asked my classes, ‘Anybody want to make a documentary?’”


Some of her students expressed an interest in working on the project.


“And I got volunteers, tons of volunteers,” said Rawls. “This is for no credit. There’s no course here. There’s no pay.”


“All of my suggestions on Netflix just so happen to be documentaries,” said Maxwell. “If that’s what I’m watching, why not go out and make something that is like that?”


The crew is aiming for the documentary to be between 26 and 45 minutes long. They hope to premiere the film on campus on Friday, May 1, the reading day before final exams.


The documentary does not yet have a title, but the students have already brainstormed ideas.


“We have a whole notebook just full of titles,” said Crump.


Rawls described the benefits the students have received so far from working on this documentary.


“We’re learning about art. We’re learning about philosophy,” said Rawls. “We’re learning about critical race theory. We’re learning about race relations in America, race relations between students.”


The topic of the film relates to Rawls’ academic background. “I’m a philosopher of race,” explained Rawls. “That’s one of my areas of specialty.”


Rawls described how her study of race theory allows her to assist the students in their work.  “I could guide them responsibly on that topic,” said Rawls. “But they chose it.”


Rawls emphasized how thankful she is for the Center for Digital Media. This is where the group edits footage and borrows equipment.


The CDM’s faculty production lab, located in the Grasselli Library and Breen Learning Center, is available for any students or faculty who want to use it.


“This would not be happening without them,” Rawls said about the CDM. “They equipped this office with two Macs that have editing software – brand new,” said Rawls.


Rawls also expressed her gratitude for the support and assistance the group has received from Grasselli, the philosophy department and Tim Russert Department of Communication and Theatre Arts professor Bob Noll.


One of the experts interviewed in the documentary is Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale University who discovered the infamous suicide letter in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI archives. The letter was sent anonymously to Martin Luther King, Jr. telling him to commit suicide.


The group also interviewed comedian W. Kamau Bell for the documentary when he came to campus.


“We’ll never use any footage anyone doesn’t want us to,” said Rawls. “So if someone asks us to take out footage, we will take out the footage. We’re not going to humiliate or embarrass anyone.”


Crump added, “I want this to open up people to speak about it, because I feel like racism still exists because we ignore it. But we know racism is not gone. Racism is just swept under the rug. And it’s overlooked, especially by people that aren’t faced with it every day.”


Crump continued, saying, “Hopefully this just makes everyone in the audience just sit down and think about, ‘Wow, this really is relevant today as it was previously in history.’ We’ve had a lot of progress over the years, but not enough. We’re still not there yet.”


“A lot of people get defensive, like ‘Oh, well I’m not racist,’” said Seals. “We’re not trying to call anyone racist.”


“I can’t get mad at you for not knowing my experiences as a black person, because you can’t. You can’t jump out of your subjectivity and have someone else’s experiences,” said Crump.


“I just want you to listen,” Crump added. “That’s all.”