JustFilms, an arm of the Ford Foundation that funds social justice documentary projects, announced that it granted over $20 million in funds to 122 organizations and filmmakers in total this past year. Over $5 million of that sum directly supports 71 content projects, and 73 percent of that funding is going to BIPOC filmmakers.
“With this cohort of films, we’re showing that there’s a shift in approach to storytelling by independent filmmakers. We’re seeing much more radical experimentation with form,” Jon-Sesrie Goff, JustFilms program officer tells Hyperallergic. For Goff, formal innovation is not just about flexing aesthetic muscle but about expanding the realm of perspectives from which stories are told. “Given freedom of form, we’re getting much more exciting works, but we’re also providing a level of protection to makers, subject matters, and their communities.”
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One documentary currently in the making that Goff references is I Didn’t See You There, filmed from disabled filmmaker Reid Davenport’s perspective. Unlike many other documentary films, I Didn’t See You There provides no explicit context or explanation, instead plunging the viewer straightaway in Davenport’s first-person point of view. “It’s just an extremely powerful way to reckon with the experience of people living with disabilities. It’s not historicized — it’s in the moment. It’s life explored as it’s lived-in,” Goff says.
Another emergent theme Goff identifies in the vast ensemble of grantees’ projects is cultural repair which takes place through “intervention in the public canon.” One documentary explores the life and work of artist, poet, and activist Nikki Giovanni told through the conceit of her fantastical trip to Mars — a nod to her performance artistry and her role in the development of Afrofuturism. The directors, Goff says, “found a form that honors her reality,” and in doing so seek to affirm her stature in contemporary American cultural life. Other documentaries, as discussed below, catalogue efforts to correct historical wrongs through reshaping narratives around historical greatness and cultural ownership.
While experimental approaches to filmmaking often turn other funders away, Goff says that JustFilms can take “a long view on the ways in which projects make their way into the world and have an impact that’s not just about the festival circuit or broadcast.” Hyperallergic spoke with the directors of four projects funded by JustFilms — some of which are in early stages of filming and others which are deep in editing — to preview their projects.
Stephanie Black, Untitled Jamaica Kincaid Project
Antiguan-American novelist and writer Jamaica Kincaid is among the most important literary figures of our day, documentarist Stephanie Black says. “I completely love her work — her militancy, her poetry, her expression. She’s been one of my favorite writers from when I was young,” Black gushes.
But she’s rarely been captured on video. Besides the odd PBS-type talk show and recorded C-SPAN lecture, there hasn’t been too much more. “How grateful one is to have footage of [James] Baldwin, for example,” Black says. For over two decades, Black has wanted to make Kincaid’s “literary biography,” but waited for someone else to step up to the plate. She realized she couldn’t wait forever and decided to seize the reins herself.
“Stephanie is creating a real time future archive of Jamaica living, breathing, teaching, so that other artists and scholars will be able to engage with her and her liveliness in video form,” Goff says.
In Life and Debt, her 2001 documentary on the impact of neoliberal austerity programs in Jamaica, Black excerpted from Kincaid’s book-length essay A Small Place, repurposing Kincaid’s postcolonial insights in a neocolonial context. “She was like the squeaky wheel for colonialism,” Black says, “and many of the issues we’re addressing today are rooted in the vestiges of colonialism.”
Black received positive feedback from Kincaid after Life and Debt. Still, when Black broached her possibility of a documentary with her, Kincaid responded, “Can’t you make this film like they do with the people who are dead?” When she received the JustFilms grant, Black notified Kincaid and told her that they would have to pick up the pace of production next year. Kincaid said, “Oh—so I have to be more responsible now!”
Black has trouble picking any Kincaid work in particular to introduce new audiences to: Annie John, A Small Place, and Lucy are “absolute must-reads,” though she says her academic advisers think Autobiography of My Mother is her best work to date. “They’re all really good,” she sighs.
Lisa Cortes, The Empire of Ebony
In 1942, John H. Johnson took out a $500 loan insured by his mother’s furniture to mail out subscription offers to raise money and put together his first magazine issue. Johnson got thousands of responses back. It was the beginning of the Johnson Publishing Company — what would grow into a media behemoth that would print Jet and Ebony, the most iconic Black American magazines of the 20th century, while also producing cosmetics, fashion lines, television shows, and radio stations.
Lisa Cortes — who last year directed All In: The Fight for Democracy, which profiled Stacey Abrams and her activism around fighting voter suppression — wanted to tell the story of how the Johnson Publishing Company revolutionized how people of color were covered in the media. Jet and Ebony were landmarks in visual culture, providing an unrivaled and unprecedented space of representation for African American life in magazine spreads and advertisements.
In 2019, the archives of the two magazines were purchased by a consortium of four foundations — the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, and the MacArthur Foundation — and its team of archival researchers is hard at work scanning, digitizing, and organizing the expansive record. Cortes and her crew were granted a key shoot in which they explored the archive, highlighting exceptional moments in the Johnson Publishing Company’s 75-year history.
Cortes attributes the success of the Johnson Publishing Company to the Johnsons’ skillful navigation of the nexus of art and commerce. “That’s what they used to carve out a position in the market — but that also came with conflict over capitalism and the progressive storytelling of a community.”
“Johnson Publishing was a witness to history, and had so many incredible photographers on board who had intimate relationships with communities,” Lisa Cortes tells Hyperallergic. “It’s not just movie stars and sports figures, but it’s also great social movements like the March on Washington. It goes back to the infrastructure and relationships that John and Eunice Johnson built. They were great collaborators.”
Thanks to Cortes’ collaboration with Linda Johnson-Rice — heiress of the Johnson Publishing Company fortune — the documentary will feature archival footage that has never been seen. “It’s also a story of American cultural history,” Cortes says. “You see how intimately connected this publishing enterprise and particularly these magazines are with not only the African American community but also American history.”
Adam Khalil and Zack Khalil, Aanikoobijigan
Adam Khalil and Zack Khalil, filmmakers and brothers who are Ojibway and hail from the upper peninsula of Michigan, grew up around the subject of repatriation. Their mother worked between the fields of museum and archival studies, and often talked to them about how to indigenize those fields and restore to Indigenous communities the right to manage their own objects, ancestors, and cultural patrimony. Many leaders in their tribe in Michigan were also deeply involved in the repatriation movement.
“It was something that we really grew up with knowing—almost taken for granted, to a certain extent,” Zack Khalil tells Hyperallergic.
In 2016, the Khalil brothers released their debut feature INAAT/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./], an experimental documentary which told the story of an Ojibway prophecy that foretold first contact with the Europeans. The unconventionality of that film was a product of their skepticism of documentary convention. “We think really critically about how cinematic form itself is sort of inherently settler colonial, developed by settler colonists according to context. We don’t want to recreate the conventions of documentary film, with its roots in ethnography,” Zack Khalil says.
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Still, in Aanikoobijigan, they wanted to be direct. Khalil felt that few Americans knew that the remains of their ancestors and funerary objects alike were trapped in storage facilities, never to see the light of day. “I really saw the utility of actually raising awareness about the fact that our ancestors are still kept trapped in prisons, in so many institutions that people still hold in really high esteem,” Khalil says. “A lot of people don’t know that 1 percent of the collection is on display. The other 99 percent is in cold storage somewhere.” Whereas institutions like libraries, archives, and museums prioritize preservation and “salvage ethnography,” Khalil emphasizes that “at least in my Indigenous community, objects don’t need to be preserved forever.” The greater crime is “separating objects from its community.”
Aanikoobijigan follows the efforts of the Michigan Anishinaabek Cultural Preservation & Repatriation Alliance (MACPRA) to repatriate the remains of ancestors, as well as the response of diverse institutions to these requests.
CJ Hunt, The Neutral Ground
In 2015, CJ Hunt — a teacher in New Orleans at the time, and now a producer on Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show — embarked on a project to film the New Orleans City Council’s efforts to remove four Confederate monuments. If it succeeded, it would have been a dramatic move, one that had not been taken by many other American cities — but the vote was stalled by death threats. Hunt found the fervor around keeping Confederate monuments in place so absurd that he felt the only proper response was satire. He wanted to lampoon Confederate statue defenders across the South, and modeled his tone after the provocative, late-night short-form pieces he had been watching a lot of.
He tells Hyperallergic that he remembers thinking, “Hey, I want to make a funny thing about these uptown white folks who cannot conceive of moving a monument, and think that we’re all gonna forget history at the moving object across town … these folks are gonna be saying really wild things.” His angle was to “roast” them mercilessly.
“Fortunately and unfortunately,” he tells Hyperallergic, “things got very heightened and deep after that.” When the city decided to go forward with the removals, the first contractor was driven off the job by death threats and an electric car bomb.
When the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville spurred the noxious and deadly Unite the Right rally, Hunt felt that satire reached its limits in terms of utility. Charlottesville, he says, is “a turning point in the film.” He tells the camera that he doesn’t have the proper tools for what has taken place, and that while “comedy is a really good tool for when you’re talking to folks who are white supremacists who refuse to admit that they’re white supremacists,” it’s less suitable “when folks are out there, screaming blood and soil and actually running people down in cars.”
Nevertheless, he stands by the power of satire to estrange white supremacy that can otherwise easily be normalized. He demonstrates with this hypothetical: “It’s really strange that if aliens came down, they would be like, ‘so that army won.’ And we’d be like, ‘no, no, they lost.’ And the aliens would be like, ‘so you let them put up thousands of monuments — there’s more monuments to the losers than the winners.’ And we’d be like, ‘yeah,’ and they’d be like, ‘so these are monuments of men who owned slaves. And the greatest concentrations of them are in the blackest cities in America: New Orleans, Richmond, Atlanta.’”
Since its release, he’s taken the film to classrooms and been heartened to see students engage critically and intelligently with the monument debate. But he’s concerned that these debates will be, or already are, outlawed across a swath of states codifying dystopian “critical race theory” restrictions. That’ll be the topic of his next documentary.