Breaking down a “foundation of racism” through film

Story by ZOE GOTTLIEB

In Oconee, Georgia, an old family farm is suspended in time. A ground mist blankets the fertile land. There is a graveyard here — a place where the commands of Confederate ghost soldiers are said to be volleyed across the green plain, beyond broken fence posts and aging headstones.

In Loki Mulholland’s approximations, a woman was supposed to be buried here. Her name was Aunt Mary, a name with placeholder-like quality: on the plantation, she was simply “Aunty,” on a deed, she was just a blotch of ink.

Aunt Mary, according to his family’s oral history, was one of a hundred slaves who once walked the plantation grounds.

But the number wasn’t close to 100. In fact, it was only six, and after the Civil War ended, five of them departed the plantation for good. All left, all but Aunt Mary.

Mulholland, gripped by his trepidation, returned to the grounds once owned by his fourth grandfather, Dudley Jones Chandler, hoping to find a trace of Aunt Mary.

“I knew in my heart that we weren’t going to find her,” Mulholland said in a phone interview. Scouring his family’s burial site, he turned up nothing. Her memory in death, much like her autonomy in life, had been cast into the void — that is, until Mulholland made it his mission to revive it.

“The Uncomfortable Truth,” a documentary film directed by Mulholland, remains relevant since its production in 2017 and is especially poignant now, given the widespread protests over the death of George Floyd which shaped our national discourse in Summer 2020. In his film, which has since received numerous accolades, Mulholland takes ownership of his distant relatives’ checkered pasts, reconciles them with that of his civil rights-activist mother, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, and seeks to root out a “foundation of racism” through cinematic storytelling.

“The Uncomfortable Truth” was released four years after Mulholland’s debut film, titled “An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland,” which highlights the accomplishments of his mother, a white woman who wielded her privilege to champion the rights of Black Americans.

Perhaps the biggest kicker of all, Mulholland said, was that after the film’s screening at the University of Mississippi, “college kids came up to us and said, ‘We haven’t learned any of this.’”

Sensing a gap in desperate need of filling, Mulholland went on to create the Joan Trumpauer Foundation, an organization dedicated to teaching students about the blemishes of our past, as well as triumphs through civil rights-activism.

“I don’t have to sit at the lunch counters ‘cause my mom already did — right? But I have to do what I can do … because doing nothing is not an option,” Mulholland said.

Now the recipient of an Emmy, Mulholland continues to educate young people through speaking tours about the Civil Rights Movement, our nation’s foundation of racism, and the importance of using privilege for good. Mulholland’s latest film projects are available to view on his website.

As more Black voices emerge in film, our “foundation of racism” appears to be breaking down. In 2021, Sundance reported that 57% of its directors were either Black, indigenous, or people of color.

The Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers West, a Los Angeles-based Black documentary film group, strives to continue this mission of increasing Black participation in the industry.

BADWest, through its film sharing and free screenings, allows people of color to distribute their work and receive feedback, with a mission of “advocat[ing] the recognition and advancement of Black documentary filmmakers.”

“The last four years have been an eye-opener to see where we are in this country,” Joyce Guy, a member and acting treasurer of BADWest, said in a phone interview.

Calling cinema the “foundation of this country going back to ‘Birth of a Nation,’” Guy said she believes that film has the potential to break down sociopolitical barriers and allow Black filmmakers to “chip away [at] untruths about who we are.”

Some of Guy’s work includes “Dancing Like Home,” a documentary she directed on the subject of tribal dance rituals in Casamance, Senegal, and appearances in many popular TV series such as “West Wing,” “Criminal Minds,” “Brooklyn 99,” “Bones,” and the critically acclaimed film “Moneyball.”

Despite her level of professional achievements, Guy said that Black actors, directors, and producers continue to face hurdles in the industry. “We’re still breaking ground to be just called a filmmaker — we haven’t passed that threshold yet.”

The organization will hold its 11th annual Day of Black Docs in May 2021. The event, held virtually this year, celebrates some of the year’s best Black documentary films.

Salt Lake City also has its share of Black production companies, including Inglewood Films founded by director and producer JD Allen.

Damarr Jones is an actor featured in several of JD Allen’s films, including “The Shoebox” and “Fear Level.” Photo Courtesy of Damarr Jones.

Damarr Jones is a friend of Allen’s and an actor affiliated with Inglewood Films. Jones, a self-described “military man,” hailing from Riverside, California, was in the midst of a search for professional gigs when he first became acquainted with Allen.

The men, having grown up in different parts of California, bonded right away, and Jones went on to participate in many of Allen’s films, including “Fear Level” and “The Shoebox.”

“Fear Level” follows the lives of six as they descend into their darkest depths, or “levels” of terror. “The Shoebox,” a film based on the real-life events of veteran Micah Reel, centers on four soldiers faced with the reality of PTSD before war.

Film has always been an important part of Jones’ life, but the death of George Floyd in 2020 changed his outlook on the industry.

“As tragic as George Floyd’s [death] was, one thing it did was open a lot of people’s eyes,” Jones said in a Zoom interview.

After Floyd’s death, Jones discovered a trend which he hopes will stick: more people, especially those of the younger generation, taking to video-sharing sites like TikTok, giving Black voices an unprecedented level of influence.

“I just hope the momentum can stay going, because when you got stuff that’s kinda trendy, it tends to fade out,” Jones said.

Jones, Guy, and Mulholland are all storytellers whose lives have been irrevocably shaped by their perception of racism in this country. They are storytellers who strive each day to use their narratives for good, to break down those racial barriers which will help America grapple with its racist past.

Back in Oconee, Georgia, Mulholland found himself wanting to retrace the paths walked by his activist mother. He might not have realized it at the time, but the act itself — an act of total, willful remembrance — encapsulates the meaning of “The Uncomfortable Truth.”

“I’m walking,” he said, “trying to figure out where this path was, and it turned out that I had been walking on it the entire time.”