Mary Fecteau is a senior producer at Ideastream Public Media and director of the 2020 and 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards documentaries. Below, she reflects on the experience of working with the awards staff to pivot from an in-person ceremony to documentary in order to celebrate past two Anisfield-Wolf award classes.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, many of the events I expected to cover as a senior producer for Ideastream Public Media dried up.
Meanwhile across Euclid Avenue, Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, was weighing what to do about the 2020 ceremony. For years, the in-person event brought a crowd of book lovers to Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. But in a year like 2020, she had to get creative. Together, we created an Emmy Award-winning documentary, which was distributed nationally on PBS.
Well, 2021 has turned out to be just as unpredictable as last year, and we were determined to make something just as memorable. After all, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has been a Cleveland tradition for 86 years.
It’s been cited as Cleveland’s best kept literary secret. Founded by visionary philanthropist and poet Edith Anisfield-Wolf in 1935, it has the distinction of being the only American book award designed specifically to recognize works addressing issues of diversity, race and our appreciation of human cultures.
Although many Clevelanders haven’t heard of it, it’s a big deal in the literary world. So frequently is it awarded to African American luminaries, it’s often referred to as “the Black Pulitzer.” Past winners include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison.
This year’s honorees are a fitting addition to that illustrious winners circle: Victoria Chang for “Obit,” her haunting book of poems; historian Vincent Brown for “Tacky’s Revolt,” a rewriting from the ground up of an episode in the Atlantic slave trade; Natasha Trethewey for “Memorial Drive,” a memoir at once clear-eyed and heartrending; James McBride, for his vibrant work of fiction “Deacon King Kong”; and Samuel R. Delany, the lifetime achievement honoree, for his robust, fearless, and genre-spanning body of work, which includes science fiction novels, memoirs and essays.
My colleague, Shelli Reeves, and I spent our summer filming with these brilliant writers in their hometowns. We perused the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Samuel Delany (he’s partial to the Cézannes), crashed James McBride’s band practice at his Brooklyn church, and dug through police records with Natasha Trethewey (some of which served as source material for her memoir).
Our goal was to create an experience for the viewer that is as moving and inspiring as the in-person Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, but it’s also a rare glimpse of writers at the top of their craft, recounting their process. And, of course, it’s once again hosted by the magnetic Henry Louis Gates Jr.
You can watch it September 14 at 9 p.m. on WVIZ/PBS or online. Get a short taste below:
In one compelling segment from the 2014 documentary, “I’m Not Racist…Am I?” high school students huddle around a board game modeled loosely after the game “Life.”
This one is called “American Dream.”
To play, each student takes on an identity different from their own. So a young black student is now a middle-class white male; a white peer is now a lower-class Asian woman. As they move the pieces around the board, players hear instructions that begin to heavily favor a certain demographic: “All females lose one turn” follows “LGBT players move back one space,” which follows “All welfare recipients move back five spaces.”
At the end, the young black student — playing the game as a white male — threw up his hands in victory. “I just kept moving forward,” he says, “while everyone else got pushed back.”
This quick lesson in privilege is the cornerstone of the prickly 90-minute film. For one full school year, filmmakers followed 12 New York teens as they dove into an intensive anti-racism curriculum developed by The Calhoun School, a prestigious college preparatory institution in Manhattan. The film is part of a larger initiative called Deconstructing Race. It aims to begin educating its students, teachers and families about structural systemic racism.
The Cleveland chapter of Facing History and Ourselves organized a May screening at John Carroll University. Organizers broke the film into three chunks with ample time for the audience — high school students, teachers and community members — to share their reactions in between.
While 12 students participated, filmmakers focused primarily on five students:
Kahleek, a black 17-year-old from Brooklyn, who is teased by his family and peers for skateboarding and other markers of “white” behavior
Martha, a 15-year-old whose white family is the only one in her subsidized Harlem apartment building
Abby, a 16-year-old biracial girl struggling with identity in Manhattan
Sacha, a self-described liberal 16-year-old from the Upper West Side, who says it’s just coincidence that his friends are all white
Anna, an adopted 17-year-old Korean American student who says if not for the mirror, she’d think she was white
Viewers see the students wrestle with identity, stereotypes and prejudice. To launch the program, the participants attended a weekend retreat to root their conversations in shared language. First on the menu: What does racism mean?
The facilitators of the “Undoing Racism” workshop defined racism as race prejudice plus power, which exists in two forms: individual bigotry and institutional control. Racism exists, the facilitator told the students, primarily to uphold white supremacy.
“So are all white people racist?” one student asked. The facilitator didn’t hesitate: “Yes.” The students look dazed, a mixture of confusion and shock as they let the answer land.
In another workshop on the “N-Word,” facilitator Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., an African-American man in a pinstriped shirt and vest, asked the group to close their eyes and imagine that “a nigger has just walked into the room.”
“What did you see when I said that?” he asked. A handful of students’ erupted in response: “Sagging pants…gold teeth…Kunta Kinte.” But one student, Sacha, made the Cleveland audience gasp with his answer: “I saw you.”
Moore latched onto the moment.
“It doesn’t matter how you articulate, it doesn’t matter what degree you get, it doesn’t matter how hard you study, doesn’t matter how many books you read,” he said. “The only thing they see when they see you is that…and then that kid doesn’t make it home from the store.”
During one of the breaks, director Catherine Wigginton Greene conceded that the film doesn’t offer solutions, but rather exists to expand the conversation. “We want white people to watch this film and know that [this discussion on racism] is very much about them,” she said.
And after more workshops, Sacha, at least, appeared to hear the message. On camera, he admitted he saw the wrongness of his response to facilitator Moore’s prompt.
HBO will turn Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land into a television documentary, CEO and chairman Richard Pleper announced at the 2015 INTV media conference in Jerusalem.
“The book left me awestruck and as moved as I’ve been maybe ever,” Pleper told the crowd. “When I first approached him, I said to Ari that I’ve waited my whole adult life to find this book.”
Published in 2014, “My Promised Land” is a carefully crafted narrative history, weaving family memoir, documents and hundreds of interviews with Arabs and Jews. The book, Shavit’s first, took home the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction.
No release date has been set, but Israeli filmmaker Dan Setton, whose previous work has centered on Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has been tapped to direct.
For hundreds of years, this riddle of identity has vexed the federal government and the tribes alike, writes Marcos Barbery, an investigative reporter and documentary filmmaker. He and his co-director, Samuel Z. Russell, worked for four years to craft a concise 64-minute movie to explore it.
“The Freedmen descendants are waiting for a decision right now,” Barbery said in a telephone interview. “The issue is ongoing—we were filming in February and we have a new cut. There were protests three weeks ago in Oklahoma City.”
The consequences have economic, racial, and cultural ramifications. If the African Americans lose, the matter could well go before the U.S. Supreme Court, Barbery said. “This is a conflict between tribal sovereignty and the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery). These are two traditionally oppressed communities battling it out.”
Asked about the tone of “By Blood,” Barbery said, “It’s anything but a downer. It’s a journey through this world—Indian County—populated by an enormous number of African Americans. It has all kinds of twists and turns and there are moments of humor.”
Both directors, both 34, will be present to answer questions at the Cleveland screenings: 9 p.m. Thursday, March 26 and 12:10 p.m. Friday, March 27. Tickets are $13 for film festival members, seniors and students; $15 for others.
Moviegoers can receive a $2 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: ANWO.
“Why are we addicted to hate in America?”
That was the simple, provocative question of Rachel Lyon, as she introduced her 2014 documentary to a crowd at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “Hate Crimes in the Heartland” spends an hour exploring two separate, racially motivated killings that occurred nearly a century apart.
The film begins in Tulsa, Oklahoma, following the April 2012 “Good Friday shootings” that took three lives and critically injured two others. Two young men — one white, the other Native American — drove around the city, opening fire on groups of black people. The random slaughter attracted national media attention and stirred the ghosts of another racial atrocity — the 1921 Tulsa race riot.
Rioters obliterated the wealthy black enclave in Tulsa, affectionately known as “Black Wall Street.” Historians still debate what sparked the violence (some say a black man stepped on a white woman’s shoe, others say it was attempted rape), but the outrage of white residents was swift: in fewer than 24 hours, more than 300 people died and more than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed. Nearly 9,000 black residents were left homeless.
“Hate Crime in the Heartland” features commentary from civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, Oklahoma NAACP officials and journalists who covered the 2012 shootings. But the survivors of the 1921 riots, only children when their town burned around them, provide the most moving portions of the documentary.
Dr. Olivia Hooker was six years old in 1921. “My grandmother made me these beautiful doll clothes and I remember seeing them burn on the clothesline. My grandmother let me peek out the window. ‘You see those machine guns? That’s your country shooting at you,’ she told me.”
Lyon, who wrote and directed the film, noted that among several race-related massacres in the early twentieth century, Tulsa is best remembered because of an unusual circumstance: Prosperous black residents could afford the cameras that documented the rampage and destruction.
After the screening, Lyon joined a panel discussion that included Rev. Dr. Jawanza Colvin, pastor of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church; Skyler Edge, an LGBTQ activist; Bettysue Feuer, regional chair of the local Anti-Defamation League; and Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins, senior pastor of the South Euclid United Church of Christ.
“I think we underestimate how hard it is to learn from the past,” Lyon said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t keep repeating it.”
One consequence of Ferguson: viewers can now watch the documentary “White Like Me” cost-free.
Tim Wise’s anti-racism documentary will stream free online for a few weeks. The Media Education Foundation, which produced the movie, chose the promo code “blacklivesmatter” for viewers to redeem.
A brisk 68 minutes, “White Like Me” is a forceful, persuasion piece, designed to explain the basics of white privilege, racial bias and systematic discrimination to viewers who haven’t considered America’s legacy of white supremacy.
“Racial bias still effects the way we view others,” Wise says in the opening sequence. “And when we fail to recognize that, we not only continue to do an injustice to people of color, we end up doing damage to white folks as well.”
The film focuses almost entirely on the 20th century. A good chunk of the narrative is framed around sweeping social programs of the 1930s and 1940s—including the G.I. Bill and the creation of the Federal Housing Administration—which almost exclusively benefited white people, as Ta-Nehisi Coates demonstrated in his landmark piece in the Atlantic Monthly published earlier this year.
Such historical content is buttressed by the “post-racial” language thrown around after President Barack Obama’s first election and the rise of the often incendiary Tea Party.
Perhaps a few members will find their way to this compelling feature. Likewise, in classrooms, Wise’s frank work as the potential to open a few eyes.
“Poetry Is An Island,” the new film directed by Dutch filmmaker Ida Does, presents poet and playwright Derek Walcott in his element: his home island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Place has proved central to the Nobel Laureate in his writings about the island, colonialism and beauty. He won a Lifetime Achievement Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2004.
“I wanted to feel and smell St. Lucia in the same palpable way that I experience Walcott’s poetry,” Does said in a recent interview. “When I was there, it felt like I could literally touch Derek’s work, the heart of it.” After an early screening, Walcott, 84, praised Does for doing a “beautiful and gentle job” with the film.
Now Northeast Ohioans can see for themselves. We are pleased to sponsor the Midwestern premiere of “Poetry Is An Island” at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 17. The program is hosted by our partner, Karamu House, 2355 E 89th St, Cleveland. Guests will be greeted by St. Lucian steelpan music from islander Eustace Bobb and actors Cornell Calhoun III and Kenny Parker will stage an excerpt of Walcott’s play “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” Cleveland Scene named the Karamu production, directed by Terrence Spivey, its Best Drama in 2007.
Following the movie, audience members will be able to ask questions of the director in a Skype interview from her home in the Netherlands. “From an educational perspective, the Skype interview will add substance and interaction that will enrich the experience,” said Interim Director Patricia G. Egan. “Karamu is celebrating 99 years of nurturing artists. This is just one example.”
Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at the door. For more information on the screening, please call Karamu House at 216-795-7070.
“Life Itself” first appeared in 2011 as a rich memoir by Roger Ebert. Now, thanks to “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James, it is a documentary of the highest caliber.
One of its revelations is the late-life marriage between Ebert and Chicago attorney Chaz Hammelsmith. Interracial love stories may not be in vogue in Hollywood, but this documentary lets viewers witness an exemplary match. So does a 3,000-word essay, “Roger loves Chaz,” that Ebert published on his 20th anniversary.
In the documentary, the legendary film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times comes across as a consummate Midwesterner – unpretentious, but also funny, gifted and complex.
Five months before his death in April 2013, Roger and Chaz gave James permission to film Ebert’s “third act.” It was a marvelous, harrowing decision in which the three collaborators do not shrink from the unlovely parts. James also makes shrewd use of the frenemy chemistry between Ebert and Gene Siskel, a rival movie critic at the Chicago Tribune. Improbably, the pair became partners on the wildly successful and culturally powerful PBS show, “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.” Their sparring mimicked that of siblings and their yoked fortunes – burnished over the years — created a complicated brotherhood.
The bond between Chaz and Ebert came later – the two met after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Chicago in 1989. Here is how Ebert begins “Roger loves Chaz”:
How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading. If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude . . . She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.
In the documentary, Chaz admits to some hesitation in marrying a white man, and remembers that she called out her new husband on his ginger observation that some of his relatives might be hesitant about his marrying a non-Catholic. “Because I’m not Catholic or because I’m black?” she asked. Ebert agreed both elements were at play.
For his part, Ebert said he felt scads of acceptance and love from Chaz’ children and grandchildren and her large West Chicago family. Some of the most moving footage in the documentary shows family vacation videos in which Ebert, an only child, looks like a man awash in an experience he had craved all his life.
As a film critic, Ebert paid attention to race. Director Ava DuVernay tells James that she was nervous when Ebert reviewed her movie “I Will Follow” about a niece grieving her aunt. Still, DuVernay remembered a chance girlhood encounter at the Oscars when she met a gracious Ebert. And, she said, “Everybody knows he was married to a sister.” That intimacy gave DuVernay hope that Ebert would understand a film about two black women better than most white men. He gave it three and a half stars.
“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” Ebert says as the documentary begins, before his voice is lost to cancer. “It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
The world almost lost Lorraine Hansberry’s most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, before it ripened.
In a moment of frustration, Hansberry threw the script in the trash. Luckily for us, her husband retrieved it from the wastebasket in their New York City apartment and set it aside for her to complete. She did.
Two years later, on March 11, 1959, it debuted on Broadway, earning Hansberry the distinction of being the youngest dramatist and the first African-American to win the Best Play award from the New York Drama Critics Circle. The story focuses on the Younger clan, a hard-working Black family in Chicago dreaming of moving up in the world after their patriarch’s passing.
After several revivals, the play continues to speak to the nation’s racial turmoil and inequality. The current iteration, starring Denzel Washington as the dreaming and scheming Walter Lee Younger, wraps its run on Broadway this month.
Co-director Tracy Heather Strain has been working nine years to produce the first full-length documentary on the artist, with the hopes of releasing the film in time for the 50th anniversary of her death. (Hansberry was only 34 in 1965 when she died of pancreatic cancer.) Strain’s previous work includes the six-part PBS series I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts, which included a short segment on Hansberry. Strain has completed interviews with some of Hansberry’s close friends and family, as well as several of the actors who starred in her plays—Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, and Louis Gossett Jr.
The documentary has reached 75% of its $100,000 goal, poised to hit its target in the final two weeks. The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded the producers a $500,000 production grant, but the money is contingent on making the $100,000 goal.
Watch the Kickstarter video below. Tell us: would you be interested in supporting this film?
Filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley knew he wanted to make a film on Rita Dove. So the director of documentaries on former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and revolutionary Che Guevara decided to finance the project out of his own pockets.
“To have someone like Rita Dove expressing herself in generational terms by talking about her father and grandfather in her poetry was, to me, like a triple jackpot,” the Virginia-based filmmaker said. “I got the writer I was looking for. I got the story I was looking for, and I had it all right here at home.”
The result is “Rita Dove: An American Poet” built from family photos, home videos and interviews with its subject Montes-Bradley explores the former poet laureate’s formative years and asks how a girl from Akron, Ohio, became one of the most lauded poets of our time.
The film premiered in late January to a sold-out crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Dove, 61, has been a professor at the University of Virginia since 1989. Boyd Tinsley, violinist with the Dave Matthews Band, gave remarks post-screening, followed by a few selected poems from Dove herself. Later, Dove sat for a brief Q&A with the director of University of Virginia’s creative writing program.
“What I love about the film is that it manages to maintain some mystery,” Dove remarked. “It resists the stamp of ‘this is Rita Dove.’ And his attention to the influence of music in my life — I am just extremely grateful for.”
Indeed, music is her center. The accomplished musician, whose talents extend to the viola da gamba (related to the cello), finds that both music and poetry “scratch the same itch.” Dove’s connection to music lead to the little-known story of African-European violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower, a protege of Ludwig van Beethoven. He inspired her 2009 book, “Sonata Mulattica.”
“I am obsessed with music,” Dove mused. “And poetry is a perfect vehicle for it because words are music. I’m obsessed with trying to capture what sensations music gives us.”
Watch footage following the premiere of the documentary, captured by Dove’s husband of 35 years, writer Fred Viebahn.
When 13-year-old Idris Brewster, subject of the thought-provoking documentary “American Promise,” is invited to a classmate’s bat mitzvah, he says he hasn’t much interest. None of the girls ever want to dance with him, and he has a good idea why.
“I bet if I was white, I’d be better off,” he says plainly.
His parents, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, are sitting off camera. They let the moment land.
Such incidents occur often in the two-hour film, which follows Idris and his best friend Seun Summers for 13 years at The Dalton School, a prestigious college preparatory institution in Manhattan. The documentary premiered on PBS in February and is available to viewers on the PBS website until March 6, 2014. Then it goes on sale.
Since it made the rounds at last year’s film festivals (winning a jury prize at Sundance), American Promise has sparked a new round of conversation about black male educational achievement. The numbers are sobering. Black children are more likely to have ineffective teachers and fewer educational resources, which may partly explain why black males are also twice as likely to drop out.
Brewster and Stephenson said their motives were simple. “We were confident that [attending Dalton] would set them on a course for academic success and we wanted to capture it all on film,” they write in their filmmaker’s statement. “This personal experience pushed us to expose the impact of the unique social and emotional needs of black boys on their academic performance.”
Serving a dual role as parents and filmmakers, Idris’ parents demand nothing but excellence from him and their younger son, Miles. They have no trouble expressing their exasperation when Idris doesn’t live up to expectations. After a particularly rough semester, Idris’ parents develop a spreadsheet to better manage Idris’ time. “Every hour of the day is accounted for,” Joe says.
Life at Dalton, which sends 30 percent of its graduates to Ivy League colleges, challenges all of its students, but those problems are magnified for African-American males. Dalton administrators talk on camera about how often black boys falter at the school, but suggest few solutions. The pattern is evident with Idris and Seun. They start out in kindergarten with a thirst for knowledge, but by sixth grade things are souring.
Parents of other black boys at Dalton express discomfort with the changes they see in their sons. And they wonder whether the sacrifice is worth it. Tuition runs $25,000 and some parents spend an addition $30,000 per year on tutors. They ask how their sons can compete.
The pressure is palpable as the boys as grow into young men. Seun is diagnosed with dyslexia and his parents hire a tutor to help him keep up. But the demands increase even as Seun—very bright and capable, according to his teachers—falls further behind. He transfers to a public school where the student body is predominately African-American. He begins to feel more comfortable, and this seems reflected in his work.
Idris remains at Dalton, where he is pushed (by his parents and teachers) beyond his perceived limitations. As he matures, his struggles with identity become more apparent. He learns the art of “code switching” — changing language, tone and posture as his company changes.
Brewster and Stephenson put together a companion book, Promises Kept, which expands on the film and offers parents and educators with resources to help close the achievement gap.
“Essentially, how well students do is how well we do as a nation,” Stephenson said. “The two are interlinked and intertwined. If we really want to compete at a level that makes sense to maintain, not only our status but our community and our values in this country, we have to take care of all of our children.”
The gorgeous new documentary, “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” delivers several jolts of insight, including this small one: Women who can hit and bend those beautiful notes have glorious laughs.
Laughter buoys much of this 90-minute film that explores the unheralded world of backup singers. The spotlight falls on Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega and Merry Clayton. “About time, too,” as Bette Midler remarked in 2011 when she introduced Love as a new inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
These women – mostly African-American – sang back up on countless rock classics, adding vocal transcendence to the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and plenty of others. And because they sang the bridge, they – not the stars – are the ones we invariably sang along to.
Expect to get a head rush of revelation.
Many of these singers were preacher’s daughters, notes director Morgan Neville. “These voices make their way from the church onto vinyl,” he says. British legends such as Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker and David Bowie jumped to hire them, partly to import soul and authenticity into their songs. Neville splices in archival footage of all three performers with their backups – and we see and hear with fresh eyes why “Young Americans” sounds so good.
Neville said that this project blew apart his assumption that the voices in the background were less talented than the ones at the front: “Backup singers can blow away lead singers any day of the week, every day of the week.”
The psychology of being a secondary is explored in these women’s stories. “I felt like that if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star,” says a pained Merry Clayton, whose magnificent voice didn’t make her a headliner, despite the best efforts of Lou Adler.
Clayton describes being awakened in the night to record with the Stones – arriving at the studio in silk pajamas and curlers to be handed the music for “Gimme Shelter.” She delivered the immortal “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away.” And it still stuns Jagger, 50 years later, as he listens to it here.
The film tucks in other stunning bits. We learn that Darlene Love—Darlene Love!—cleaned houses to pay her bills before her comeback in the 1980s. We soak in the jazz-saturated richness of Lisa Fischer’s voice, and witness her emphatic joy in singing harmony, even after winning a Grammy.
These women take us places that Auto-Tune will never go. Can I get an Amen?