We Asked Four Documentarians: How Does Film Shape the Fight for Racial Justice?

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.

Credit…Taylor Jewell/Invision, via Associated Press

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.

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