Regardless of topic, length or budget, all documentaries worth making and watching have one common purpose: Revelation of truth. While some are intimate portraits that can be effectively presented as a largely one-dimensional truth, others demand much more--more complexity, more research, more ambition--in order to bring to the screen, in as much as humanly possible, the whole truth.
Achieving this level of nonfictional completeness, however, is a daunting task that can make any film crew pause for a beat or three, with each individual staring glassy-eyed into a overwhelming vortex of challenges and uncertainties before shaking their heads clear and fearlessly exclaiming, "Let's do it!"
As we speak/read, just such an intrepid and committed group is currently planning, plotting and shooting a long dreamed of feature length documentary on the history of African-American art and culture in Milwaukee. And this film includes an element that many documentarians of the olden days would give, at the very least, their most treasured and accurate light meter to have: Access to folks who actually lived through the time period and events being explored.
Focused on the years 1967-1979--or what we like to call the keep-on-truckin'-'cause-the-alternative-is-way-worse years--the driving force behind this yet untitled project is the always daring Della Wells, visual artist and Founder/President of African American Artists Beginning to Educate Americans About African American Art (ABEA). Joining Wells are filmmaker/director Rubin Whitmore II and visual artist/ABEA Vice President Mutope J. Johnson, both credited as producers, as well as photographer/new media artist Christopher McIntyre (a.k.a. C.M.P.) and communications specialist/master's degree candidate Stephanie Comer serving as associate producers. All are native Milwaukeeans with a strong desire to have this critically important history told and told right.
Though it's extremely early in the production process, the crew very generously agreed to sit down with me to discuss the impetus and vision for the documentary. But before we get to that, let's start with a little history/geography lesson--ya know, just to get us all up to cruising speed and avoid any pit stops along the way.
Prior to World War II (1939-1945), Wisconsin's African-American population was extremely small, with less than 3,000 recorded in the 1910 Census. Between 1940 and 1960, however, African-American migration from Southern and other U.S. states to Wisconsin jumped dramatically. Due to its industrial economy, Milwaukee became the biggest settling point in the state for African-Americans, but these new residents faced harsh discrimination and segregation in all aspects of life and the majority ended up living in a specific area of the city, which became known as Bronzville.
Despite the injustices, Bronzeville became a vibrant cultural and economic community, with art and music taking center stage. That is until the nationwide, neighborhood-wrecking, freeway-building craze of the 1950s and 60s came to town and slashed it right through the heart, physically and psychologically dividing what was once a tightly bound community. [Read Mutope J. Johnson's piece Bronzeville: The old heart of Milwaukee’s African America could beat again for further intel.]
Just as the non-violent Civil Rights Movement started to splinter, Bronzville began to fall into decline and a race riot broke out on July 30, 1967. The National Guard was called in and tanks rolled down the streets, leaving four people dead, 100 injured and over 1,700 arrested.
And so it is that this documentary is set to begin during that volatile year, with some trips back in time to ground us 'cause learning about a specific time period sans historical context is not learning at all.
Okay, you ready to keep rollin'? If ya need a break, take it now 'cause we aren't stoppin' again and we don't supply crib notes--those are for cheaters and you ain't no cheater!
According to Della Wells, the main focus of the film will be on four organizations that were key supporters of and venues for African-American art during that period: Gallery Towards the Black Aesthetics, De' Gallery, Milwaukee Inner City Arts Council, and the Martin Luther King Library.
During our conversation, Wells talked about her reasons for wanting to bring this documentary to the screen. She first shared some of her own history, speaking volumes about the staggering lack of awareness of African-American art, a legacy that we still suffer from today:
I was at the Gallery Towards the Black Aesthetics for about two years. I must've been 18, 19, 20... I was very young, and actually the Gallery introduced me to African-American artists for the first time and also introduced me to women artists for the first time. Prior to that I didn't really think about it. I just assumed all white men just made art. And then I thought, "Oh, black men can make art." And then I saw women and said, "Oh, women can make art. I guess everybody makes art." But that was a new experience.
This [documentary] is something that I've always wanted to do, and one of the reasons I wanted to do this is... a lot of people have misconceptions about African-American art in general and they have misconceptions about the development of the arts in Milwaukee.
I wanted to look at the Black Arts Movement and [how] the Black Power Movement influenced it. I also wanted to look at the Civil Rights Movement. At that particular time some of the artists that we know now were teenagers and in their twenties and then there was another group that may have been 10-15 years older... so a lot of the artists, even in the Wisconsin 30 show [at the Milwaukee Art Museum], came out of that period. Mutope Johnson had said something that I think is true that, if you really think about, this particular group, who are basically Boomers, they were basically their own role models... but also role models for the tail end of the Boomer generation, so this is a very crucial moment.
I spoke to Johnson on the phone a few days later as he could not attend our meeting. He told me that, like Wells, there was very little information about African-American art available to him when he was young, adding that one of main reasons for this project is to reach back and recognize the artists who have influenced and set the tone for artists working today.
Thus far, the crew has interviewed roughly seven people--including visual artists Evelyn Terry and Akinshiju (a.k.a. Edward Miller/Bubbles), storyteller/poet/visual artist Tejumola F. Ologboni, vocalist Adekola Adedapo, and historian John Gurda--and they hope to film many more artists, curators, politicians, and civic leaders who were around at the time to achieve a well-rounded, in-depth feature.
As filmmaker/director Rubin Whitmore II stated:
The whole goal [of this documentary] is to make sure we get a real slice of what was going on so that the story's balanced and accurate because typically it's the artist's voice or the black artist's voice that's not always heard. All the other people that were involved are always heard, but they need to be heard as a part of the balancing of the process, so it would be very lopsided if you didn't try to figure out what other circles were doing and saying at that time.
The group is preparing to seek funding through several avenues, though that information is highly and understandably classified for the time being, so shhhhh!
The aspiration for the screening of the finished documentary is as ambitious as the work itself. From museums to galleries, community centers to schools, film festivals to possibly even public television--you listening MPTV and PBS?--they want everyone to see this film.
Now that we know what a fantastic and significant documentary this is going to be, we have no doubt that this crew will make it happen, right people? Right on!
(Thanks Della, Christopher, Mutope, Rubin, and Stephanie!)