Take the High Road: Social Media is a Minefield for Controversial Films

For those not paying attention to Portland’s drama involving the production of Whitelandia, here’s a quick recap. Two white award-winning filmmakers are taking on the issue of race in a documentary about the history of racial segregation in Oregon. They ran a KickStarter campaign where they highlighted prominent members of the Black community as their partners, and raise over $20,000. One of the people initially profiled was Walidah Imarisha who was later removed from the project and then released an essay explaining why she does not support the film. Imarisha’s entire essay is worth reading, but the crux of her argument is that the filmmakers, Matt Zodrow and Tracy MacDonald used her work in their campaign without getting her permission. She criticizes the production for reproducing the oppressive dynamics that their film is highlighting and not being sensitive to the issues of appropriation that plague Black scholars. Essentially, she says that they are typical white Portland residents, who are well-intentioned and fashion themselves allies, but don’t really listen to the Black community or understand what being an ally means.

I’ve been particularly interested in this film from the beginning. As a documentary filmmaker in Portland, I like to be aware of what’s happening in my town. A lot of people in my world were very excited about this film and helped fund it on KickStarter. Beyond that, I’m also making a social justice film on a hugely sensitive topic and always interested in how other, more experienced people handle the inevitable criticism and awkwardness that comes with that. But most of all, I was interested in this film because I have spent a lot of time questioning what it means to be an educated white person who goes into a community that is not your own and tells someone else’s story. I felt that what they were doing was brave and important, and I wanted to see them do it well.

Instead, what I saw was one of the biggest social media train wrecks I have ever witnessed. Whitelandia responded with a post on their Facebook page calling Imarisha’s post, inaccurate, problematic and unproductive. When this post gets rightly criticized for being insensitive, the filmmakers begin fighting with commenters on their Facebook page, demonstrating troll-ish behaviors and eventually going into damage control and deleting most of the messages. In response to a man who asked where the rest of the comments are, they blamed it on a Facebook glitch. [Update: many of the posts have been un-hidden.] In a moment when the community was paying close attention, they lashed out with anger and defensiveness, calling into question their ability to handle such a deeply sensitive topic.

Classic "cite your source" troll. He knows perfectly well she doesn't have one.

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When filmmakers are working to amplify the voices of those who have less power and influence in the public sphere, that entire relationship is based on trust. It is deeply important that they have the trust of the community that they are representing, and that they appear trustworthy to their audience. While I cannot speak to the relationship that the filmmakers have with the people who are supporting and appearing in their film, they are currently under very public criticism from a prominent member of the Black community. There are good and bad ways of dealing with this sort of public confrontation. The best way would be a genuine, thoughtful statement that showed that they understand the fraught history of appropriation that people of color, particularly women of color have experienced at the hands of white people.

Instead, this is what they posted when faced with comments telling them to check themselves:

It is important to note that the one “like” this comment got is from Whitelandia.

The makers of Whitelandia are woefully unprepared to be on the internet as the public face of a sensitive film about race. While they are able to create a compelling trailer, and have a good track record with their broadcast work, they have just completed a crowd funding campaign and are accountable to the crowd that supports their work. The website for Whitelandia is thin and doesn’t go into any great depth about who the filmmakers are and who they are working with. It is true that angry commenters on a Facebook page aren’t asking for the information nicely, but they are asking for that information. Being a responsible filmmaker accountable to the crowd means giving them that information rather than engaging in a flame war. Interestingly, a statement to the Portland Mercury’s blog reveals names of who in the Black community is currently working with them on the film, and states that they have contracted with a consulting company. The fact that the filmmakers are willing to talk to a reporter, but not the public, about the details of their production demonstrates how ill-prepared they are for the brave new world of social media and crowd-funded production.

What the makers of Whitelandia seem to forget is that they hold so much power in this dynamic. They have won Emmys and have access to broadcasters and investors. They are part of a privileged community where they can get articles in major publications about their work and hire a highly skilled crew working with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. From this position of power, they are asking other people for their knowledge and work, their life stories, and their emotional struggles. The filmmakers will then filter the story and attach their names to it, as all documentary filmmakers do in bringing powerful stories to a an audience. The whole premise of Whitelandia is that this story hasn’t been told, but given the issues of representation present in the media today, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that there are people in the Black community who want to be the ones to tell it, but simply don’t have the money, skills, and connections to make it happen.

This is not to say that two white filmmakers can’t do a good job working with Black history. It is still entirely possible that Whitelandia has a great relationship with the people who do support the film. We can’t pretend that the Black community is monolithic and there aren’t people who disagree with each other about how to get along with the media and share information. The issue of compensation that Imarisha raises is also a tricky one because it is not standard practice for documentarians to pay people for appearing in films, and most people in the documentary business aren’t getting rich off of their work. That said, this is not a shoestring production being shot on whatever the filmmakers can get their hands on.

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In spite of this controversy, I still want to see Whitelandia come out of this ahead. I think that they have been given a fantastic opportunity to do some hard work and be examples of what it means to be humble and to build bridges across racial divides. So far, they have posted that the film hasn’t been made yet, and stating that “the proof [of their non-racists ways] will be in the pudding.” But they need to do better. When people don’t know you, you can’t just demand trust from the community, you have to earn it. And when you are in a place of privlege, you have to look at the wider picture and realize that sometimes it’s not really about you. In this case, it is about the wider pattern of how many times white people in power have taken a Black woman’s voice, appropriated it for their own purposes, and profited.

I didn’t understand the pain of this dynamic until I started reading the work of Black female scholars and listening to what they have to say. And they say it far better than I do. But as people making a film about race, the makers of Whitelandia should understand that dynamic and be self-aware enough to see how they play a role. They need to take a step back and acknowledge their mistake without calling out Walidah Imarisha for misrepresenting them when telling her side of the story. Tellingly, Imarisha’s critique was that she didn’t trust this team with her story, and after witnessing their hissy fit on Facebook, I can understand why.

In situations with such deep painful context, it doesn’t really matter how they perceive their actions in this one instance. The larger truth of the situation is one where a Black woman is speaking her truth and white people who claim to be allies are calling her a liar. It’s ugly, and far worse than the usual “I’m sorry you feel that way” non-apology that often arises in these situations. To make it right, the filmmakers need to acknowledge her words as valid, at the very least, as a sign of respect for all the work that she has done. After that, they need to grow beyond the he-said, she-said bickering and understand their own racism.

Judging from their posts, Whitelandia is going full-speed ahead whether people like it or not. They are determined to make it, and they should be. It’s still an important conversation to have, and we can all come out better for it. However, they should take this as an opportunity to grow and show how deep racism really goes. Hiring a social media rep probably isn’t the worst idea either. For the record, I am currently banned after writing what I considered to be a thoughtful and respectful post on their Facebook page. It’s been deleted, but I’ve included it here, if you’re curious.

While the filmmakers don’t need to be held accountable for all the injustice that has preceded them, they need to be sensitive to it and act appropriately. While they may see using her work before getting explicit approval as not that big of a deal, she does. In calling her words “problematic” and “inaccurate,” they dismissing a prominent voice in the community. More than questions of who is “right” in this matter, the question needs to be, does the black community trust this team? Because if they don’t, this is just a bunch of white people patting each other on the back for being such good allies without doing the hard work of actually listening to black voices. Or worse, only listening to the black voices that tell us what we want to hear.

They claim that they have people on their side, and that we should just wait to see the film. For a lot of people, that’s not enough. Personally, I want to see them do right by the community and make good work. However, this response is defensive and that’s not a great sign. Fighting with critics when dealing with such a sensitive topic indicates that they really haven’t really examined the power dynamics of what’s going on and aren’t willing to have their views challenged. I’m hoping that’s not true and that they are just terrible at using social media. In the end, it doesn’t matter if they don’t see what they did as that bad, they need to recognize the place of power and privilege they come from in the issue and offer a real apology. I’m still hoping once this cools down a bit, they’ll come back with a more level-headed statement.

It is my deepest belief that sometimes you apologize, not because you know you are wrong, but because you value good relationships over always being right. Apologies aren’t just for those times you get caught with your hand in the metaphorical cookie jar. They can be about showing respect for another person’s point of view and acknowledging that they are speaking the truth, even if it is one you can’t see. Especially when publicly dealing with an issue so full of trauma and injustice as state-sanctioned racism, it is vital to have the emotional maturity to disengage from the fight. That doesn’t mean giving up your project, but it means being honest with supporters and above all, showing that you are stepping into this mess out of a sincere desire to be a better person who does everything they can to lessen the burdens of a hateful past.