Editor Lewis Erskine’s Call to Action: “Examine your privilege; question it constantly”

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Lewis Erskine speaks at the Karen Schmeer Fellowship’s Art of Editing Lunch at the 2017 Festival. © Sundance Institute | Max Spooner

Last month at the Sundance Film Festival, documentary editor Lewis Erskine presented the third annual keynote during Sundance Institute and Karen Schmeer Fellowship’s Art of Editing Lunch. In the spirit of extending Erskine’s galvanizing call to action, we’ve published an edited transcription of the speech here.

I was born a Negro and I grew up Black. We were more a Martin Luther King Household than a Malcolm X household. But we were always about racial justice and about change at home. I didn’t set out to edit; I quit college to mix sound. I was going to work in the recording studio, I was going to make records. I found my way eventually to television and taught myself to edit there because that was the best option and it actually really reminded me of being in the recording studio, punching in on time and getting things in balance. I miss the studio, I’d go back if I could, but I’m okay here.

But I was kind of always editing, I was kind of always looking at the pieces of stuff and figuring out if we can make what we want from the components we have, what adjustments we could make. The sorely missed St. Clair Bourne plucked me from TV and brought me into documentary. We worked in his apartment on 105th Street and Broadway. I don’t know if any of you have been in that apartment – [it’s] fabulous, pre-war. I was in the maid’s room, that was the edit room, and it was the beginning of me working in documentary and telling stories about the heart and soul and the struggles of Black people. That’s kind of what I do. I was lucky enough to meet Stanley Nelson and he and I … made a pile of groovy films, some of which have been [to the Sundance Film Festival], including one that the new president has not seen, Freedom Riders, because then he would know that John Lewis is not all talk. Let me talk for a second about the new president. I don’t want to waste too much time on that. I’m not going to curse from the podium because I know you’re recording. I’m not going to let him steal my joy. Bernard Lafayette, who was on the Freedom Rides and is in Stanley Nelson’s film about Black colleges, said we would sing on the way to the jail. I’ll sing on the way to jail if I have to but he’s not stealing my joy. I think of him, I think of Trump as the street magician who works with a team of pickpockets, right? We’re all busy paying attention to his tweets, right? I mean it’s not that I’m not concerned, but I’m not going to let him steal my joy.

My concern about the future brings me to the hard part of what I came to say. It’s the integrity part and it goes out beyond this room. Let me pause for a second. Editors, right. Look, I am so happy to be in the community of editors because I sort of backed into this thing. I headed in a different direction and ended up here and the support and the comradery – even though I’m in one room and you’re in another room and we’re not working together, even if we’re working on the same film, we’re not working together – and the community aspect of this group is just wonderful for me.

©2017 Sundance Institute | Max Spooner

But some of what I have to say goes beyond this room and it’s for us editors, but it’s also for the larger community. And those of you who are here from the fiction world, please bear with because a lot of this is because I’m part of the documentary communities – this stuff is for doc. But don’t turn on your phone yet, you can still pay attention. When I look from my chair in the edit room, when I’m at a celebration, I’m very troubled by what I see. The collection of the material that is us, I think, is not going to tell the story we think we’re trying to tell when it comes to race. They invited me to come make this speech months ago and I’ve been back and forth in touch saying, “Yes, I’m working on it, it’s just been really hard for me to write down my thoughts.” And I realized yesterday it’s because I’m angry and hurt. I want to know if you see what I see when I look at this community. I want to know if you see how White we are as a community – how few people of color, how few Black people [make up this community]. Not just [those] making the work, but making the decisions about who makes the work and writing the checks for who makes the work, and being on the crew when the work is being done.

I went to an awards ceremony. A friend of mine was being given an award for his body of work, and I got invited. It was nice because we worked together and we sat with the posse in the front section, and when I turned to look, we were the only Black group in the room. There were other Black people, there were other people of color, but essentially it was us. So this is a cat who’s made films, we know this guy, everybody knows this guy. Why in 2017 – this thing was in 2016 – why is this still going on? It hurts me, it hurts my stomach, it hurts my ass, honestly. Over and over and over again at the screenings, in the credits, in the funding meeting, on the crew, the decisions about what is a documentary film continue to be made by White folks exclusively. It’s not a problem being White, don’t ever mistake me for saying that, but it is a problem when the locus of control is so unified and so unified across racial lines. It’s not absolute, I know I’m painting with a broad brush. As a community, we’re doing pretty good on gender. We’ve got a lot of women in power and making decisions and I think we should give ourselves a hand for that because that’s not an accident, it happened from both sides. It happened by us recognizing women who could do the job and by women saying, “Oh yeah, I can do that job.” So we’re doing pretty good on gender, we’re not doing so well on disability … but we’re working on it. So it’s not that change isn’t taking place, but shit. Turn, look right, and it’s not that we’re not good; it’s not that we’re not good-hearted; it’s not that we’re not making good films; it’s not that we’re not good people; and it’s not that we are racist, but the structure of racism remains. It remains in filmmaking. And it remains in funding and it remains in crewing. I mean, what’s the likelihood of an all Black crew funded by a Black organization, knocking on a door in a White community to make a film about their struggles? A friend of mine says if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu. Who’s at the table with you and who’s on your menu? And that’s a particular call to funders – I need you to think about that.

I want to expand a little about the definition of racism. Growing up we talked about it as a system of oppression. I grew up during desegregation era. I was born in ‘57, so just shortly after Brown and around the time that sit-ins started. And so the discussion about racism is often undermined by, “Well I don’t dislike you.” No, it’s oppression, it’s a structural thing … But I think we also have to add that racism is also privilege. That you can let your kids walk to the better funded school along streets where they are protected by the police as opposed to having to tell your kids how to interact with the police should they encounter them on the way to school. And a lot of what I see as the problem can be attacked at looking at privilege. I need you to look at your privilege. In the play Hamilton – which I was very lucky to be taken to see – there’s a song, “The Room Where it Happens.” I want to be in the room where it happens. Who’s in the room where it happens? Are you in the room where it happens? And that ties in with who’s getting paid to do the work because that getting paid to do the work leads to the experience needed to get the grant, leads to getting the film made, leads to getting the award or the recognition or getting into the festival, leads to getting to the work, right? So it’s a cycle, and if the cycle isn’t disrupted, then things stay.

We heard about disruption from this podium earlier in this week. In another room I heard about risk. The great poet and activist Audrey Lord said, “Revolution is not a one-time event; it is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change.” So, here’s my request: I need you to look for every opportunity to make a genuine change. I need you to examine your privilege, especially if you’re at the table, and I need you to double check who’s on your menu. This could easily be extrapolated to [ask], “Should White filmmakers stop making films about Black people’s problems?” What a friend of mine calls “Black misery”? No, it doesn’t mean that. But it does mean when you go to make that film, recognize your privilege at the moment you decide you’re going to make that film. Don’t call me, I’m not taking this job anymore. Don’t call me in post when you, as a White filmmaker decided you were going to make a film about Black folks and you went and shot with your White camera operator and you have a White producer and you got funded by a White organization which had no Black people making decisions … don’t come to me and ask me to help you not be so White when your film is struggling. I’m not going to do it anymore. Here’s my request. Examine your privilege. Question it constantly. Constantly question it. If you’re in the room, take the risk of being the disruptor … I heard at another screening, somebody raised a hand and said, “Okay, what can I do as a White person?” and the director of the film said, “I’m not going to tell you. You have to figure it out. You have to take on the burden of solving this problem.” Right? I’ve got a thing that I’ll send to the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program about how to be an ally which I think is a really useful document because it helps you sort of look and take apart where things happen and how you can be the person who steps in between those things.

And I’m not saying to Black folks, “Okay, we’re done, we can sit back and let them solve it.” Black folks didn’t start racism and I think this election shows we’re not going to finish it, we’re not going to end it. We need White folks to take on the burden of racism and take on the burden of ending it because I don’t think that we can do it alone. If you’re in the room, I need you to be the disruptor. I need you to take the risk, and it’s not that I don’t want to talk to you about it, it’s not that I refuse to talk to you about it, it’s not that I refuse to help you. But to some extent, you have to do this … you have to do this. When I walk into this room and get a stomach ache, you’ve got to walk into this room and get a stomach ache. Right? That’s the way it’s going to change. Thank you extraordinarily for listening to me.


Lead photo:

Lewis Erskine speaks at the Karen Schmeer Fellowship’s Art of Editing Lunch at the 2017 Festival. © Sundance Institute | Max Spooner