Creating Safe Spaces in Jackson, Mississippi

Marta Cunningham speaks at a Q&A at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

Marta Cunningham, director, Valentine Road

When I was first told that I would be making the trip down South with Film Forward to screen Valentine Road, I felt a range of emotions ranging from excitement to anxiety. Being a Californian, I only knew the horror stories of the history of the South and the conservative views that Fox News spits out. But since making Valentine Road, I know  now that these hate crimes can happen anywhere at anytime.

As an African American woman coming to Jackson, Mississippi, showing my film about a hate crime of a queer youth named Lawrence King was loaded. I wondered what our screenings would be like? Who would show up? And how many Black people will come?

Thursday February 20th

Thursday arrives and I jump on a flight at LAX sunny and in the ‘70s. Two members from the Film Forward team, Charlie Reff and Nate von Zumwalt are also on the plane. We head to Houston then on to Jackson where we hit major turbulence on the way to Jackson. We have hit a storm. We land in the pouring rain and brilliant lightening. No umbrella in hand. As I sit  in the small airport waiting for my luggage to show up on the conveyor belt I take in the Mississippians to see if they will reveal some secrets to what I might find in the days to come. We go out to dinner at a Mediterranean join (much to my surprise) with the Film Forward  team and the Mississippi Film Commission duo Ward and Nina. I check in at the hotel without incident and cannot sleep a wink.

Friday February 21st

I can’t sleep so I go work out. In the morning I meet the team from Film Forward and the Mississippi Film commision for a yummy breakfast where I see Nisha Pahuja, a wonderful woman and the director of  The World Before Her. She  has flown in from Mumbai, India. As we drive to the event I can’t help notice the silence of the town. No rumblings of a city that I am so used to hearing. But on the way to Nisha’s screening I do wonder what the population is and where the people are. I do  some press with an access cable station and I am taking in the incredible art and the grounds of one of the oldest historically black colleges in the country. While I walk around campus I listen to the students talk amongst themselves and find  the accent comforting, apart from when they call me “Ma’am.” It takes me back to a time and place I’ve read about but I am not comfortable being in. We eat lunch (still no soul food or “southern food”) and we head over to a workshop of young filmmakers. I realize on the way I would like to see Medgar Evers home while I am here. The  workshop is wonderful and the students were very brave and took chances with their storytelling. Truly impressive. All of them.

Off to the Valentine Road screening at the lovely Museum of Art. It’s a nice turn out. A mixed group of age, gender, race and sexual orientation. Really looking forward to the discussion. I don’t watch the film anymore, too painful, so we head out for dinner. We had a heated discussion about race, sexual orientation and gender politics after fielding our first question. The ignorance level was definitely jarring, but seeing the audience’s reaction to her comments and my answers was very satisfying. The majority of the room saw Larry as the victim and they wanted to discuss their feelings about it. The room was tense. As I talked about the injustices of the film people shook their heads and applauded. They were on the journey.

I realized these conversations obviously just don’t happen in “mixed” company. There was only one Out lesbian African American woman, who challenged their views, but I could feel that everyone else in the room agreed. We spoke about the similarities of the case to Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis and the deep-seated racism in our country that can make the victim the perpetrator. All of my fears of the South not understanding or supporting our LGBT youth of color were shattered. Even after the session ended, numerous people of all ages and various ethnic background stayed to talk. No one wanted to leave. All sharing their need to be seen and heard and wanting more dialogue around the systemic problems of racism and hatred in the South. They are passionate for change in Jackson. I knew after that session that Mississippi needed to know Lawrence King.

February 22nd

Still not sleeping and not sure why. I am catching up with my TV. Saw Frances Ha. Loved it. Ate breakfast and then headed out right away to a panel called “The Road to Greater Acceptance.”  It was a great discussion and I really enjoyed listening to fellow panelists. Two of them, Eddie Outlaw and his husband Justin McPherson, talk about leaving their home state of Mississippi and  moving back home  and being out and proud. Throughout the discussion almost everyone on the panel from Jackson spoke about the deep-seated level of racism. Justin said that the N word was used by his customers in the salon as often as  the word “the.”

Kimberla Little, an African American woman in the banking world discussed how white people will use the N word around her without even flinching. Unbelievably upsetting. Anna Davis from Safe Schools was truly inspirational and works diligently and passionately with LGBT youth. Some of her youth came to the panel and screening of Valentine Road and were extremely moved by both the panel and the film. It’s so good to see youth coming out for the film, and I can’t wait until the school screening tomorrow! Went for a swim and did some writing. Went to bed and watched Thom Yorke do his happy dance. God Radiohead is good.

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