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Viewers 'lean into discomfort' at 'I'm Not Racist ... Am I?' screening
Posted 04/16/2015 02:47PM

Before the first scene of the powerful documentary I'm Not Racist ... Am I? illuminated the big screen in Durham Academy's Kenan Auditorum on Wednesday, film producer AndreĢ Robert Lee offered a warning and a request: "You may hear some things that hit you, that are hard to digest. I ask you to sit and stay with that, and realize that sometimes, moving into that discomfort, learning into discomfort is important to help us move forward the conversation."

The documentary chronicles the year-long journey of 12 diverse New York City teens on a quest to get to the heart of racism. Over the course of the film, the students — who were participating in The Calhoun School's Deconstructing Race initiative — examine such topics as the use of the "n-word," the difference in systemic racism and individual bigotry, and white privilege.

After the screening, Lee asked the audience to shout out one-word descriptions of how the film made them feel. The answers — which ranged from "brave" and "enlightened" to "ignorant" and "sorry" — indicated that the audience had heeded Lee's request to embrace the discomfort inspired by several scenes.

The filmmaker told the audience that while they wouldn't be able to end racism immediately, each person there should do this or her small part to dismantle at the systems that oppress minorities. Lee said the film allows him to do his small part to change the world, starting with the next generation.

"You don't have to be MLK or Malcolm X. ... You can get your little ice pick out and chip away at the bottom of this bigger problem by doing things like interrupting racism when you see it, talking to people about it, building relationships with people who are different from you and trying to engage in the conversation," Lee said. "I personally believe that with that effort, we can begin to push for change."

After the screening and audience discussion, DA junior Maddy Samet said she had participated in conversations similar those featured in the film during the Triangle Diversity Alliance conference hosted by DA in October.

"Change starts by having difficult conversations, which is something that he [Lee] was stressing," she said. "We have to question societal norms and step in when something is wrong."

Fellow Diversity Club member Justin Warren, a senior, expressed similar sentiments.

"The conversation afterward was the most important thing to take away from tonight," he said. "You don't necessarily have to agree with everything that was in the film — but we need to have a dialogue afterward and start a conversation, because that's the only way we can ever come to a solution."

Local opportunities to have such conversations are plentiful, said Bela Kussin, parent of a DA alumna and former board member. She offered the following resources for interested adults and students:

Lee’s next project has DA ties. But this time rather than a documentary, Lee is turning his lens on civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, the openly gay assistant to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the deputy director of the famed 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Lee’s writing partner is the husband of DA graduate Leigh LaVange ’05.

The feature film about Rustin also has Chapel Hill ties. In 1947, Rustin organized some of the first “Freedom Rides” through the South to challenge the same bus segregation laws Rosa Parks would later become famous for resisting. Rustin and five colleagues were arrested after trying to sit together at the front of a Chapel Hill bus and he was eventually convicted of violating segregation laws. Rustin’s report on his 22-day sentence serving hard labor on a chain gang received national attention that eventually led to the end of convict labor in North Carolina prisons.

Learn more about Lee and I'm Not Racist ... Am I? in a Q&A with the filmmaker published in earlier issues of News & Notes.

Anyone who is interested in viewing the film but was unable to attend the DA screening is invited to Carolina Friends School's screening, set for Tuesday, April 28, at 7 p.m. The screening is free and open to the public.

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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