Q&A with 'I'm Not Racist... Am I?' director
Posted 03/18/2015 01:59PM

The screening of I'm Not Racist ... Am I? has been rescheduled for Wednesday, April 15, at 6:30 p.m. in Kenan Auditorium.

I’m Not Racist… Am I? is a documentary that follows 12 diverse New York City teens on a year-long journey to get to the heart of racism. Over the course of a school year, the film captures teens having tense and sometimes painful conversations through a series of workshops aimed at tackling difficult topics like stereotypes, the "n-word," individual bigotry and systemic racism. The teens also engage with their friends and family in discussions about race and privilege. Through these conversations, the film examines whether the next generation can truly be colorblind.

The documentary was produced by Point Made Films in collaboration with The Calhoun School as part of Calhoun's Deconstructing Race initiative. Since its debut in summer 2014, I’m Not Racist… Am I? has been on a national tour, with screenings at film festivals, museums, independent schools and even Google’s Mountain View campus. Durham Academy will host a screening of I’m Not Racist… Am I? on Wednesday, April 15, at 6:30 p.m. in Kenan Auditorium, followed by a question-and-answer session with producer André Robert Lee. We caught up with Lee for an interview via email as he traveled by train to screen the film at his alma mater, Connecticut College.

News & Notes: How did the theme for this documentary develop?
André Robert Lee: The project grew out of an idea from David Alpert at The Calhoun School. The Calhoun School received a grant from the Kellogg Foundation for a project called Deconstructing Race. The big idea centered on how to get teens to talk about racism. How can we get them engaged in a conversation now with efforts to take steps toward deconstructing racism? Our team, Point Made Films, was invited to apply for the film portion of the project. We were awarded the job, and our director, Catherine Wigginton-Greene, led our team with the idea of following students for one year. 

N&N: How did you choose the students?
Lee: The budget limited us to one location. We chose NYC. Catherine and I reached out to teachers we knew at public and private schools. We wanted students from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. We visited with the students and had conversations around the word privilege. We did not define the project too extensively during these conversations. We just invited the students to participate informally. We watched for students that were interested and had something to say. It did not have to be right. It did not have to be wrong. We just sought out interesting students. We spoke with their families to ask for full participation, as we would require their participation also.

N&N: Why do millennials pose such a challenge when it comes to their awareness of race and structural racism?
Lee: I think every young person is on the existential journey to self. And I actually think most people (period) have a hard time being aware of race and structural racism. That is why the system works so well. It is confusing. Without a clearer picture and understanding the history, definition and the general construct of said system, we actually help this system thrive.

N&N: Why is it so important to spark conversations about race, class, power and privilege in the independent school world?
Lee: It is important for all schools to have this conversation. Private schools have a concentrated community of folks with access to privilege and wealth. Many private schools also strive for creating critical thinkers. With those two qualities in mind, it makes a great deal of sense to engage the private school community in these complex conversations. I also have a very personal connection to these communities (André attended Philadelphia’s Germantown Friends School as a teenager. His first documentary, The Prep School Negro, is a look back at the hidden cultural cost of the decision to journey beyond his inner-city Philadelphia roots by accepting a full scholarship to an elite private school.) I have constantly felt a part of the community and apart from the community. I believe these conversations can help the community achieve inclusive excellence. 

N&N: What was it like to shift from turning the lens on your own experience to documenting the same group of students for a year?
Lee: It was a very different experience to say the least. The biggest shift has been in the post-screening talk-back. The focus is more on facilitating a dialogue as opposed to teaching. During the filming of INRAI, I had so many moments when I wanted to run over to the students, hug them and tell them they would be okay and figure this out someday. I had to stay back and let them have their own authentic experience. That was the best way for them to grow. It’s exciting to see young people grow and learn.

N&N: What has it been like for the students you profiled since the release of the film?
Lee: I feel comfortable saying they are all new people after the film. I can only speak to small moments in their lives, as I don't see them on a daily basis. It is my observation that they have each been affected deeply by the film.

N&N: What has the timing of the release of the film been like in terms of the larger context of current conversation relating to race in America?
Lee: Sadly, one can program a year out with the expectation that there will be difficult moments that require complex conversations about race in America. We did not plan two years ago to have this film in the time period that includes murders of young people of color connected to race in Saint Louis, New York or even Chapel Hill. I wish it were not true, but it is. This is why we must constantly resist.

N&N: What's the overarching goal of your work? Has there been an experience that you find particularly gratifying?
Lee: I want to make the world a better place. I want equity and justice for all. There have been numerous experiences that are gratifying. Each time I see a person believe their story is told and heard, I am grateful. Each time a person resistant to these conversations comes to the table, listens and actually considers participating, I am grateful.

N&N: What do you do when you're not doing this?
Lee: I was recently lucky enough to meet bell hooks (née Gloria Watkins Berea, College Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies). She said, 'It is important to not become co-dependent on your social justice work.' I listened and heard. I have been doing just that. I take breaks and live.

N&N: What's next for you in terms of professional or personal projects?
Lee: I am working on a project about American hero Mr. Bayard Rustin. It will be a feature film on the Selma level. We have secured some initial funding for the project. The script is nearly done. My writing partner is actually the husband of a DA graduate. We have the exclusive rights to John D'Emilio's Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. I have assembled an impressive advisory committee. We are going to make this movie and bring Mr. Rustin's incredible story to the world. 

The screening of I’m Not Racist… Am I?, which is free and open to the DA community and the general public, marks Lee’s second visit to Durham Academy. DA screened his first documentary, The Prep School Negro, in 2010. Follow André Robert Lee on Twitter @AndreManyThings and follow the film’s screenings around the country @NotRacistMovie.

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