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Amid Black Lives Matter Protests, Movie Screenings Aim To Help 'Educate People To Action'

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
O Cinema's free virtual film series, created to invite conversation about racial equality and social justice, wraps up with Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,

Kareem Tabsch makes a valid point about how movies can provide a window to understanding concepts and cultures.

"Films are meant to educate, entertain and inspire," the co-founder of Miami's O Cinema says. “Sometimes, they do all three.”

When the killing of George Floyd on May 25 sparked protests throughout the country about racial inequality and social justice, Tabsch knew it was vital for his nonprofit, independent cinema to become part of the conversation.

"Not only to be part of the conversation but to be part of making lasting, substantive change,” he says. “How can we take the power of film so we can push this discussion forward and create real activism? How can we educate people to action?"

In partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, O Cinema worked with Magnolia Pictures to put together a series of virtual film showings available at magnoliapictures.com/knightfoundationseries, selecting works that speak to systemic inequality and, in a way, serve as blueprints for effecting change.

"We talked to our friends at the Knight Foundation and explained to them the vision of showing films that could really contextualize the experience of Black America and make it free and available to everyone," says Tabsch.

Credit Courtesy of Kareem Tabsch
Kareem Tabsch is co-founder of O Cinema, which along with the Knight Foundation is presenting a free virtual screening of Toni Morrison: Pieces I Am.

With the seed planted in Miami, the Knight Foundation felt that there was a greater impact the series could have in other communities, so they found partners to share the same model in other cities including Akron, Charlotte, Detroit and Philadelphia.

"Educating ourselves is an ongoing process," says Priya Sircar, the Knight Foundation's director/arts. "Watching these films is one way we can connect with the issue of racial inequality — both intellectually and emotionally — so that we’re better prepared to engage in the discussions locally, nationally and even internationally."

The series featured "I Am Not Your Negro" on June 7 and "Whose Streets?" on June 14 — and it culminates on June 21 with Miami-born director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' film, "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am."

The biopic, which premiered locally at the Miami Film Festival in March 2019, chronicles the legendary storyteller’s life through her own voice and through interviews with more than a dozen others. It is also an exploration of race, Black history and the human condition.

"Toni had an understanding of the issues that we are all beginning to talk about very openly today 40 years ago. She wrote from a Black perspective with pride," Greenfield-Sanders says.

Morrison's words illustrate the challenges of being a Black, female writer in a time dominated by white, male authors. She conveys her growing years in Lorain, Ohio, and her place in the world as a Black woman who moved to New York and became the editor at a publishing company. There are perspectives on her writings and her personal impact from interviews with personalities such as activist Angela Davis, photographer Fran Lebowitz and Oprah Winfrey, who turned Morrison's novel, "Beloved," into a feature film.

The film made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019; Morrison passed away in August of that year. She did get to see the movie before she died at age 88, says Greenfield-Sanders.

Morrison is the only person in the film who speaks directly into the camera; others interviewed are shown looking off to the left or right side. It was a risky choice, admits Greenfield-Sanders, because it isn't the common technique. His background as a photographer was what gave him the idea and it worked.

"It made Toni the center of the film, and it made it powerful," he says.

When she tells the moviegoer directly about her determination to write without oppression, it's thought-provoking and powerful. "Toni's whole mission was to eliminate the white gaze, as she calls it. She talks about the little white man sitting on your shoulder," says Greenfield-Sanders.

Says Morrison in the film: "So, the first thing I had to do was to eliminate white gaze … the little white man that sits on your shoulder and checks out everything you do and say. So, I wanted to knock him off, and you're free."

Despite being white, Greenfield-Sanders says he knows a thing or two about the white gaze from his own experience growing up in Miami. In 1953, his mother, Ruth Greenfield, founded Miami’s Fine Arts Conservatory, which is considered by historians to be the first interracial arts school in Florida. Greenfield, now 96, still lives in the neighborhood of Spring Garden.

"I went to clarinet classes in an integrated music school, which was unheard of in the 1950s," says Greenfield-Sanders, a graduate of Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove. "I was always conscious of the segregation in Miami and how it shouldn't be that way. My parents were blacklisted because of their political views. I think you are formed in some way by your upbringing – you either resist it or you learn from it.”

These are the kinds of conversations Tabsch hopes will come out of watching Greenfield-Sanders' film.

"We all have a lane that we exist in, and this is a lane where cinema can help incite change. This is the birth of where all this came from – activism through art," says Tabsch. "And this movie is just a great one to end on. We have to effect change, but we also have to create more spaces of Black America and where black storytellers can be told."

'When Liberty Burns'

The lane that North Miami filmmaker Dudley Alexis lives in — and where his documentary "When Liberty Burns," which the Miami Film Festival is showing on Juneteenth, comes from — is a personal place.

“A friend of mine got into an altercation with a police officer on the highway,” he said. That friend was a 31-year-old cab driver named Junior Prosper, who in 2015 was shot and killed by police after a struggle on Interstate 95.

Credit Photo courtesy of Dudley Alexis
When Liberty Burns won the 2020 Knight Made in MIA Feature Film Award in March at the Miami Film Festival.

A few weeks later, Alexis said, he began researching policing in Miami. "It's not like this was the first time I had thought about this issue, but it was the first time it hit so close to home."

His research led him to the race riots in Liberty City, which happened 40 years ago on May 18, 1980, after four white officers were acquitted in the 1979 beating death of Arthur McDuffie. 

"As someone who grew up in Miami, people never really told me about that," he said.

It took Alexis more than three years to make the documentary, which won the 2020 Knight Made in MIA Feature Film Award in March at the Miami Film Festival. 

The festival is now presenting a virtual encore performance of "When Liberty Burns" at miamifilmfestival.com/when-liberty-burns-online-screening on June 19, known as Juneteenth, a day that recognizes the end of slavery in the United States.

When asked how "When Liberty Burns" fits into the context of the current Black Lives Matter movement despite his chronicling of events that happened 40 years ago, he says: "This film doesn't focus on the riots or the protests, but the why - the why it happened. And looking at it now brings it all to the forefront. It has made me realize even more how we keep revisiting this issue over and over again."

What:"Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”

When: Available for viewing from 2 p.m. June 21 through midnight June 22.

Where: magnoliapictures.com/knightfoundationseries

Cost: Free

More information:o-cinema.org

What: "When Liberty Burns"

When: Available starting at midnight June 19.

Where: miamifilmfestival.com/when-liberty-burns-online-screening

Cost: $13 for the general public, $10 for festival members. A portion of sales go to the Historic Hampton House Community Trust.

More information:miamifilmfestival.com

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