One of the most captivating parts of the film is the commentary from family members who are descendants of slaves or White slave owners. Why was it important to include their perspectives?
I have to tip my hat to Doug Blackmon. When Sheila Bernard, who wrote the script, and I were shaping the story and Doug mentioned the idea of including descendants, I kind of poo-poo’d it. I was like, “Why are we going to have them? What are they going to know or what are they going to say? They don’t have any real historical reference. They’re not going to be able to give us facts like historians.” But Doug and [executive producer] Catherine Allan kept fighting for it. And in retrospect, the descendants didn’t have to have historical knowledge, what they brought to it was personal responses. These people brought their own humanity as descendants who could understand on a personal level the impact of this history, which for a documentary gives it another level of power, another level of emotional resonance.
Aren’t you from the South as well?
No, I was born and raised in New York City but like a lot of African-Americans, my family is from the South. My father is from Mississippi. My mother is from Georgia. I spent a tremendous amount of time in the south in my early 20s. I’m impressed about how my uncles and my father and my aunt and my mother grappled and struggled and made it out of there at a young age without losing their lives. Ever since I’ve been involved in the film business, I’ve been down there lots of times shooting documentaries. I feel that complicated relationship with the South—part of me loves being down there, and part of me always feels the remnants of Jim Crow.
How would you compare Slavery By Another Name with your past work?
This film is as important as when I did Eyes on the Prize or 4 Little Girls. To me it’s got the same relevance as When the Levees Broke, too. It’s an opportunity to give the viewing public a look into another aspect into American history that doesn’t give you the same old pablum that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and he was a great man. Or that Black people during Reconstruction didn’t know what they were doing and that’s why White people had to retake the South. This film gives you a whole other look at how history should be investigated. In some ways, it’s more than a film. It’s an invaluable history lesson. That everyone should partake of.
You’ve worked with Spike Lee many movies. What’d learn from him about filmmaking and what would he say about you?
We’ve worked on and off for 25 years. He knows I always bring a level of professionalism and honesty to the work because I respect what he does so much. One thing I like about Spike—he is fearless. Fearless in terms of saying, I have a story that’s important. It’s about our people. And I’m going to fight tooth and nail to make sure it gets out there. If there’s anything that I learned from Spike, it’s that—to be tenacious in terms of telling our stories.