Are we done talking about race yet?
Nope. Not by a long shot. And in fact that conversation has really just started, and needs to be an ongoing discussion, according to two Buffalo filmmakers. Korey Green and Peter Johnson, writer/director and producer, respectively, of The Blackness Project, believe that dialogue is the path to understanding and acceptance, if not total agreement, between two long-divided segments of society, black and white.
“The dialogue is what encourages me most,” says Green, who decries the “us” and “them” mentality that seems to permeate all aspects of life in this city. The creator of The Forgotten City, a documentary exploring politics, drugs, racism, and crime in Buffalo, Green says he was inspired anew after seeing The Whiteness Project, shot in Buffalo by independent filmmaker Whitney Dow. That film considered the white point of view. Green wanted to create a work that would show the black perspective.
At the same time his lifelong friend Pete Johnson—an actor, author, and filmmaker whose work references racism in many forms, including starring recently in Road Less Traveled Theater’s Race—saw the Dow film and felt compelled to respond. They decided to collaborate on, and prioritize, a new project with a very direct title.
“Look, ours could be called The American Project,” says Green. “Buffalo is really rich in culture. I felt we had to do something not only to represent our race and culture, but to show that Buffalo is much bigger than the representation in that earlier film…We deal with some really tough topics in our film, and our goal is to get people talking, even at the risk of discomfort, and offense being taken. And just as much as you are tired of hearing about racism, I am, too, but I also live with it daily. Every African-American we interviewed for this had some personal experience with the wrath of racism. People need an outlet, some representation. Our job as filmmakers here is to be that vehicle, that representation—to let people speak.”
A personal quest is how Pete Johnson sees the collaboration. Both men are young fathers of sons, and both are committed to raising them in a hometown hurting from a kind of endemic separatism. They remember better schools with diverse enrollment, and people working at jobs that supported family life.
“This film is a priority for us, getting us to stop whatever else we are doing—this is the one we choose to focus on,” says Johnson. “Every project I have been passionate about lately is race-driven…My question is, ‘What are you doing as an individual to help this?’ Not everyone is going to agree with what they hear here. Our primary goal is creating awareness. Korey and I are making individual quests to help solve some issues here. But every person has to assume accountability for what is happening out there…”
He and Green believe that ignorance is not only no excuse, but it makes certain problems worse. With the prevalence and advancement of technology, from ubiquitous cell phones to dash cams, “more people are seeing what has been going on,” says Green. “Look at current events—race right now is the biggest topic.”
“Now we have too much content!” adds Johnson. “You can’t run from it. And Korey is very adamant about telling the truth—being truthful to himself, and to the people in our community.” He said The Blackness Project, due to wrap in late February, is an educational exercise as well as a point of departure for discussion. The film is organized in literary fashion with chapters, beginning with a discussion of how people felt after viewing The Whiteness Project, and continues with questions about history—what do you think you know about slavery, affirmative action, stereotypes, racial profiling? “It’s hard to be proud of who you are and where you come from if you don’t know that history,” says Johnson.
Ultimately the project is a rescue mission, to save the city they love. “As long as we are divided, we can never excel,” says Green. “But I have tremendous hope. If I didn’t, I couldn’t do this; I would just be an angry black man. But we do have solutions, too. Educate. Be conscious. Know our history and where we are going. We need a better economic structure and better education. Give people jobs and a stronger foundation. A lot of the hate and racism will dissolve if we start thinking more progressively.”
And keep on talking.