America ReFramed, a documentary series that explores America’s ever-changing socio-cultural landscape, premieres two films on the PBS World Channel this month: one looks at gentrification and the other at the life of a longtime San Francisco Bay Area community activist.
A New Color — The Art of Being Edythe Boone made its national public television debut February 14. It is Director-Producer Maureen “Mo” Morris’ first film. It stars Edythe Boone, a 74-year-old mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and a self-taught artist who lives in Berkeley, Calif.
Boone’s mission over the years since relocating from East Harlem, New York to the San Francisco Bay Area has been to “empower individuals and transform communities through art and activism.” She and Morris both spoke to the MSR by phone Feb 14.
Morris said she first met Boone at her daughter’s school where the artist-educator was teaching at the time. “I really appreciated her style with the kids and what she brought to teaching art,” recalled Morris.
After Boone was honored by the city in July of 2010, Morris approached her with the film idea but Boone initially resisted. As she recalled, the idea felt “a little crazy. I wasn’t going to do it — that was my first reaction,” said Boone matter-of-factly. “I had never told anybody my history. Most of the people did not know what I did in the community. Nobody knew the political and activism work — I never talked about it.
“I always felt that [to] talk about something or brag about something was not good. You [just] did what you had to do,” said Boone. “I was like undercover.”
“We connected,” added Morris. She followed Boone for about five years and her persistence eventually paid off. “As an artist, she really gave me a lot of room to create my own art. There also was a lot of collaboration between us, a lot of discussions, a lot of getting to know each other off camera. It had been superficial before that.
“She would include me in on how she felt about things,” noted the filmmaker, who, in addition to work as a producer and editor of videos for nonprofits, also has experience as a mediator and immigration attorney.
Both women seemed pleased with the end result of the film but for different reasons. “I’m not going to get an Oscar,” joked Boone. “I am the same person I was before this movie. I’m not a movie star — I’m still an activist. I’m still Edy Boone. I’m still an artist. I still care about the homeless, the community, racism…Black people getting killed. I still care about that and I put that first.”
Boone’s nephew Eric Garner died in 2014 after being in a chokehold by police in New York City. Garner’s death and other police-related killings of Blacks are getting more attention now because of advance technology, said Boone.
“We can take pictures [with cell phones],” she pointed out. “We have evidence now. Before [there] was no evidence and nobody believed it.”
Morris said she believed her goal for the film to present a “respectful, dignified” portrait of Boone was achieved. “I want many things, but really I want [viewers of the film] to be drawn into the life, work, humor and joy of the person” as well as Boone’s art and work in the community.
Another film making its national public television debut on America ReFramed’s fifth season is 70 Acres in Chicago. The documentary, premiering Feb. 21, takes a look at Chicago’s Cabrini Green public housing. Ronit Bezalel’s documentary took 20 years to complete, said Bezalel in a MSR phone interview.
“The reason why I kept at this topic for 20 years partly was the Cabrini community,” explained Bezalel of Cabrini Green, which was once hailed as a public housing success then cast as an urban disaster slated for demolition.
Bezalel has been producing and directing films since 1990. She’s lived in Chicago since 1994 after moving there to study film at Columbia College. “I really wanted to do it justice, and to tell the story and tell it right. It was a story that would take a long time to tell because the demolition took 15 years from start to finish.”
Originally from Montreal, Canada, “I was really dismayed by the segregation in the city,” remembered Bezalel. “People told me immediately to avoid Cabrini and not to go there.” Such advice made her want to see it even more, she added. Her feelings of being an outsider gave her “empathy for people whose lives were different from mine, and I wanted to know more [about] what was happening,” said the filmmaker.
Currently working as a freelance journalist, Bezalel said she hopes public television will keep the issue of public housing and gentrification alive. “Watching the film shows it is not just at Cabrini, but it’s happening in communities across the country,” she said.
Both A New Color and 70 Acres will be available for viewing via online streaming after their initial television airings.
“I really would like to get it put in schools,” said Morris on her film. “We’re hoping that [as] more people see it, more would want to share it with their schools and communities, and that it will continue to spark dialogue around all the things Edy talks about…how we can bridge the divisiveness we are privy to right now.”
“I think what it does — because it took so long to make — I think it is a very genuine and realistic portrayal of the community. I’m very happy with that process,” concluded Bezalel. She added that she is working with various communities around the country to show her film, and is planning to show it in the Twin Cities sometime this year.
Find the America ReFramed series online at http://worldchannel.org/programs. Check your local listings for show times.
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.