Filmmaker Gregory Scott Williams Jr. Is Centering Those Who Choose Not To Protest

Gregory Scott Williams, Jr. - Still Blooming In The Whirlwind

Source: iOne Digital Creative Services/Gregory Scott Williams, Jr.

An accomplished filmmaker and photographer, Pittsburgh native Gregory Scott Williams Jr. is deeply rooted in community and passionate about empowering young people to become the tellers of their own stories. His films include the documentaries Tar Baby Jane and Introducing August Wilson, as well as the short film Sonny’s Blues, an adaptation of the classic James Baldwin story starring poet Saul Williams that aired on ABC and CBS as part of Badami Productions Presents African American filmmakers.

Williams takes a novel approach in his new project, Warriors, a forthcoming feature documentary that examines protest culture by offering a portrait of a Pittsburgh teenager who has never attended a protest. It is a fascinating counternarrative to the overwrought binaries of valorization and demonization that so often surround civil disobedience, as it turns the camera on the unseen majority: those who have chosen not to participate.

NewsOne Presents Still Blooming In The Whirlwind: Pittsburgh As A Black Cultural And Artistic Mecca

Another aspect of the project, a multimedia photography/video exhibit, will build on Williams’ long history of documenting protests — from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter — producing striking images that manage to capture the fleeting emotional reality of a moment and situate that moment within the long arc of the struggle for justice.

Gregory Scott Williams, Jr. - Still Blooming In The Whirlwind

Source: Gregory Scott Williams, Jr.

Warriors looks at protests by telling the story of a Pittsburgh teenager who has not participated in a protest. I would imagine that would be a tricky concept to pitch, examining protests through that lens.

It’s not a project that started in the traditional sense that we went through development. It started off a bit…I don’t want to say haphazardly, but differently. Everything around the culture of non-violent protest resonated with me as a kid. My mom bought me a series of LPs of Martin Luther King’s speeches, and I used to listen to these speeches and weep. Eyes on the Prize, the work of Gordon Parks and other people that were capturing protests – that always resonated with me. I was always bugging my parents about “why y’all wasn’t out there protesting?” “I had two kids,” they’d tell me. “So what? There were babies out there. If I was alive, I woulda been out there!”

I want to get at the truth.

So, I started shooting the protests that were happening around me. As an artist, I’m reflecting what’s going on in society around me and hoping that I can create some work that will in some way impact [that].

Gregory Scott Williams, Jr. - Still Blooming In The Whirlwind

Source: Gregory Scott Williams, Jr.

How did you come up with the idea of centering the story on a teenager?

There’s a neighborhood in Pittsburgh called the Hill District, which is famous for its influence on jazz and for being a cultural hub. It is also famous for redevelopment that wiped out the Black middle class. And then projects came, and then the decline, and then it was “let’s get rid of the projects ‘cause it’s really close to downtown.”

As an artist, I can make something out of anything.

I partnered with the KBK Foundation to do something about that transition, the redevelopment of those projects. And the approach I took was to create a portrait of a local artist who lived in the Addison Terrace Projects and a media fellowship for teens who were from the Hill District. The technique with the teens, Selfies from the Hill, was to use their social media content and give them assignments to shoot so that I could capture that environment, which was disappearing, and then interview them. And then take that source material and intercut it. And the idea behind that was to have an audience experience people who they wouldn’t have any contact with, to experience these lives as opposed to, “Oh, I’m telling these stories, I’m impacting this narrative.”

And that’s the technique you carried forward into this film?

Exactly. Fast-forward five or six years to this project. In partnerships with the Neighborhood Learning Alliance, I hired three high school interns for my company, like a learn-to-earn program. The idea of the internship was that they’d participate in the making of a film. And the film juxtaposed archival footage of the protests with intimate portraits of the teenagers who participated in the protests, using this same technique. And the girl I ended up working with, who I’m cutting the film around, was the most engaged with the project out of those interns.

Everything around the culture of nonviolent protest resonated with me as a kid.

And that’s Kiara Washington.

Right. And so, the approach became someone who didn’t participate, because that’s what I was forced to do. And most people don’t participate – like my mom and my dad, with me asking them “Why weren’t y’all out there?” And them telling me, “‘Cause what are we going out there for? They crazy. They shooting. They burning sh-t down. It’s dangerous.”

Gregory Scott Williams, Jr. - Still Blooming In The Whirlwind

Source: Gregory Scott Williams, Jr.

It sounds like you really committed to the technique and followed wherever it led.

Me as an artist, I can make something out of anything. Now, once it was Kiara, after I sat down, looked at her social media footage, looked at the protest footage, I was like, “Oh, this actually works.” In her interview, she was talking about this relationship with her grandmother, who’s white. And the white side of the family, they were okay with Trump. Some of them supported Trump. Some of them didn’t understand why these Black people were out here in the streets being so “aggressive.” All lives matter, blue lives matter, all that kind of stuff.

As an artist, I’m reflecting what’s going on in society.

I would imagine you feel a heightened sense of responsibility in how you portray Kiara, being that she’s so young, so much in process.

When we shot it, she was 16, so her mom had to give permission and all of that. But the idea is, I want to stay true to who she is, because it’s a portrait, it’s her voice. She’s telling her story. Part of which is, “I didn’t participate, and I had trouble with my family. And I don’t really see the Black side of my family.” And I have to work with what it is she’s telling me. It’s not about me imposing my own ideas, or even determining whether this person is a good subject, I want to get at the truth of something. Even if somebody’s lying, it’s true. We lie about who we are, and we perform. And I can bring all of that in and create the portrait.

Adam Mansbach is a novelist, filmmaker (Barry), and writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, The Washington Post and The Guardian. The Golem of Brooklyn is his latest book.


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