Most Frequently Asked Questions Q&A with the Filmmaker
— Being a Black lawyer yourself, what from your own personal experience made you want to make this film?
My own experiences on the path to becoming a lawyer. For some reason, I was shocked about what I experienced as a “Black” law student. I wondered if what I encountered was real or just something in my head because it was so hard to believe. I had attended a predominantly Black high school and a historically Black college, so although I was nervous about going to a predominantly White law school in a state that wasn’t very diverse, I honestly didn’t expect to encounter issues around race. I didn’t really understand or have a true sense of what racism looked like. For some reason, because I was going to “law school,” I thought that it would be a place filled with people who believed in and wanted this ideal of justice, including social and racial justice, and fairness for all. I was only 21 years old coming straight out of undergrad so I was extremely idealistic at that time. The fact that what I had envisioned in my mind and the reality I was faced with was so different was disheartening to me. I spent a lot of time and mental and emotional energy trying to reconcile it all in my mind. It didn’t make sense – still doesn’t. Not talking about and pretending those added barriers don’t exist does not help the situation.
— When did you decide to make this film?
During my first year of law school, I made the decision to do a film. Not necessarily this film, but a film on this subject matter. I recall the things I experienced and talking to fellow Black law students as I tried to make sense of what was happening to me and around me. I didn’t understand the hostility toward Black students. There really weren’t that many of us. And even if race was considered in admissions for diversity purposes, the way we were treated, to me, felt like some White students thought we didn’t have any academic or other accomplishments to justify our presence there. The everyday treatment felt like they believed that the only reason Black students were admitted was due to our being Black – not because we were at the top of our class, not because we had beaten the odds, not because we had demonstrated excellence academically and in other endeavors. It was utterly confusing and distressing.
As a law student, I wrote interview questions, visited people on my university campus to discuss the project, purchased a tape recorder and camcorder, and started conducting interviews on my own. Because I didn’t have the funding or training at that time, I temporarily put aside the project always resolving to come back to it and get it done in the future. Two decades later, after doing the work of advocating for providing greater access for African Americans in going to law school and making sure they are prepared for what was to come through books and conferences, I realized that I still needed to push forward with this film project. I felt an urgency. I did my research, did the pre-production work, rented a studio, hired an experienced camera person, asked some friends to serve as production assistants, and started recording.
— Why is this project important to you?
This project is important to me because I have long felt that the experiences of Black lawyers in the process of becoming lawyers were stories that needed to be told by real-life Black lawyers – and that the world needed to hear them. The paradox of going to a place that stands for “justice” where Black students were treated unfairly never sat right with me, not while I was experiencing it and not through the years as I have spoken with Black law students about their experiences – and learned that things had not changed. When I thought about reading the books about law school or the Hollywood movies about law school, I would laugh and think about the fact that law school was even more difficult than it was portrayed. Yes, law school is hard, but add being Black on top of that – and it takes an extremely tough person to get through it. The desire to share “our” stories was the fire that never went away.
— Why are you uniquely qualified to create this film?
I believe that I am uniquely qualified because of my passion for believing that it’s important for Black people to have access to a legal education, and also to not have more challenging experiences just because they are Black. My feelings about law school are complex. Law school was both a painful and wonderful experience for me. The academic rigor and the race issues were excruciating. The opportunity to study and work abroad made me a better human being. I worked hard and had my share of wins and losses. But I think it’s important to be both honest and critical. I am both a supporter of legal education and a critic of it. I believe it’s important to discuss both the good and the bad. I think having this perspective and having been a Black law student and a Black lawyer myself provides me with some insider insight. . . . My activism and advocacy around these issues is my life’s work. Likewise, I’ve always had an appreciation for film and a desire to become a filmmaker. With having a busy life, especially when my children were younger and required much more time and attention, I was not quite sure how or when I would find the time to pursue this passion project, but I never gave up on the idea. Also, translating my passion for this subject matter to film is an extension of the work that I have already been doing for many years, and this places that work into a medium where I could reach even more people than I ever could in conferences, groups, or books.
— What was your vision regarding the film?
I had a vision of what I wanted to do well before we even put out a call to Black lawyers to participate. My inspiration and approach to the film came from watching HBO’s The Black List and Oprah’s Master Class several years ago. I loved the idea of people just telling their stories – honestly, transparently, directly – with minimal images and other footage. I felt that this pure storytelling would be effective, and would enable us to center these Black lawyers and their stories. In sharing my own experiences in the past, I felt the resistance to the idea of people who were at such a high level of education “complaining.” I remember feeling like people didn’t want to talk about it and that it needed to be kept as a quiet “secret”. However, I had a different point of view. I felt that by not discussing it, those coming behind us would not be fully prepared to tackle it when faced with it and that would be added setback. So, I felt the voices of Black lawyers – including their struggles and additional obstacles – needed to be heard – and this particular format would enable that. I only asked for them to tell the truth. I didn’t know what any of them were going to say.
I also felt that the format I chose would be doable for me as a new filmmaker. There are so many ways to tackle a subject matter but I felt some of my other ideas would take many years to execute. . . . Although The Black List and Oprah’s Master Class were in full color, I saw some Black and White profiles and interviews done for other projects on YouTube, and I really liked the idea of using a Black and White color filter and aesthetic. I felt that this look was important because this was an issue of how White people treated Black people given the history of this country. I also felt it would provide a beautiful and non-distracting look that would force viewers to hone in on the seriousness of the topic, and focus on the person in front of them, and the subject matter presented.
— What do you hope viewers walk away with after watching the documentary?
My hope is that viewers walk away with insight to make them think more deeply about what it means to be Black in law schools in America and why representation is so vitally important. Particularly during this period of racial reckoning. I want Black people who aspire to become lawyers to understand that there are many challenges ahead, but that they absolutely need to persist and stay the course. Our presence and our involvement in these institutions are necessary. I want others to have a greater understanding and compassion for those additional challenges faced by Black people as they strive to succeed in a society that wants to ignore the history imposed on us, seems to believe that Black people are less hardworking and deserving than others, and resents Black ambition.
— What do you feel this film reveals that is unlike anything else currently out there regarding law school or lawyers?
I believe this film is a first in discussing African Americans and law school. Also, this film reveals that paradox not often discussed – that American law schools are places where Black law students often experience the very same prejudices, biases, and discrimination that they would in society-at-large – at the hands of their classmates, and even staff and faculty. The history of the United States has shown us that the law has had power in determining the status of Black people. It was purposely used to enslave, subjugate and segregate us – and then to free us and give us rights. Because of this “special relationship” that Black Americans have with “the law,” one is a right to question whether American law schools bear some responsibility to be courageous enough to at least address this history and the continuing anti-Blackness, and to not be afraid to take leadership with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion in weighing that against concerns of some people feeling that they are being indoctrinated or having their individual rights of being prejudiced infringed upon. These are heavy issues without easy solutions.
— What do you want this documentary to do?
I want this documentary to push American law schools to do better with regards to race relations – and specifically anti-Black racism against Black people – without that particular discussion being viewed as a bad thing. Let’s be able to discuss that without it being a slight to all of the other diverse groups who are being treated unfairly. All of it needs to be confronted – but it’s absolutely OK to discuss Black people in law school in particular. Saying that the experiences of Black people in this country matters is not saying that everyone else’s does not. Even though we are also people of color, diverse, minorities – there is a different type of discrimination that Black people experience. . . . This is tough subject matter.
I hope that it will incite constructive, and honest, open discussion about structural racism, institutional racism in law schools, and the continuing anti-Black, hostile attitudes Black law students must endure on an ongoing basis in an already stressful and hypercompetitive environment. I want it to help serve as a “call to action” for law school leaders to confront or continue to confront this difficult issue and courageously put in place intentional and consistent efforts to increase not only meaningful diversity, but also inclusion – in an institution that is supposed to represent “justice” but fails to meet that ideal for its Black students. It’s work. It’s constant, draining, taxing, and challenging work. It’s hard. But it’s important and necessary, and we’re all better by continuing and doing our part. I just want to make a contribution.
But, more than anything, I want Black people to see themselves in these Black lawyers – and for those who have aspirations to become lawyers, for them to decide that if those Black lawyers could do it, then they could too. If that can happen, it will be worth all of the effort.