Is violence requisite for valor?

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I was intentional about omitting images of Miriam Carey’s death day  in “Forget-Me-Not,” our last project and first nonfiction endeavor since graduating from Tisch Graduate Film. Carey was gunned down after being caged in by Capitol Police and uniformed Secret Service officers, and more bullets were fired toward her car with one-year old daughter in the backseat than had been at the nearly thousand Insurrectionists on January 6, 2021. Auteurs that I respect, however, pushed back on my decision exclaiming that the work is less impactful lacking visual evidence of these terrifying final minutes. 

As we build momentum for our work sample to evolve into the docuseries that it teases, I cannot help but mull over this conundrum. Will my predilection for restorative art that unpacks trauma without utilizing its oftentimes sensational violence work against our project? 2022’s Till comes to mind. It relayed Emmett’s movement-shifting, horrific murder without depicting one blow to his fourteen year-old body. Despite beautiful direction, stirring performances from the likes of Danielle Deadwyler and a robust campaign, it did not recoup its $20M budget. Am I doing a disservice to the contemporary communities whose cases and triumphs I seek to spotlight by not illustrating these moments of expiration?

I veer toward creatively supplementing said images with totems, stories, rituals, relatives, and sounds that edify the departed. I find that emphasizing the life lived can render unjust death even more impactful, but wrestle as to whether this is my personal preference versus what is best. I transitioned to filmmaking from teaching middle school Social Studies to mainstream the marginalized history missing from textbooks relaying disenfranchised communities as mere statistics. Indigenous American history particularly gut-punched me as I would literally learn about it on a Monday and have to teach it on a Friday as a NYC Teaching Fellow without the luxury of unpacking and digesting it in semester-long seminars as I had as an Afro-American Studies major in undergrad.

Yet and still, I cannot deny the success of Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Gratuitous violence notwithstanding, more people are aware of Osage Nation because of it. Then there’s Devery Jacobs’ take on the film. She is Mohawk, stars in one of my go-to bingers “Reservation Dogs,” and felt that “it normalizes the violence committed against us and further dehumanizes our people,” she added. ‘I can’t believe it needs to be said, but Indig ppl exist beyond our grief, trauma & atrocities. Our pride for being Native, our languages, cultures, joy & love are way more interesting & humanizing than showing the horrors white men inflicted on us.’”

So…it’s not just in my head. 

With my background in education and witnessing how adding dimension to slain leaders’ lives revived my Black and brown students, I have made it my responsibility to leverage creativity in minimizing deathly images in conveying hidden truths. I am unsure if it’s a charge that all Black and brown artists should adhere to, but I do feel that the onus is on us to take this risk because the dominant culture of storytelling may lack personal incentive. While this type of artistic restoration could potentially hamper traditional success, I am willing to take the risk because while lucrative box office sales and nationwide viewership is ideal, the primary goal of my art is to fortify—to bring something alive within—the communities it centers, even when avenging death.

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