By Randy Fiedler
For the second year, Baylor University will sponsor a special conference in Washington, D.C., during Black History Month that brings together educators, filmmakers, theologians and policymakers to explore ways that film and culture can spark important discussions about race and justice.
The conference, “A Long Long Way: Film, Race and Policing,” will be held Feb. 1-2, 2019, at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon before his death. Through public film screenings in the Cathedral nave, panel discussions and a workshop, the conference will take a deeper look at race, prejudice and policing.
On Feb. 1, following an official welcome by Baylor President Linda Livingstone, the conference will begin with a 7 p.m. screening of director Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. “Do the Right Thing” tells the fictional story of how hate and prejudice exploded into violence between members of different racial groups on the streets of Brooklyn.
A second film directed by Lee, “BlacKkKlansman,” will be shown Feb. 2 at 6:30 p.m. Based on actual events, the 2018 film tells the story of African American police officer Ron Stallworth, who successfully managed to infiltrate a Colorado branch of the Ku Klux Klan by convincing a Jewish colleague to go undercover as a white supremacist. The film is expected to compete for numerous awards this year, including Best Film and Best Director for Lee. Both films will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by National Public Radio newscaster Korva Coleman.
In addition, a workshop Feb. 2 at 3 p.m. will take a deeper look at race and policing, with “Do the Right Thing” as the starting point. Dr. Greg Garrett, a Baylor professor of English who serves as one of the conference’s organizers, will provide background in film analysis and history, to be followed by discussion of contemporary events with panelists and audience members. Other participants in the weekend include Vann Newkirk, who writes on race and politics for The Atlantic Monthly, Yolanda Pierce, dean of the School of Divinity at Howard University, and Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary.
Accompanying Garrett to the 2019 conference will be students from his fall 2018 American Literature class. The students will attend all sessions, interact with conference speakers and guests, and will then meet together with Garrett after the event to discuss their experiences.
“It is so meaningful for Baylor to sponsor this program on race and justice at America’s symbolic spiritual home, the site of inaugural prayer services, presidential funerals and important national days of prayer,” Garrett said. “Our collaboration with the National Cathedral gives this event national visibility and a real chance to speak into the national conversation about personal and institutional racism through our consideration of these two powerful films. For Baylor undergraduates to be a part of that event — to learn from it and to represent us, which they do so well — is a great added benefit.”
At Baylor’s inaugural conference in February 2018, “Long, Long Way: Race and Film, 1968-2018,” which was co-sponsored by the Austin Film Festival, Garrett was able to bring five students from his 2017 American Literature class to act as observers and participants. They watched screenings of the films “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Get Out,” and heard new insights about race and film in American society by attending panel discussions and lectures.
“It was just an eye opener, to hear from so many different mouths,” said Imani Wiley, a senior nursing major. “We were eating dinner and had very deep conversations. I saw it as a huge learning experience, talking with people from different backgrounds about their perspective on those kinds of issues. It’s one thing to read books in college, but I find myself learning even more when I’m interacting with someone.”
“One of my favorite conversations took place after a seminar on the top floor of the Cathedral,” said Coleman Enger, a 2018 Baylor graduate. “As I was looking out the window to see the view from up there, an elderly couple began talking to me. They told me stories of how big an impact the conference would have, and they told me I was so lucky to be able to go to something like that at my age. It made me feel that I was at something really special.”
Watching and then discussing films that dealt with issues of prejudice and racial conflict gave the Baylor students opportunities to expand their problem-solving skills.
“One of the purposes of higher education is to teach us to think and to push our boundaries. We try to solve problems that some people don’t notice as problems at all,” said Beatriz Castillo Rodriguez, a 2018 Baylor graduate. “I think that the conference showed us problems that we might not have noticed as problems, and it showed us a way to have a conversation or to expand our minds that we might not have had in other circumstances. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons we can learn in college.”
Matthew Deande, a 2018 Baylor graduate, said that by hosting the Long, Long Way conferences in the nation’s capital, Baylor is sending a message that it is committed to examining important contemporary issues.
“Some people might assume that, as the world’s largest Baptist university, Baylor only wants to involve itself in certain conversations,” Deande said. “But by hosting a conference looking at issues involving race and racial injustice, Baylor showed that it wants to be involved in all sorts of conversations. It wants to be involved in discussions that contribute positively to providing solutions to our problems.”
“Race is one of the most important themes in American culture,” Garrett said. “Our literature and pop culture wrestle with it on our behalf, so it is important for Baylor students to be thoughtful consumers of stories.”
By reading and discussing important works of American literature addressing racial issues in Garrett’s class, such as Huckleberry Finn, and then taking part in the screenings and discussions of the movies shown at the conference, Garrett’s students who were able to attend the Long Long Way event have changed the way they view expressions of popular culture.
“I come to movies and texts in a different way now than I did before starting this process,” Enger said. “Do you feel like your humanity is being affirmed? And are you being included? There’s a novel I’m working on now, and I’ve tried to be more inclusive of characters who are not exactly like me. That seems to be an important thing in storytelling.”
“Now, if I’m reading a book or watching a movie, I will definitely read up more on the author or the director so I really understand their voice and where they are coming from –– what their personal experiences were and what they have gone through,” Deande said. “That’s what I got from this –– to learn more about the cultural context of books and films.”
More information about “A Long Long Way: Film, Race and Policing,” including a conference program, is available on the event page at cathedral.org.