After each official Tribeca screening of the film, Raymond, David, and I do a Q&A. It has been truly amazing to hear the immediate reactions of audience members. I was fearful that the Q&A's would feel flat and that we'd be standing up there waiting for people to ask questions. The opposite has happened. The Tribeca moderators usually have to cut the Q&A short because the discussion goes on and on. After each one Raymond, David and I move into the lobby where people surround us and ask questions and often debate different issues surrounding the complications of race.
Tonight at the Q&A someone asked us why the whites in Greenwood were so angry about what Booker said. I responded by saying that many of them believed that they had true friendship with him. It never occurred to them that he would've minded some of the sour treatment he had to endure. Booker mocked them. He changed his tone of voice and moved his body to actually mimic them. I said, "Imagine if you thought you were friends with someone and then you saw them on television expressing that you really weren't friends at all and then seeing that person mimic the way you talk." It would be upsetting.
But there's another side to this coin. I explained to the audience that in the course of making this film I got to sit down with Karen Pinkston, the current owner of Lusco's. When she explained how hurt the Lusco's customers were I was able to express to her that Booker probably thought that he couldn't tell his white "friends" how he really felt. He probably thought that he couldn't say, "Please stop calling me n-----."
After the Q&A was over I was in the lobby surrounded by people who connected with the work and having interesting discussions with them when David tapped me on the shoulder. He pointed to an elderly white couple and said, "These people used to live in Greenwood, used to eat at Lusco's, and knew your grandfather."
I was delighted and horrified at the same time. Delighted because once again I was given the gift of meeting someone who'd actually known my grandfather. Horrified because I had just tried to express the collective thoughts of their community and their peers. After exchanging pleasantries I said, "I do hope that as you watch the film and hear us talk about it that we're accurately and respectively representing what was true in Greenwood during that time in regards to the complicated relationships between whites and blacks." Before I could even finish my statement they were nodding at me. They didn't feel offended and they felt like we got it.
This was probably one of the highest compliments I've received so far. I have talked so much about "our national dialogue on race" that I'm practically blue in the face (although as a black girl, I really might be more of a dark shade of purple). I have felt concerned for years about how difficult it is for people to talk about race. I don't want to be a polarizing person. I try to have these painful and difficult conversations in a way that is underscored by kindness.
Today I was asked to explain the position of the people who my grandfather waited on for most of his life. Many of these people embraced him without ever recognizing how humiliated he felt. It would've been easy for me to vilify them, but then I'd be a hypocrite. If I want people to listen to Booker's heartache, I have to be willing to respect that sometimes whites then and now simply don't know what's going on or what to do. There's no evil in that.
Finding the balance when talking about race is hard. At least this time, I think I got it right.