Grace Lee, Marjan Safinia and Ava DuVernay Amplify Stories of Defiant Women of Color Transforming Politics
Filmmaker Grace Lee probably speaks for a lot of Americans these days when she says that for years she was keenly interested in politics, but skeptical of politicians — not surprising for someone who’s made a career charting the stories of activists, notably Grace Lee Boggs in “The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” In 2013, Lee met Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan state legislator —also Palestinian-American, Muslim and a Democratic socialist — who later ran for a seat in Congress. “She was so dynamic, so open, so not like a politician,” recalls Lee. “And she was a Detroiter activist, like Grace Lee Boggs. I thought, ‘I wish I had someone like her representing me.’”
Lee got her wish, in a way: in 2018, Tlaib won the seat in Congress, and now represents plenty of people who had also wished for an elected official who looked and thought like them. Tlaib was part of a historic wave of women of color who ran for public office two years ago, women who were tired of the blatantly racist and sexist posturings of Donald Trump and a patriarchal political system that consistently failed to serve three increasingly important constituencies: women, people of color, and poor and working-class people of all genders and colors. “And She Could Be Next” documents the emergence of these constituencies: the New American majority.
Directed by Lee and Marjan Safinia, and co-produced by POV and ITVS, “And She Could Be Next” tracks the campaigns of Tlaib and five other women of color who sought office, from Congress to local school board seats, as well as the efforts of all the seasoned organizers and ordinary folks who made those campaigns possible. Like Tlaib, others won their races; others lost; and one gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams of Georgia won the war of capturing hearts and minds, but not the battle of the election itself, which the system openly conspired to keep in the hands of Georgia’s white elite. Yet it’s the energy and determination of the movement to change the face of politics, not necessarily victory at the polls, that makes the series so compelling. One of the series’ executive producers is Ava DuVernay, the award-winning director of “Selma,” as well as other movies and television series. “Next” shares DuVernay’s signature aesthetic of wedding emotional intimacy and deeply human drama to big historical themes and powerful messages of change.
Stacey Abrams, during her 2018 gubernatorial campaign in Georgia. | Kevin Lowery
“I love all the individual stories being told here, the cutting back and forth, the interweaving into a kind of critical mass,” says DuVernay. “But what I really love are all the stories around the campaigns and activism — the people who support, the families of candidates, the day-to-day details. It’s hard work, struggle. But there’s also a lot of joy.”
Joy is critical in a political landscape that seems so bleak to many, and so broken. DuVernay points out the system isn't broken; it is working the way exactly it was intended to work. Enter the New American Majority. “You can’t really reform the system — reform is a temporary fix — it has to be changed,” she says. “The lens has to change; the people making policy and carrying it out have to change. The women of color in this film aren't reformers; they're infiltrators. That’s why they’re such beacons of hope and so threatening at the same time.”
The most hopeful thing about the movement, DuVernay says, is seeing how Americans are beginning to embrace the idea of women and people color credibly standing for all. “The great thing is that we’re discovering how representative women of color really are,” she says. “When you solve for the problems of Black women, from education to employment, you solve for all.”
Rashida Tlaib, surrounded by her family and friends celebrates at her 2018 midterm primary election watch party, in Detroit, Michigan. | Erik Howard
With Tlaib in mind, Lee decided in 2016 that she wanted to make a documentary centered around women entering politics who had a mission of effecting radical, yet practical change. She enlisted Safinia, an Iranian-born documentary filmmaker (“Seeds”) with a track record of exploring the narratives of groups underrepresented on screen. One of those groups is immigrants. Safinia describes herself as a “serial immigrant” — her family fled Iran in the ‘70s for England, and later moved to the United States, settling in L.A. That in itself was not radicalizing. “For a long time, I actually didn’t feel the need to be a citizen,” Safinia says. “I was okay with my ‘outsider’ status and not voting.” Then came Donald Trump’s Muslim ban in 2017. “That’s when the political really got personal,” she says. “I literally woke up the next day and started the process of becoming a citizen. I realized I couldn't sit this out; I had to vote and participate.”
Lee, the daughter of Korean immigrants, resonates with that. But like Tlaib in the documentary, she also lays unapologetic claim to American ideals of resilience, democracy and community long associated with the so-called heartland. “I have to say, I’m glad to be representing the Midwest so much in this series,” says Lee, who lived in Missouri. “We tend to think of the Midwest as all white, homogenous, conservative, with a few outposts for people of color like St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis. But there’s a lot more going on than that.” One of the things that struck Lee was all the young people who supported the upstart campaigns and invested in the vision of a New America that is not so much new, just unrealized. “I wish they were all 18 so they could vote now,” she says. “But they will be there in the future. Just knowing that is really inspiring.”
Lee and Safinia break ground themselves by being women of color, by employing all women of color to work on the film, by centering the documentary on people typically marginalized. While this is certainly a story of fighting against, it’s more a story of fighting for, of rising up, of being in the forefront. The directors also break with tradition in collaborating as directors, though working together came naturally for them. "I’ve actually co-directed a lot and wonder why more people don’t,” says Safinia. “Of course, it matters who you chose, like almost any significant relationship in your life. But if you have a shared vision, and are both willing to leave ego at the door, it’s immensely helpful to have a true partner in the process, which is excruciatingly challenging in documentary. When you're working with a team that are predominantly women and shares an ‘outsider’ identity, it’s a remarkably smooth process.” She adds, “We also share so much creative vision with our editor, Juli Vizza. Much like democracy, this isn’t about one messianic figure.”
“Next” is Lee’s first experience co-directing, but doing it with Safinia, she says, was “organic and easy.” Teaming up behind the camera in many ways reflected the story they were documenting. “Since there is no script in documentary, every aspect of the process means dealing with constant curveballs and adjusting — which is why I often likened working on this film to a political campaign,” she says. “Collaborations run smoothly when you’re on the same page philosophically and creatively, which we are. I found the constant back and forth helped push us to make the best decisions for the overall vision of the film.”
Indeed, making of “And She Could Be Next” was part of the joy that DuVernay says is essential. “People say this is hard, making a documentary like this, being women and everything — no, it's not, it's easy!” she says. “Just pick up the phone and say, ‘Let’s do this.’ I was glad to be brought in because it’s something I knew I could support and that I believed in.
“The story of these women is still evolving, the whole movement is still evolving,” she continues. “The movement is already here, but we’re in the middle of it. My mother was watching the series, following the stories of the campaigns, and she kept asking me: ‘Do they win? Do they lose?’ I told her, ‘What, do you want me to give away the ending?’”
Top Image: A crowd gathers in the rotunda of the Georgia State Capitol for the Count Every Vote protest in Atlanta, in 2018. | Kevin Lowery