The Art Leads the People: Film as a Tool for Social Justice in New Orleans

By Etta Coleman

Illuminated by a flickering glow, an upturned face absorbs the images that flash across a screen. Images of fights for liberation. Shouts and songs of protest. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Images of grief and love and celebration and injustice. In the darkness, the stories reach off the screen and embed themselves within the viewer. When the screen goes black, the images and sounds and words remain, immortalized in the heart of the viewer. 

 “The visceral feelings you get from a film are often the power of it,” says jazz franklin, a local organizer and filmmaker. Film provokes the imagination, and in turn, opens eyes and minds. 

“There’s different ways to be able to impact through film, whether it’s archival, documentary, or the kind of storytelling that depicts the everyday slice-of-life of people from a lens that’s more accessible to people who are outside of the community that it is representing,” says Gian Smith, another New Orleans filmmaker.

Film offers a way to bring to light injustice and to grapple with history. It is also a site to celebrate community and culture —  what makes a place beautiful. “Film is not only a way to touch people on an emotional level; it is a way to show life in its rawest form,”  says New Orleans-based producer and director Luisa Dantas. “Storytelling is about truth telling.”

In response to a myriad of intersecting social issues that permeate the city of New Orleans, local organizers and artists use film to uplift the voices that have historically been silenced, to document movements for change and to represent New Orleans and its people authentically. 

New Orleans, a city that holds more festivals and celebrations than days in a year, is situated in the state that incarcerates more of its citizens than anywhere else in the world. It is a city with one of the highest poverty rates among U.S. metropolitan areas. It is a city on the frontlines of the climate disaster whose Black and brown communities bear the brunt of its devastating effects.

“There are endless stories to be found that impact the way we live, make policy and impact the world around us,” says Darcy McKinnon, a producer for Gusto Moving Pictures. Gusto, an independent production company based in New Orleans, creates issue-based documentaries that center stories from New Orleans and the broader South. 

One of Gusto’s projects, A Fine Girl, follows a Black transgender woman named Brandi as she works to open an inclusive luxury salon. “The point of the film is to remind viewers that trans people are vibrant and essential members of their own communities, and that they are loved and supported and support others,” says McKinnon. “My goal was to be a small part of normalizing that understanding, but in an environment like today’s I guess it is a form of resistance.”

From The Neutral Ground: Local activist Bryan Lee celebrates the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, 2017. Courtesy of Gusto Moving Pictures.

Another one of Gusto’s works, a critically acclaimed documentary titled The Neutral Ground explores the movement to remove confederate monuments in New Orleans and beyond (A still from the film is pictured above, courtesy of Gusto Moving Pictures; local activist Bryan Lee celebrates the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in 2017). McKinnon recalls the contention in the city during the movement, when local activists and supporters of the Confederate monuments’ removal met head to head with white supremacist groups who upheld confederate ideals and protested against their removal. “New Orleanians like nothing more than a chance to fill the streets, so there were times it felt like a war zone, and times it felt like a second line,” says McKinnon. While documenting the movement through a comedic delivery, the film puts a spotlight on a collective reckoning with the legacies of Confederacy and slavery that are rooted into the very soil of the city. “It is a starting point for a much larger exploration about how we understand history and memory in the South.” 

McKinnon has called the South home for her entire life, and has lived in New Orleans for over twenty years. She is interested in continuing to center themes of the Old South, colonialism and slavery in upcoming projects. “Everything from the local politics, to land development, to the environment, decisions that affect us today are directly influenced by these unresolved historical wounds,” she says. She chooses film as a medium to expose the underbelly of the South’s history of systemic oppression that continues to be perpetuated today.

McKinnon prioritizes honoring the individuals and communities who she works with as critical creative partners with legitimate agency over their own stories. “We are accountable to the community instead of telling stories about them,” she says. “The stories of this place — Louisiana and the South more broadly — have a history of extraction and extractive industries. I don’t want to see that replicated in the storytelling.” 

After Hurricane Katrina, filmmakers and media producers from around the world flocked to New Orleans to tell the story of the city’s struggle. Many of these attempts were undergirded by a lack of understanding of the complex sociopolitical and cultural landscape that is New Orleans. “[The stories] weren’t nuanced or complicated, they missed huge swaths of cultural context in telling the story, and yet we were dependent on them,” says McKinnon. 

Her frustration drove her to pursue social issue based storytelling with an emphasis on uplifting the voices and stories of those who possess the cultural competency necessary to represent New Orleans and its people authentically. An authentic representation of New Orleans is both difficult and essential to get it right. “It has a specific set of histories, a specific accent, specific food.. it (is) a place where you would know if you got it wrong,” says McKinnon. 

Attempts to capture both the unique culture and the structural flaws of New Orleans often flatten it to an arrangement of stereotypes wrapped in a sense of mysticism. As nuanced a city as New Orleans warrants an equally nuanced representation in film; careful attention to both the injustice and the vibrancy that characterize the city. “The music and the feathers and the beauty of it all make the hard pieces worth living, in reality and also on screen,” says McKinnon. 

“We [have] systems that are far behind the rest of the world in meaningful ways and call for adaptation,” says Gian Smith. “But at the same time it calls for more celebration, a more balanced approach to life.” 

Smith has lived in New Orleans all his life. He says that, until Katrina, art was  something he’d always said he would do ‘later’; “Katrina came and made me realize that later is not always an option.” He began to use videography as a vessel for his spoken word poetry, and found proclivity for telling stories visually through film. Now, he is a director, writer and producer. 

It is important to Smith that the films that come out of New Orleans are properly representative of its people; that they feel familiar and true. “The stories that I tell, they come back to my own roots,” he says. Representations of Black life and community are core to Smith’s work, and themes of social justice pervade many of his projects. 

For Smith, film is like music in its ability to impact people. When images and sounds and music are woven together, viewers are able to connect with a story.  “With poetry, if I don’t speak a language, I’m not going to get the poetry of that language, ” he says. “Whereas, music… even if I don’t understand any of the lyrics… I sing the lyrics with the song because I love the melody.” 

A vessel for universal understanding– this is what music and film share. “A film is a multilayered exhibition, and even if we aren’t equipped to understand one of those layers, we can still get something out of the film,” says Smith. “You’re called upon to activate all of your senses at once.”

Like Smith, jazz franklin also equates film with music. “It’s the one medium that, like music… brings an emotional element,” she says. franklin uses film as a platform for experimentation and creative expression, toying with the line between fiction and nonfiction stories while at the intersection of art and social justice organizing. 

In her filmmaking and organizing, franklin works at the praxis of Black feminism. She is currently working on a project called [b]REACH Adventures in Heterotopia, which centers “the fantastical journey of two inter-generational black queer feminists traversing the world, uncovering black radical imaginaries.” She sees the power of film as a tool for education and activation.

franklin is a member of The Patois Human Rights Film Festival, which was originally established in 2004 by activists and organizers in New Orleans as a way to center art in movements for social change. The concept for the festival was born from Critical Resistance, a prison abolition organization with a philosophy that art pushes society forward. Since its start, Patois has screened hundreds of social-justice oriented films that range from New Orleans-based stories to those on a global scale. In addition to short and feature-length film screenings, the festival includes panels, performances and immersive programming while highlighting grassroots organizations. 

Angola Do You Hear Us? Voices from a Plantation Prison explores how a revolutionary play about mass incarceration’s evolution from plantation to prison –‘The Peculiar Patriot’ by playwright Liza Jessie Peterson — was shut down mid-performance at Angola Prison. Courtesy of the Patois Collective.

This year, Patois screened a number of films that explored issues such as labor organizing, climate change in South Louisiana frontline communities, and mass incarceration, the latter of which included Angola Do You Hear Us?: Voices from a Plantation Prison by director Cinque Northern (a still from the film is pictured above, courtesy of the Patois Collective).  The film explores how a revolutionary play about mass incarceration’s evolution from plantation to prison –‘The Peculiar Patriot’ by playwright Liza Jessie Peterson — was shut down mid-performance at Angola Prison, and how it “challenged the country’s largest plantation prison and impacted the incarcerated men long after the record of her visit was erased by the institution’s administration.” 

Angola Prison, also known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, has the largest population of imprisoned people in the United States. According to the Angola Museum, after the Civil War, its majority Black inmates were subleased to white landowners to perform free labor in the reconstruction of Louisiana’s economy. Angola was a reimagining of slavery under a different name. “Louisiana is particularly interesting when we look at the PIC [Prison Industrial Complex] because the symbolism of slavery is incredibly visible,” says franklin. According to The Innocence Project, 75% of people incarcerated at Angola are Black. 70% are serving life sentences. The brutality of Angola is notorious. 

The screening of Angola Do You Hear Us? at Patois was followed by a panel of speakers who had been imprisoned at Angola. “Many times we talk about the PIC  without including people who are currently or have been formerly imprisoned,” says franklin. “It’s always important to hear from people who have lived the experience of an issue Patois is addressing.” 

Film festivals like Patois allow artists, organizers and viewers to convene around social issues and build conversation and community around art, culture and movements in conjunction. The Black Film Festival of New Orleans (BFFNO), founded in 2018 by Gian Smith, is another such space. “There needed to be… a centerplace for people like us to be able to come in fellowship and find some resources,” says Smith. The BFFNO became a space for Black independent filmmakers to showcase their work and foster connection.

Smith is also the co-manager of the Creative Services Department for the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC), which prepares local independent filmmakers with workplace development through workshops, screenings and seminars. NOVAC provides resources to everyone, but its history of Black leadership has made it a space where Black filmmakers and other people of color are able to find community and mentorship in an industry that has historically excluded them. Among their many initiatives, NOVAC hosts a filmmaker cohort documentary program; this year’s theme is the intersection of cultural practice and social justice. 

It is not only films with explicit political agendas that engage in resistance. Fostering community and celebrating creativity builds movements. Uplifting the stories — the triumphs, the struggles, the creativity — of individuals and communities whose voices have historically been silenced is revolutionary. Properly representing a city and a people who have been misrepresented again and again is radical. Film allows imaginaries to be visualized. It has the power to shift narratives. 

“Protests will get shit done,” says jazz franklin. “But the art and the culture will lead the people.”


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