After decades in the entertainment industry, Erika Alexander has shifted her focus to filmmaking — specifically sharing Black stories.
Her latest project, a documentary, addresses the controversial topic of reparations, which Alexander says is obtainable for Black Americans.
Speaking at Livingstone College Monday evening, Alexander pointed to the example of Robin Rue Simmons, an alderman in Evanston, Illinois, who helped pass a city-funded program that some have likened to reparations. The program pays money to black residents who faced barriers to buying homes because of racist policies in the mid-20th Century — the first U.S. city to do so.
Simmons is featured in Alexander’s documentary, “The Big Payback,” which follows the journey of two elected officials in their fight for reparations for Black Americans at the local and federal levels.
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A new career focus
Alexander, best known for her role as Maxine Shaw on the hit TV show “Living Single,” said she decided to pursue filmmaking to provide a Black voice to Black stories. Along with a business partner, she co-founded Color Farm Media.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to tell stories and to expose the things that plague us and drag us down over and over again,” Alexander told the Livinstone College audience.
Alexander’s company so far has produced two documentaries — “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and “Brown Goods.” In 2019, she and her business partner connected with fellow filmmaker Whitney Dow, who shares a similar focus on reparations.
At Livingstone College, Dow, a white man, said he has worked on many films centered on race, identity and community. He said working on the reparations documentary was a “powerful experience” that opened his eyes to issues Black Americans face.
In an interview with Qcity Metro, he said he wants white Americans to recognize that it is okay to discuss issues of racism and discrimination.
“Once you get into it, it is going to transform not only your sense of the world but your sense of yourself as well,” he said.
Connecting with HBCU students
Since the documentary’s television debut in January, Alexander and her team have traveled to four HBCUs in North Carolina to discuss the film. She has plans to visit others.
Her stop at Livingstone sparked some community backlash. On a WBTV-Salisbury Facebook post, readers left hundreds of comments criticizing the idea of reparations. Some made threats of violence.
“I don’t watch their movies so why should I care about their debate. It’s all just begging for something free right,” one comment read.
“Send my great. great. grandad a bill, and he will send you a bill for room and board, We’ll call it even!!,” another said.
Livingstone responded to the posts by printing some on small pieces of paper and placing them on seats in Tubman Little Theater, the venue for Alexander’s visit.
Alexander commended those who looked past the negative comments and threats to attend the event.
“Black people, we always show up when it’s tough,” she said. “Unless we use [the hate] as fuel, it will always push us against where we need to go.”
In an interview with QCity Metro, Alexander discussed the film, her lessons as a director and her visits to HBCUs.
What led you to create Color Farm Media?
I didn’t think there was a way I could make a difference in Black storytelling without having ownership of my own media company. I had to do this to disrupt the stereotypical and limited bases that stories were being told, something I’ve noticed in the television and film industry.
I learned how to create different opportunities for myself by gaining different skill sets, like writing, producing and directing.
We wanted to change the face of the media by rebranding blackness. I got with Ben Arnon, my co-founder, and he had the same mission, so we got together and decided to create Color Farm Media.
How did “The Big Payback” come to be?
We had just finished producing “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” and we weren’t necessarily planning to do more documentaries, but an opportunity came from the suggestion of my friend, Joy Reid, who does the “Reid Out” report. She had talked to Whitney Dow, a documentary filmmaker working on a project focused on reparations.
She knew Ben and I wanted to do something about reparations, so we teamed up and began filming in 2019 at the reparations hearing in Washington, D.C.
Were you familiar with the reparations issue before you began filming?
I was familiar with reparations because I’m from a generation that grew up with 40 Acres and a Mule through Spike Lee. There was this lore around it, but I can’t say I knew much about it.
I think everyone lives in that hazy space where you can have a strong opinion about something you don’t know anything about. I knew that I wanted reparations and thought we should have them. I never thought it was a handout. I never thought it was something we hadn’t earned.
They [reparations] serve as an apology but also an action to put forth restitution to the descendants of the enslaved people who had fought and died for it, but also who had lost their souls for it.
How important was it for you to follow the journey of Alderman Simmons and her fight for reparations in her city?
No one ever sees how the sausage is made. I think people need to know that there’s work behind these things. They just don’t show up. It’s important to show not only how people work but how government works when you advocate for change in your local area and how it could have national repercussions.
I also thought it was important to see this historic woman while she was doing the work. If we could put our cameras in civil rights, in those strategy rooms, it would look much like this [film] does.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from these women?
I’ve learned that grace, compassion and empathy are required when you have to make these types of decisions.
Many people who are the most vocal and angry about it have been raised and reared in a very toxic environment, and they are just passing along that toxicity.
It can be loud. It can be disturbing, but it never stopped progress before. So why should it now? This is part of the journey to pick up off where every other freedom fighter, civil rights leader and abolitionist left off before us.
In the film, you showed the perspective of Black people who were in favor of reparations and those who were against it. How critical are those perspectives in your film?
You can’t know where the issues are unless you have people who are for something and against something in the room. It’s always important in every story to categorize people as the villain or the hero, but all you’re looking for is conflict.
Some wanted reparations, and others were against it because they viewed it as a handout and felt Black people needed to take more personal responsibility.
It was interesting to see that those same people who were against reparations were mostly people who supported Simmons and her campaign. Still, they didn’t necessarily always agree with her efforts. Many didn’t start coming around until they began to educate themselves and show up to meetings.
As a people, that’s how we evolve.
Why did you decide to tour North Carolina HBCUs, and why was it important to share your film at each visit?
They’re the leaders of the future. The students of the HBCUs are uniquely positioned to have skin in the game about it. It affects their future but also provokes and moves people. We must go where our brightest minds are and show them their opportunity and responsibility in this fight.
We started this historical tour in the place where it needed to be. North Carolina has 10 HBCUs, the most of any state. Most everybody wanted to participate. The only ones we didn’t get were Fayetteville State University and Elizabeth City University. Other than that, it was a yes. We are here to start the conversation, and so far, it’s been magnificent.
What are some upcoming projects coming up in your career?
Right now, we’re working on a documentary about Diahann Carroll. It’s going to be a big announcement coming out soon. We have Diahann Carroll’s daughter, Suzanne Kay and Suzanne Rostock as co-directors. After her mother died, Diahann’s daughter found a hidden diary, and she opened up the first page, and Diahann, knowing that her daughter would find it, wrote, ‘What are our demons?’ It’s going to be great.