Shakti Butler: Stimulating Dialogue among Diverse Film Viewers janice r. welsch in october 2012, depaul universit y in chicago hosted the premiere of Shakti Butler’s latest film, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity. Thanks to the su­ perb organization of the event by numerous campus cosponsors, an audience of over five hundred students, faculty, staff, and commu­ nity members was on hand to see the film and participate in the discussion it sparked. And it did spark discussion, not only because of the issues it brought to the fore but also because Butler, the founder of World Trust Educational Services Inc., invited audience members to en­ gage those issues and prepared them to do so. One aspect of Butler’s presentation that can disarm an audience, one she uses regularly in her workshops and talks, is the brief breathing/ focusing exercise she asks audience members to participate in before she begins. This may take just five minutes, but sitting up straight, breathing deeply, and clearing one’s mind pays dividends when people respond by directing their attention to the task at hand: seeing and hearing with open minds and hearts what they are shown. Beginning a presentation in this way, however, carries a certain risk since it veers from the traditional modus operandi for janice r. welsch is a Western Illinois University professor emerita, having taught courses in film studies, women’s studies, and cultural diversity during her thirty years at the university. She is the coeditor of Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism (University of Minnesota Press, 1993) and coauthor of Multicultural Films: A Reference Guide (Greenwood, 2005). 48 academic programs and can create some dis­ sonance and resistance. As an integral aspect of Butler’s identity and a reflection of the con­ viction and honesty she brings to the table, the approach has proven effective. Interviews and personal stories have been essential to Butler’s films since she began making them. Identifying herself as an educa­ tor as clearly as she is a filmmaker, she brings multiple voices into her work as she explores issues that revolve around racial/ethnic and gender identity. With Cracking the Codes, she successfully integrates many voices with other filmmaking techniques she has used with her previous films: theatrical sketches, dance, voice-over narration, music, poetry, historical documents, and superimposed titles that in­ troduce subtopics and, in Cracking the Codes, provide an overview and outline of the film content. Supplementing the films are extensive guides and reference materials on the World Trust Web site (world-trust.org) to help users mine the films’ multiple levels of information and insight. Brief analyses of her earlier films, all of which remain relevant, demonstrate Butler’s long engagement with the inequities that re­ volve around race/ethnicity and gender in the United States. These films include The Way Home, a record and distillation of the conversa­ tions of sixty-four culturally diverse women who discussed their experiences over a period of eight months; Light in the Shadows, a film that brings together ten women who participated in The Way Home while dramatically reconfiguring the makeup of the group; and Mirrors of Privijournal of film and video 68.1 / spring 2016 ©2016 by the board of trustees of the university of illinois JFV 68_1 text.indd 48 1/29/16 10:17 AM lege: Making Whiteness Visible, a compilation of interviews with prominent white educators who are countering racism and sexism in their work and in their lives. Moving from these ear­ lier films and then back to Cracking the Codes for further analysis will provide some under­ standing of the films’ value and can serve as a gateway to the rich trove of resources Dr. Butler and her colleagues have produced. The Way Home Sixty-four culturally diverse women in conver­ sation over eight months? Butler manages to film and edit the results of this lengthy explo­ ration into an accessible ninety-two-minute film, weaving the film together by highlighting themes and creating visual links between seg­ ments. That she does so effectively reflects her insight and commitment to antiracism, the feminist movement, and education as well as to her filmmaking skills. The sixty-four women, all with a background in speaking and facilita­ tion, met in eight ethnically identified councils that include African, Arab, Asian, European, indigenous, Jewish, Latina, and multiracial Americans. Questions of identity and the ramifications of one’s identity within a society that regularly uses race/ethnicity as a measure of value anchor the exchanges as the women grapple with intra- as well as intergroup biases. The participants’ comments confirm the major role skin color plays in establishing a person’s worth, whether it is being considered from the perspective of different ethnic groups or within a single ethnic community. The stories they share bring this reality from the theoretical realm to the personal and underscore Butler’s conviction that the interaction needed to create genuine healing and transformation must go beyond information: it must engage partici­ pants on multiple intellectual and emotional levels, even at the risk of exposing them to painful, even wrenching, memories and ideas. This is apparent in the film itself but also in the Heart to Heart Conversation Guide accompany­ ing it. The guide is meant to facilitate conversa­ tion that leads to transformation, “a deep shift journal of film and video 68.1 / spring 2016 in the basic premises of thoughts, feelings, or actions” about race and culture. Many of the women in The Way Home were born in the United States into families with a long history here, but a significant number came to the United States as immigrants, an important aspect of their sense of themselves. They represent diverse cultures within each of the broad ethnic/racial categories with which they identify. For example, Chinese, Indonesian, Filipina, Sri Lankan, Japanese, and Indian women are all identified as Asians or Asian Americans. Age too plays a role in the experiences and identities of the women, as does socioeconomic class, though Butler presents these demographic markers without the emphasis she places on race/ethnicity. Most of the women of color have experienced oppression on a personal level, though they are also well aware of its systemic nature, and they articulate this effectively. Some of the issues the women discuss are unique to their particular group, such as the indigenous people’s loss of land and the removal of children from their families for schooling; other issues, such as lack of role models, internalized oppression, and pres­ sures to attain unrealistic standards of beauty, touch most of the women, whatever their ethnic/racial identity. Evident among the mul­ tiracial women are the pressures to be “this or that” rather than “this and that,” which more accurately defines them and helps them ac­ cept rather than reject themselves and their varied cultural heritage. When filming the women as they discuss aspects of their identities within each council, Butler places them in settings that reflect their cultures through artifacts: tapestries, personal photographs, contemporary and historical news photos and videos, paintings, maps, and an array of objets d’art and curios. The cloth­ ing of many of the women also mirrors their cultures, as do the totems the African American and indigenous women pass from one to an­ other as they speak. The music that accompa­ nies the introduction of each council reflects another facet of the women’s cultures. 49 ©2016 by the board of trustees of the university of illinois JFV 68_1 text.indd 49 1/29/16 10:17 AM Through their dialogue and stories, Butler and her subjects create a reflective mood that is reinforced by the film’s pacing, seen in the overall editing and in the evocative dance sequences and the camera movement used to animate the many still images interwoven into the film. The reflection brings up painful memo­ ries that in turn lead, in some instances, to tears when the women share memories of the oppression, rejection, or confusion they have experienced or have directed toward others. The journey they take on The Way Home is defi­ nitely painful at times, but Butler also shows that it is a healing journey through her focus on the women’s laughter as they celebrate them­ selves and their colleagues. They celebrate as they share the ways they will make “choice after meticulous choice” to carry on the “soul reclamation” they began in their discussions. Light in the Shadows Shakti Butler’s Light in the Shadows, despite its hopeful title, is her most challenging film. Its setting and the filmmaking techniques she chooses contrast sharply with the approach she chose for The Way Home even though Light in the Shadows is a continuation of the work begun in the earlier film. In none of her films does she skirt difficult issues, but in The Way Home, Mirrors of Privilege, and Cracking the Codes, Butler offers viewers visual and audio escapes—photo collages, dance, poetry, and music—as she explores racism and privilege. In Light in the Shadows, however, she stays with the women she has brought together to continue discussing racism and privilege as it affects women of color and white women. Set in what appears to be a black box theater, most of the film’s shots are close or medium close shots of the women’s faces as the eight women of color focus on their experiences of racism and challenge Susan and Penny, the two white women in the group, to recognize the pervasiveness and impact of racial stereotypes in their lives. The camera stays close when the discussion becomes painful and, as in The Way Home, 50 elicits tears from some participants in their ex­ amination of differences between white women and women of color. Though most of the women are women of color, it is Penny who be­ comes the center of much of the conversation, perhaps a necessary focus given that, in the context of the film, white women are the prob­ lem. A number of pointed questions and com­ ments are directed toward her, but the focus calls to mind the innumerable times whites usurp encounters that bring people of color and whites together to grapple with racial issues. In Light in the Shadows, the persistent question­ ing may make Penny uncomfortable, but it also invites viewers to examine more deeply the is­ sues that often keep women of color and white women from trusting each other and working together effectively—issues of visibility, power, alliances, honesty, and action. Even when Penny is not the direct focus of discussion, the women of color/white women dichotomy is pivotal since living in a world of white privilege puts women of color in an al­ most constant state of hyperawareness. Erica and Intisar are particularly articulate about this, though the comments of all the women of color, whether African American, Asian American, Latina, indigenous, Palestinian, or multira­ cial, concur. More than one of the women of color point out that negotiating a safe route through such a world is not a matter of choice but a matter of life for them. In contrast, white women can engage in the hard, uncomfortable type of dialogue that Light in the Shadows in­ vites, or they can back off at will, as evidenced by Butler’s experience in producing the film; several of the white women who began the project did just that. Butler addresses this defection directly when she introduces Light in the Shadows on camera, providing a context for the film’s content and a reason for the disproportionate number of women of color compared to white women, though if one identifies the women in terms of ethnicity/race (e.g., African Ameri­ can, Latina) as Butler does in The Way Home, the uneven distribution disappears. That she thought it necessary to provide the explanation journal of film and video 68.1 / spring 2016 ©2016 by the board of trustees of the university of illinois JFV 68_1 text.indd 50 1/29/16 10:17 AM underscores her realization of how difficult the interaction among the women in the film is; her explanation also prepares viewers for the intensity of that interaction. In the conversation guide that accompanies the DVD, she writes, “It is strongly suggested that this video and its materials be seen by people who have had previous exposure to issues of diversity and that the group conversations are facilitated by an experienced teacher(s) or trainer(s).” Though Light in the Shadows brings women of color and white women together in conversa­ tion, by preparing two guides—one for “People of Color” and another for “European Ameri­ cans”—Butler suggests that the two groups view and discuss the issues the film covers separately. Similar in format and content, the guides honor the differing perspectives from which participants approach the issues. But­ ler’s intent is to “use truth, courage and com­ passion to expand beyond our limited beliefs, assumptions and judgments about one another and ourselves . . . [and to] understand more fully the meaning of true justice and experience a deep connection to life that is free of fear.” All of her work revolves around this goal, a goal that brings together insight and feeling, heads and hearts. Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible The format of Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible differs in some respects from that of Butler’s earlier films but incorporates, as The Way Home does, dance, film, historical and fam­ ily photos, and poetry. Like The Way Home and Light in the Shadows, Mirrors of Privilege brings together many voices, but rather than have them gather in a single place for a conversation, Butler interviews the participants separately and edits excerpts from the interviews into a collage of perspectives and insights on racism and white privilege. Appropriately, the interviewees are all white women and men who are committed to equity and social justice and have chosen to confront their own racism and privilege and to challenge others to do the same. journal of film and video 68.1 / spring 2016 These educators and activists recount some of the hurdles they have encountered in their efforts to establish greater equity in a world of racial/ethnic injustice and implicit, widely ac­ cepted double standards for whites and people of color. They articulate the strength of an invis­ ible system of privilege in play and acknowl­ edge their own complicity in it when describing an incident, interaction, or friendship that pricked their conscience and awakened them to their white privilege and the taken-for-granted perks it affords them. Marguerite Parks, for example, realized she knew only one black writer when her literature students requested she include black writers in a course; she asked herself how she could have gone through graduate school and been introduced to only one black writer, Langston Hughes. Tim Wise experienced an “aha” mo­ ment when he saw that his antiapartheid activism was related to the situation of African Americans in the United States. As a child Peggy McIntosh’s grandmother had, almost hysterically, rejected her good-bye kiss because Peggy had kissed her grandmother’s African American housekeeper before kissing her, a re­ action strong enough to deter Peggy from ever showing such affection to the housekeeper again. Years later, African American women commanded Peggy’s attention and prompted her to explore her white privilege when they matter-of-factly stated that working with white women was oppressive. Besides these moments of realization, the Mirrors of Privilege interviewees discuss the dangers of thinking of themselves as helping— read, “teaching” or even “saving”—people of color. Instead they emphasize how important their commitment to social justice is to their own humanity and integrity, to their spiritual and ethical survival. They make clear, too, that their commitment does not stop with their own health and well-being; it carries with it the responsibility to strive for a more just society within the larger community, particularly with people who, like them, benefit from white privi­ lege but do not recognize the advantage their skin color automatically gives them. 51 ©2016 by the board of trustees of the university of illinois JFV 68_1 text.indd 51 1/29/16 10:17 AM Shakti Butler, as mentioned previously, weaves poetry, dramatizations, dance, archival film, and photographs throughout the interview excerpts that compose Mirrors of Privilege. These illustrate much of what is being dis­ cussed and add an important dimension to the film, moving it beyond a talking-heads didactic film to a more holistic presentation, complete with moving stories, visual interest, and an aesthetic appeal that strengthen the film’s im­ pact. Kim Irvin’s 2005 poem “Smiling at Black People” is one of the most compelling of these elements: “I like to smile / at black people / don’t you / That warm cuddly / puppies and babies / smile.” In her Conversation Guide for Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, Butler offers suggestions for the film’s use in a single event or in a series of discussions revolving around short segments of the film. Whichever option is chosen, Butler stresses that viewers’ attention should be on how what they see and hear re­ lates to their own lives rather than on a critique of the film content or format per se. Her interest is in and her commitment is to transformative learning and “the power of the intellect to con­ nect with the wisdom of the heart.” She reiter­ ates this goal again and again in the guides that she and her colleagues have prepared, in her workshops and presentations, and in the films she has produced and directed. The five minutes she took before screening Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity is one more instance of this commitment. Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity In Cracking the Codes, Dr. Butler shifts format to some extent while keeping her eye on race/ ethnicity and white privilege since these is­ sues continue to be major stumbling blocks in realizing the US ideal of e pluribus unum. The “pluribus” of this motto is reflected in the voices she includes in the film. They are the voices of rap artists, educators, activists, writ­ ers, consultants, scholars, counselors, CEOs, community organizers, parents, young people, 52 and senior citizens, of African, Arab, Asian, European, indigenous, Latino, and multiracial Americans. Through their stories and observa­ tions, Butler brings to life a carefully reasoned and illustrated summary of how racial inequity is perpetuated. She begins with a graph that illustrates the internal and external factors embedded in the nation’s history, culture, and identity, factors influenced by power and eco­ nomics and intertwined in complex scenarios that impact the lives of everyone who lives in this country. This illustration provides the structure for Cracking the Codes, beginning with a short his­ tory of colonization and slavery in the United States via the stories and perspectives of Puerto Rican, Hawaiian, African, European, and indig­ enous Americans. Other speakers share more stories and perspectives when they discuss their cultures and the complicated identities they sometimes choose and sometimes have thrust on them. They reveal the subtle ways whiteness has become, for many, synonymous with superiority and goodness and how it leads to the denigration of the cultures and identities of people of color both from the perspective of mainstream—read, “white”—culture and within and among people of color themselves. Following these conversations about history, culture, and identity, Butler introduces the internal (bias, privilege, and internalized rac­ ism) and external (interpersonal, institutional, and structural) factors that often dictate the place of individuals and communities within the nation. Again, she calls on many people to tell their stories to show in real terms how these factors impact lives. One of the most ef­ fective is author Dr. Joy Angela DeGruy’s story about a supermarket incident in which she was subjected to embarrassing scrutiny when she tried to pay for groceries with a check. Her lightskinned sister-in-law’s very different treatment and her subsequent successful intervention on DeGruy’s behalf prove to be a powerful illustra­ tion of bias and privilege on interpersonal and institutional levels. Butler’s interviewees are astute readers of culture and recognize the doors that have been journal of film and video 68.1 / spring 2016 ©2016 by the board of trustees of the university of illinois JFV 68_1 text.indd 52 1/29/16 10:17 AM opened to them and those that have been closed to them or to associates and friends. As J. Elena Featherston says, it is easier to see the doors that are closed than those that are open since one usually walks through the latter with­ out incident. Institutions hold many of the keys to the doors that lead to success. Among the institutions that interviewees address is educa­ tion. Spoken word artist Ise Lyfe sums up his high school experience as a waste of time, and Tilman Smith, though speaking in a somewhat different context, provides a possible reason for that blunt assessment: the unconscious bias too many teachers have toward male students of color. That bias has them on guard at first sighting, ready to find fault even before they know the individual and providing an environ­ ment that can easily dissuade a young person from taking education seriously. Cracking the Codes links institutions to even larger social structures—in this instance, rac­ ism. This underlying structure dictates policies, laws, and unspoken assumptions that offer some people access and mobility while others experience, literally and figuratively, limits and restrictions. For example, Tim Wise articulates the inequality that results from poor educa­ tional opportunities that lead to poor perfor­ mance, which in turn leads to assumptions that some groups—that is, people of color—cannot learn and do not need to have access to bet­ ter schools and quality education. This vicious circle operates in different aspects of society, with unjust policies and unspoken rules lead­ ing to inequities that are then used to justify the policies. Connie Gagampang Heller articulates this when she expresses the conflict she experi­ ences when choosing a school for her child. After acknowledging her interest in racial diversity and the link between wealth, home ownership, and access to good schools, she says, “I don’t have to be racist . . . to actually be carrying on that tradition” by buying a house in a “good” neighborhood to ensure access to a good school. Just as J. Elena Featherston noted that closed doors are more obvious than open doors when journal of film and video 68.1 / spring 2016 a person is trying to move through them, Con­ nie Archbold Malloy indicates that her experi­ ence in doing social justice work has taught her that the people experiencing injustice are hyperaware of the ways inequity plays out, whereas people in power who do not experi­ ence the inequity can be completely unaware of it. Butler sees her films as invitations to viewers to become aware of realities outside of their direct experience. When interviewed by Dr. J. Q. Adams at West­ ern Illinois University, Butler articulated clearly and concisely her approach to filmmaking: “I use film in a particular kind of way. So it’s not just that you watch a film, and then you have a conversation. My films are loaded with lots and lots of voices. Instead of having main charac­ ters or [a] narrator via documentary style, what I’m really doing is bringing together a critical mass of voices that are saying the same kinds of things repeatedly [but] are not often heard in the mainstream.” Butler goes on to indicate that conversations about race can remain on an intellectual level for those who have not experienced racism, but she wants her viewers “to feel.” I want our stories to really represent the fact that there’s a common experience that any­ one can understand when it comes to domi­ nation. Nobody likes it, and if you can di­ vorce yourself from that and just be—quote, unquote—objective about it, then you’re not really going to have my back. You’re not really going to create the kind of policies that are going to be equitable for everybody. And that’s what I’m after. I want a world that works for everyone, not just one group of people or more for this group than that group of people, and film has the power to do that because it pulls you in. Butler’s conviction about film’s power paral­ lels that of Bernard Beck, who, when analyzing the fictional film Moonrise Kingdom, wrote, “The most powerful source of persuasive evidence about the wide world is the screen, where it can, so to speak, be directly experi­ enced” (90). In some sense, however, Butler’s 53 ©2016 by the board of trustees of the university of illinois JFV 68_1 text.indd 53 1/29/16 10:17 AM films are part of a continuum of study. She and World Trust Educational Services offer many resources for continuing explorations of race/ ethnicity and its impact on the myriad interac­ tions that make up a person’s experience of the multidimensional world. These resources, available via World Trust’s Web site, revolve around her films and with them reflect Butler’s commitment to equity and justice and her con­ viction that heads and hearts must be engaged to reach those goals. reference Beck, Bernard. “Young Campers in Love: Who Are the Grown-Ups in Moonrise Kingdom?” Multicultural Perspectives 15.2 (2013): 88–91. filmogr aphy Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequality. Dir. and prod. Shakti Butler. World Trust Films, 2012. DVD. 54 Interview with Dr. Shakti Butler. Interview by J. Q. Adams. Dir. M. Dial. Expanding Cultural Diversity Project, 2011. http://www.wiu.edu/iacd/interviews .php#butler. Light in the Shadows: Staying at the Table When the Conversation about Race Gets Hard. Dir. and prod. Shakti Butler. World Trust Films, 2003. DVD. Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible. Dir. Shakti Butler and Rick Butler. Prod. Shakti Butler. World Trust Films, 2006. DVD. The Way Home: Women Talk about Race in America. Dir. and prod. Shakti Butler. World Trust Films, 1998. DVD. The films Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, Light in the Shadows, and The Way Home: Women Talk about Race in America are available on DVD for purchase from World Trust Educational Services Inc., 8115 McCormick Avenue, Oakland, CA 94605. Visit world-trust.org. The DVD of J. Q. Adams’s interview with Dr. Shakti Butler is available for purchase from the Expanding Cultural Diversity Project, Western Illinois Univer­ sity, 1 University Circle, Macomb, IL 61455–1390. journal of film and video 68.1 / spring 2016 ©2016 by the board of trustees of the university of illinois JFV 68_1 text.indd 54 1/29/16 10:17 AM Copyright of Journal of Film & Video is the property of University Film and Video Association and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. 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