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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).
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voice-over narration, music, poetry, historical
documents, and superimposed titles that in­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
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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.
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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,
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
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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.
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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
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,
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
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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
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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
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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.
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.
Interview with Dr. Shakti Butler. Interview by J. Q.
Adams. Dir. M. Dial. Expanding Cultural Diversity
Project, 2011. http://www.wiu.edu/iacd/interviews
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
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