One City, Two Films at Sundance

A pair of criminal justice documentaries with Richmond roots captivated audiences at the Utah film festival.

More than 17,000 films were submitted to the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, and just 10 among them were chosen for the U.S. documentary competition. Remarkably, two of those 10, including the one that took home the Festival Favorite award, have Richmond origins.

It’s like something out of a movie, but the films, like the criminal justice issues each brings to the fore, are as real as it gets.

“Daughters,” the Festival Favorite winner and U.S. Documentary Audience Award recipient, depicts a dance unlike any you’ve seen — one that begins when incarcerated fathers dressed in semi-formal attire watch as their gussied-up daughters file in for a powerfully cathartic, albeit temporary, reunion inside prison walls.

“I’m bawling, wailing every time,” says event organizer and “Daughters” co-director Angela Patton.

Patton serves as CEO of the Girls For A Change organization, whose mission is to “prepare Black girls for the world and the world for Black girls.” She’d been helping to put on daddy-daughter dances since the late 2000s in an effort to strengthen the bonds between Richmond-area Black girls and their fathers — a focal point the girls themselves had decided on as part of Patton’s Camp Diva Leadership Academy, which has since merged with Girls For A Change.

Yet after a few dances, one of the program’s participants expressed sadness at not being able to join in because her dad was imprisoned, leading to a seemingly naive suggestion from the group: “What if we did the dance in jail?”

A date with dad

Patton had well-founded doubts. As “Daughters” points out, visitation policies across the United States have become more restrictive over the last decade. Hundreds of facilities have phased out in-person “touch” visits in favor of paid video visits. But Patton’s mission to empower the girls in her program led her to pitch the idea anyway. Much to her surprise, Richmond City Sheriff C.T. Woody said yes, setting in motion an unlikely recurring event that’s since spread from the Richmond city jail to the Washington, D.C. one featured in “Daughters.”

“That literally changed my life,” Patton says. “That was a feeling that I hold onto as I’m building an organization and sometimes may [think], ‘Oh, I doubt that they’re going to say yes. But you know what, Angela? What if they do?’ I’m ready, [and] I’m going to speak ‘yes’ into the universe.”

That message was at the core of a 2012 TEDxWomen talk Patton gave extolling the importance of fatherly love and describing how the Date with Dad program came about. That talk proved to be a turning point. “At the TED conference,” Patton recalls, “filmmakers, publishing companies, journalists were like, ‘Where’s your book? Where’s your film? What’s next? Do a movie. Do a scripted movie …’ I didn’t know what all of that was. I barely even knew what a TED Talk was. I just went up there and shared a real story of real girls in my Richmond community.”

Patton estimates between 20 and 30 filmmakers reached out. Many sought to tell a Hollywood-style story focused on the inmates and their journey toward the dance, which includes a series of group counseling sessions. But Patton wanted to center on the girls and how a father’s incarceration confines the kids who miss him. “We are putting them in shackles too, when we do this to their fathers.” Patton says. “Those girls are in prison, too.”

The perfect partnership

Co-director Natalie Rae, who had worked on everything from commercials to music videos to a global public service announcement for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, was among those filmmakers inspired by Patton’s TED Talk. Rae was open to telling a more straightforward version of the story, one that aligned with Patton’s vision to “just be in it, and allow it to unfold and move in the way it naturally does.”

Rae also pledged to help with raising the funds needed for the project — a crucial contribution given Patton’s focus on the work at hand. “We are a small nonprofit and didn’t have a lot of resources or time,” Patton says. “I’m like, ‘Am I going to raise money for these programs, or am I going to raise money for this film?’”

It took eight years — and heaps of empathy for those being filmed — but in the end, Patton and Rae delivered a masterpiece. “Daughters” offers parallel depictions of the fathers’ counseling sessions and their families’ anticipation of the dance, with especially vivid exploration of the pre- and post-event inner landscapes of four school-aged girls: Aubrey, Santana, Raziah and Ja’Ana. One silver lining to the film’s lengthy journey from initial brainstorming to winning awards at Sundance: Two fathers featured in the film had been released and were in attendance for the premiere in Utah. Also there? Patton’s own father, whose support has been a constant in her life, and who personally shined the shoes worn by the incarcerated men who danced with their daughters in the film.

“I want that for all the other girls that I work with — to know that you can count on somebody,” Patton says. “It’s so liberating and it’s part of my freedom.”

Kemba in “As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial,” streaming on Paramount+, 2024. Photo Credit: Paramount+.

Verses and verdicts

Freedom — both carceral and artistic — is central to “As We Speak,” which earned a spot in the U.S. documentary competition by interrogating the practice of entering hip-hop lyrics into evidence in court. The controversial legal tactic gained a new level of notoriety in 2022, when platinum-selling rapper Young Thug was charged in a 56-count RICO case whose indictment cited lyrics he’d penned throughout his career in order to paint his Young Stoner Life collective as a criminal street gang. “I always use my music as a form of artistic expression, and I see now that Black artists and rappers don’t have that freedom,” he said in a statement recorded in jail shortly after his arrest.

But prosecutors entering lyrics into evidence is far from new, as University of Richmond professor Erik Nielson knows all too well. Over the last decade and a half, the liberal arts professor has gone from writing his dissertation on the impact of surveillance on Black arts in the U.S. to serving as an expert witness when defense attorneys are looking to convince jurors that rap lyrics make for murky evidence.

“My goal isn’t to go in there and attest to anybody’s innocence,” he says. “It’s really just to do my part to ensure they’re getting a fair trial. And I do not believe that introducing lyrics in this way allows somebody, in most situations, to have a fair trial.”

 

Young Thug’s arrest on RICO charges may have brought more attention to the issue, but the idea for making “As We Speak” actually began with a 2016 article in University of Richmond Magazine detailing Nielson’s research and court appearances. A photo of Nielson alongside a poster for the classic hip-hop group Public Enemy caught the eye of 2008 UR grad, Sam Widdoes, who had recently left his job as a litigator to start the film production company, District 33. A UR classmate sent the article at the same time Widdoes, who cites NWA and 2Pac as pillars of the soundtrack to his 1990s Los Angeles upbringing, was on the lookout for potential documentary subject matter. He remembers asking himself, “This white guy [who] serves as an expert witness in hip-hop … who is this guy?”

A brainstorming dinner in New York City with Nielson, Widdoes and a production partner followed, then another with Neilson, Widdoes and first-time director J.M. Harper, who edited the Emmy-nominated docuseries, “Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy.” While the project initially struggled to secure backing, in part because the practice of using lyrics as evidence seemed so plainly dubious to some potential financiers, Young Thug’s case provided proof of concept. Paramount greenlit the film in February 2023 and asked to see a finished product by October — “an insane schedule,” says Widdoes, who is credited as producer. (Nielson received a consulting producer credit.)

The result is a jet-powered journey to the heart of why people make hip-hop. “As We Speak” follows up-and-coming Bronx-raised rapper Kemba as he visits with members of various rap communities from Atlanta and Chicago to his home in New York and even London. At each stop, he delves into a distinct hip-hop tradition and discusses the impact of governmental intrusions into creativity — intrusions that are rarely seen in genres like rock and country.

The tables turn in the film’s last act when Kemba interviews former public defender Alexandra Kazarian. Her no-nonsense rundown of the pressures of plea bargaining — of what it’s like to put one’s freedom in the hands of a jury that’s been fed out-of-context couplets by a prosecutor — overlays claustrophobia-inducing shots of Kemba as defendant in a staged trial. Were that a real courtroom, Nielson might be on the witness stand explaining the role of metaphor in rap and the critical distinction between author and narrator.

“What I want you to see in [the defendant] is an entrepreneur,” Nielson says. “A hustler. Somebody who is trying to make his way through a system that is really rigged against him to try to do it in a legitimate way, in a creative way, to improve his life, the life of the people around him.”

Co-author of “Rap on Trial” and Professor at University of Richmond Erik Nielson in “As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial,” streaming on Paramount+, 2024. Photo Credit: Paramount+.

All eyes on impact

“As We Speak” takes that message, which Nielson had been sharing one case and courtroom at a time, and broadcasts it to an audience made even larger by the film’s inclusion at Sundance. Though Widdoes hypothesizes some at the festival were aware of the issue — “People who understood it from an artistic standpoint, from a racial standpoint,” he says — many viewers were shocked, and he believes in the film’s potential to instill new understanding for those less familiar with hip-hop. “Even if they don’t like the music,” he says, “they’ll think about why someone is making music that sounds like this.”

Nielson is likewise hopeful about the film’s emotional impact. “Disbelief combined with frustration, anger — that’s what I want people to walk away with,” Nielson says. “Maybe throw in a touch of sadness, too… They’re somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, somebody’s best friend. And the criminal justice system is just so willing to throw people like that away.”

Nielson and Widdoes also have their eye on making a legislative difference. Louisiana and California have already adopted measures restricting prosecutors’ ability to bring lyrics into the courtroom. In concert with “Rap on Trial,” the book Nielson co-authored with University of Georgia School of Law professor Andrea L. Dennis, “As We Speak” is well positioned to be, in Nielson’s words, “gasoline on that fire.”

“Education alone to the judges and prosecutors and everybody involved in the criminal justice system. I’m just not convinced that’s going to do the trick,” he says.

“Daughters” has been a catalyst for advocacy as well. The documentary was acquired by Netflix, ensuring its message will resonate beyond its warm reception at Sundance. Patton sees “Daughters” as a tool for activists who are pushing for more generous visitation policies and pushing back against video visits becoming a revenue stream for tech companies. “It’s one more way to attack their pockets,” Patton says. “Maybe legislation can say, ‘Hold up, this is unhealthy…’ If on one hand we say we want healthy families, healthy minds and bodies, we can’t turn them down through the criminal justice system.”

In addition to a busy slate of film festival screenings, Patton envisions community screenings for those who don’t have access to Netflix. Jails and prisons have also been reaching out about starting up programs of their own. “We’ve already [heard from] so many people like, ‘Bring the film. What can I do? Can I help the girls? Can I volunteer?’ … I’m hoping we can maintain that momentum, because changing legislation can take years.”

The road to criminal justice reform may be long, but these two films show just how galvanizing a single trip to Utah can be.

“Daughters” has additional festival screenings scheduled throughout the spring and summer. For more information, visit daughtersdocumentary.com. “As We Speak” is streaming now on Paramount+. For more information, visit district-33.com.

TRENDING

WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: