June 08, 2021 News & Features » Cover Story

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Power to the People 

A new documentary about the rise and fall of the Confederate monuments offers a sweeping history of resistance.

click to enlarge Director Lance Warren, lighting designer Randall Taylor Jr., and director Hannah Ayers film a Richmond Public Schools teacher and cellist, Beth Almore, in front of the Robert E. Lee Monument.

Director Lance Warren, lighting designer Randall Taylor Jr., and director Hannah Ayers film a Richmond Public Schools teacher and cellist, Beth Almore, in front of the Robert E. Lee Monument.

That old saying attributed to Winston Churchill that history is written by the victors has never really applied in Richmond.

Anyone not blinded by family loyalty, cultural or classroom biases has recognized this for some time now. Departed comedian Robin Williams even joked about our glorification of Confederate generals during his final stand-up tour at Altria Theater:

“I walked down Monument Avenue, those are a lot of second-place trophies, way to go. Woo! (In cartoonish southern voice) I guess you really didn’t get over that too well?”

Nope, Mrs. Doubtfire, we most surely did not. Some still haven’t.

The reasons why are among the many topics explored in the powerful new documentary feature, “How the Monuments Came Down,” directed by the Emmy-winning team of Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren, who are married. Throughout a jam-packed, emotional hour and a half, we watch engaging interviews with nearly 30 local historians, teachers, journalists, politicians and activists who provide background on how the Confederate monuments came to be and what led to their removal last summer, while combing through 160 years of history accompanied by animation and archival imagery.

Among the core story advisors are Christy Coleman, former director of the American Civil War Museum; Julian Hayter, a historian at the University of Richmond; Joseph Rogers, public historian, descendant and community organizer; and Enjoli Moon, founder and creator of the Afrikana Film Festival and the JXN Project.

click to enlarge Christy Coleman, former director of the American Civil War Museum.
  • Christy Coleman, former director of the American Civil War Museum.

It’s a timely, well-crafted film not to be missed, arguably the most important documentary ever made about Richmond and one that deserves a national audience. However, the filmmakers say their primary goal is for the film to be used in schools. To that end, Rodney Robinson, National Teacher of the Year two years ago, plans to use primary sources from the documentary as part of critical thinking exercises in the Richmond Public Schools in the fourth through 12th grades. More on that later.

The film begins with the history-making events in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, offering an oral history through accounts of the protests that led to most of the statues being torn down. That is, except for our most famous statue, the now graffiti-covered Lee monument, whose fate was scheduled to be argued before the Virginia Supreme Court the day this story is published.

On an educational level, the film is important to fully understand the complicated truth about Richmond’s place in American history, as well as providing context for where we find ourselves today. Instead of always being referred to as the “former capital of the Confederacy,” there’s a chance our city might one day invoke a more noble and ascendant historical association: Richmond as a birthplace of Black resistance to white supremacy.

The directors, using the lens of the Confederate monuments, tell this broadly sweeping story of a resistance that was here long before George Floyd, pushing back against repression from the early bonds of slavery through voter suppression and Jim Crow laws, racial gerrymandering and the destruction of Jackson Ward, to the more insidious, entrenched systemic racism of the 21st century.

click to enlarge An intersection rechristened after George Floyd.
  • An intersection rechristened after George Floyd.

Funded by VPM as well as the Virginia Film Office, the film has its sold-out premiere Thursday, June 10, at Maymont with a pre-screening discussion and live music from Butcher Brown [updated: due to rain the event has been rescheduled to June 23]. Everyone else can catch it when it airs on VPM on Thursday, July 1, at 8 p.m. A national audience will get its turn on PBS Plus and World channel in September.

If slavery is our country’s original sin, then Richmond should be studied to better understand the Black struggle for equality in America. As a city reshaping its modern identity and seeking a more unifying, less-treasonous source of tourism dollars, we ought to embrace this new telling of history and celebrate it.

Or as an interview subject in the film, the always-direct Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist, Michael Paul Williams, succinctly told us:

“You can’t understand America without understanding Richmond.”

click to enlarge Michael Paul Williams, columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
  • Michael Paul Williams, columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

During a pandemic, when history started happening every night on Monument Avenue three blocks from their home, the young filmmakers realized they needed to start shooting quickly.

Most local debates centered around the protesters’ actions, but Warren says they immediately knew what they were seeing was part of a vastly deeper story.

“We knew that in this moment, more people than usual were willing to say that Black lives matter, even if just with a yard sign,” he says. “So maybe more people would be willing to listen to a deeper history that so many Americans and Richmonders had missed.”

So they approached a former partner, VPM, the state’s flagship Public Broadcasting Service station, whose news team was already reporting on the protests.

“We knew we had to document everything,” says Steve Humble, chief content officer at VPM, which provided some of the protest footage for the documentary. “But it was really important to us that the story be told through the eyes of people of color.”

The filmmakers, who used an impressive team of contributors, say the project wouldn’t have been possible without support from VPM. Humble would not disclose the budget for the film to Style Weekly, though he says that some projects are undertaken by VPM without concern for return on investment.

Shooting mostly in July, the filmmakers had to deal with the pandemic and social distancing, as well as covering history as it was unfolding. Interviews were conducted during the hottest days of summer with 20 feet between the subjects.

click to enlarge Directors Lance Warren and Hannah Ayers and lighting designer Randall Taylor Jr. set up an interview with Viola Baskerville in Byrd Park.
  • Directors Lance Warren and Hannah Ayers and lighting designer Randall Taylor Jr. set up an interview with Viola Baskerville in Byrd Park.

“The biggest challenge was the scope and finding the right balance between talking about the monuments and the public history landscape,” Ayers explains. “We saw the statues as a hook and a timely thing to talk about, but throughout the edit we were focused on how to use that for people to understand the bigger themes.”

From over 250 archival materials collected, Warren says they were excited to come across things that had never been highlighted. With the help of researchers from Library of Virginia, they unearthed whole transcripts from Black leaders protesting intimidation and voter suppression in 1889 through letters to their congressional leaders, which unsurprisingly had gone ignored.

For Ayers, learning about the work of the Crusade for Voters and tracking how Black political power grew in Richmond was particularly illuminating, “what that took on the ground at a grassroots level. … I couldn’t believe I didn’t know [social activist] Curtis Holt before this!”

click to enlarge A film still of the Lee Monument, which was delivered by rail in 1890.
  • A film still of the Lee Monument, which was delivered by rail in 1890.

Through sections on Jackson Ward and the rise of Black political power in Richmond, the film goes a long way toward helping explain why the city looks the way it does today and why its politics operates the way it does, she points out: “The thread we discovered along the way is the whole story is about people power.”

It’s likely that audience reactions to “How the Monuments Came Down” will depend on who is watching. Progressives will probably love it while conservatives and defenders of the monuments may find it lacking or biased.

Almost certainly one criticism that will be leveled at the film will be that it doesn’t fully represent the other side of public opinion on the monuments.

Humble says they wanted to tell the story of the monuments from both sides, but the filmmakers struggled to find people willing to go on camera and talk about their support of the monuments. “In the end, I wish we could’ve had a few more folks come forward to try to tell a more complete story,” he says.

Of the roughly 30 interviews, the film has one interview with Bill Gallasch, president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society, who makes the argument that Monument Avenue was “never about the statues. ... They meant nothing” [it was the “grandeur of old homes”] while another woman, activist Martha Rollins, talks about how she is related to two of the statues and has enjoyed them since she was a little girl, later admitting she never thought about how they affected others.

click to enlarge Bill Gallasch, president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society.
  • Bill Gallasch, president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society.

“So many white Richmonders have not paused to think about the broader meaning of the monuments,” Ayers says. “So we wanted to show with Bill and Martha how their thinking had evolved. It was key to answering: Why have they been up long?”

The filmmakers also approached people involved in the lawsuit over the Lee monument but they declined to be interviewed. There are no interviews with people who had businesses or homes damaged during the protests.

They did get Gov. Ralph Northam for a sit-down, though – whose first lines in the film sound like he says, “And then there was me in those yearbook photos.”

Playing it back a few times revealed he said: “and those yearbook photos.”

Still, the crowd at the Maymont screening might hoot some at that one.

click to enlarge A still from the documentary featuring the statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart being taken down on July 7, 2020.
  • A still from the documentary featuring the statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart being taken down on July 7, 2020.

One of the documentary’s true claims to originality is the way that it has “shifted the gaze” to the Black perception of Richmond’s history, says one of the more lively storytellers in the documentary, Julian Hayter.

A specialist on mid-20th century voting rights, Hayter felt his role as a story advisor was to break down the city’s political history and show the extent to which Jim Crow legislatures changed Virginia curriculum and institutionalized the Lost Cause.

“What is the Lost Cause if not the father of cancel culture?” he asks me one recent afternoon. “They canceled out, in those histories, generations of people who made positive contributions to this country’s development. It’s fucking ironic.”

Hayter argues that a shocking number of Americans still believe Lost Cause talking points because the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans used “these oligarchic legislatures to put this propaganda in textbooks. People think it’s true now because they’ve heard it for generations.”

He feels the new film is only nominally about the monuments, “it’s really more a history of the city through the monuments,” he says. “The tortured, racial history of this place and its inability to come to terms with it.”

The role of documentaries like this one is to reach future generations who have not been corrupted by false histories, he says, adding that “we’ve wasted enough time trying to wins the hearts and minds of racists.” Besides, there is no amount of historical documentation that will convince those people they’re wrong, he says.

“In large part because Confederate history is family history. It’s about loyalty not logic,” he says with the same liveliness shown in the film. “This is the Hatfields and McCoys of history. … and guess what? Families can be wrong!”

For Hayter, one of the most poignant sections of the film was when former City Council members Chuck Richardson and Willie Dell discuss what they had to deal with when inheriting the Richmond City Council in the late 1970s. In one scene, Richardson notes that someone from an Atlanta newspaper called after he was elected to ask what would be done with Richmond’s statues. There were other priorities at the time, he says, including housing, transportation, education and unemployment.

“Robert E. Lee is dead, it ain’t him I got to worry about. It’s the racist living and sitting across from me at council,” Dell says in one of the film’s many memorable lines.

“They’re saying you can’t wash away nearly a century of Jim Crow segregation,” Hayter says. While some may still think of this period simply as segregated lunch counters and drinking fountains, “it was really people using the power invested in Jim Crow legislatures to strip people of public service deliverables,” he adds.

“I mean, think about that!” says Michael Paul Williams about the Atlanta phone call mentioned by Richardson. “Black people assume the reins of political power in Richmond for the first time [in the late 1970s], and one of the main concerns is that they’ll go for the monuments. Next time you want to say they’re just symbols, think about that.” It’s not so easy to separate the symbols from reality, he points out.

“The symbols that were erected were a foreshadowing of the reality, not something apart from it,” he continues. “When those monuments went up in 1890, Black people knew exactly what it meant and they knew that it meant no good for their reality, it was far more than just a symbol.”

Eleven years after the first statue went up, a constitutional convention went about the explicit state’s business of stripping Black people of their newly won rights.

“Sometimes a symbol is more than a symbol,” Williams adds.

click to enlarge A film still of a vigil being held at the Jefferson Davis Monument.
  • A film still of a vigil being held at the Jefferson Davis Monument.

Warren and Ayers became filmmakers by accident, they say.

And yet, in a little over a decade, their feature films, shorts and television programs have not only won several awards and grants and been broadcast on PBS, but they are being taught in middle, high school and college classrooms around the country.

About a dozen years ago, the couple was living in Charlottesville, working various odd jobs, having just started dating. Warren was helping with research at a University of Virginia institute when the director asked him to make a short documentary for community outreach. Young, hungry and eager for opportunities, he knew nothing about filmmaking, but had a bootleg copy of Final Cut software.

After sketching a plan on a napkin at dinner, they immediately went to work, Googling and learning filmmaking together over the following year. The resulting short film, “That World Is Gone: Race and Displacement in a Southern Town” about the Vinegar Hill neighborhood in Charlottesville, won the audience award at the Virginia Film Festival in 2010. The pair has been hooked on filmmaking ever since, living briefly in New York and working in media production for nonprofits, before moving back to Virginia in 2014 and establishing Field Studio production company.

“We both studied history and were drawn to storytelling,” says Ayers, whose father is historian and author Ed Ayers, the former president of the University of Richmond and a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist. “Lance is a talented cinematographer, strong on the technical aspects. We’ve found we really share a vision and commitment to hiring a diverse team, amplifying voices and just the general approach and process,” she says.

Ayers says she didn’t plan on following in her father’s footsteps, but she was influenced by his approach to history, such as highlighting the stories of everyday people by using diaries, letters or journals and other primary sources – making a space for folks who traditionally haven’t made it into the textbooks.

click to enlarge Directors Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren, who are married, began making films about African-American history a little over a decade ago.
  • Directors Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren, who are married, began making films about African-American history a little over a decade ago.

Their films usually have involved African American history. From an early age, Warren developed “a severe disgust with hierarchy, belittling and any sort of tribalism.” While studying history he became fired up by “the ways that societies decide who can be on the inside or outside, or who gets to take part in democracy and who doesn’t.”

Once you start thinking about history critically, he says, it’s nearly impossible to miss how it’s etched into our everyday lives: “For most people, history is not a book on a nightstand, it’s been hell. It’s been a fight.”

Hannah Ayers notes that every time they decide on a topic they take a hard look at the media and educational landscape and ask what’s missing.

“Often we’ve found the stories of Black Americans are under-told, not represented or distorted,” she says. “We want to make things that are useful, that will be seen again and used as tools. Where we see them being best implemented is in classrooms.”

Some of their other film projects include “The Hail-Storm: John Dabney in Virginia,” about an African American restaurateur, which was nominated for a Capital Emmy. In 2019, they embedded with a political coalition mobilizing Black millennials in “Woke Vote,” which screened locally at the Afrikana Independent Film Festival. They also direct and produce a public television series for VPM, “The Future of America’s Past,” hosted by Ed Ayers, which won a Capital Emmy last year.

Then there was their 2017 film, “An Outrage,” about the history of lynching and the scale of racial violence during the Jim Crow era, a project that helped the filmmakers hone their voice. “An Outrage” was distributed to a network of 500,000 teachers through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program. The film premiered at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History before the filmmakers took it on tour around the country for 18 months to about 80 sites.

Warren recalls of the tour: “One thing that jumped out was we would have white members of the audience say, ‘my goodness, I never was taught this.’ And African American members would say, ‘I heard about this growing up, around the dinner table.’ It was so striking to see the asymmetrical way that people understand the American past.”

He believes this is one reason it’s so difficult for us to talk to each other in the present and figure out which way we should go, as a country.

“If you don’t tell it like it was, it can’t be like it should be,” he says. “Closing that gap in understanding has been a real inspiration for us.”

By the end of the documentary, several interview subjects are joking that the monuments coming down “was the easy part,” though it sure took awhile. Now comes the hard part of fixing systemic issues leftover from the Jim Crow system.

“The segregated system survived the mid-20th century in the public school system, residential housing patterns, public health,” Hayter points out. “Now Richmond has to come to terms with the shelf life of this political system. … I don’t think you can get to reconciliation without recognizing there is a problem.”

Hoping to assist on that front, the filmmakers have spoken to Richmond School Superintendent Jason Kamras about how their new documentary might be used in classrooms and for professional development, including possibly becoming part of orientation for new teachers. “We think the real heart of this is in Richmond and this is where it will do its most important work,” Ayers says.

Teacher Rodney Robinson is using the primary-source documents in the film to create “project-based learning activities that promote critical thinking,” he says.

click to enlarge Rodney Robinson, National Teacher of the Year in 2019, is using primary-source materials from the documentary to create project-based learning activities that promote critical thinking in Richmond Public Schools.
  • Rodney Robinson, National Teacher of the Year in 2019, is using primary-source materials from the documentary to create project-based learning activities that promote critical thinking in Richmond Public Schools.

For example, one of the activities is based on part of the film that deals with the destruction of Jackson Ward, once known as the Harlem of the South, which was split by Interstate 95 displacing 10,000 Black neighbors. Robinson explains that in the exercise, students must rebuild I-95 and have it go through a different part of the city. Middle school students create a new route, while high school students not only create a new route but compare it to maps today to see how it would affect modern lives, he says.

In 2015, Virginia introduced the skills progression chart stating what skills each student should have from kindergarten through 12th grade. Robinson, who believes the story of the people is often missing from the history books, hopes that eventually testing will be eliminated in favor or project-based learning done on the local level. That’s why he introduced his Real Richmond curriculum, “to tell the story of the real people, the streets the kids walk on, the neighborhood – because I want our students to be engaged. … I’ve never liked the tests with the who, what, where and why,” he says.

It wouldn’t be surprising if “How the Monuments Came Down” earns some awards for its deft handling of a complex history while never losing narrative momentum. This easily could’ve been an eight-part miniseries on Netflix.

click to enlarge A still of protesters at the Robert E. Lee Monument from the new documentary, “How the Monuments Came Down,” premiering this week at Maymont.
  • A still of protesters at the Robert E. Lee Monument from the new documentary, “How the Monuments Came Down,” premiering this week at Maymont.

And why shouldn’t it find a national audience? The commonwealth had more memorials to the Lost Cause than anyplace in the South. A majority of African Americans can trace their family history to Richmond due to the huge number of slaves sold through downtown. And last summer, the monuments became icons within the context of a historic social justice movement, with New York Times Style Magazine calling the re-contextualized Lee statue “the most important piece of American protest art since World War II.”

As someone who has lived in Richmond his entire life, Michael Paul Williams admits he was shocked the monuments came down.

“I did not even consider the prospect of their removal until Dylan Roof killed those churchgoers in Charleston in 2015,” he recalls. “Something kind of snapped in my psyche when that happened.”

That was about the same time Williams started advocating for their removal in his columns at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He began writing his column in 1992 and previously had argued for a more inclusive approach when a statue of a personal hero of his, Arthur Ashe, was added to Monument Avenue in 1996, also covered in the film.

But after the 2017 battle royale in Charlottesville that featured Confederate flag-waving white supremacists, many more people began to join Williams’ camp that the monuments were “untenable.” A few years later, we had George Floyd, among other videotaped killings, and the pandemic that pushed it over the top.

“It happened gradually, but all at once, if that makes any sense,” Williams says. “It seems like one inciting event, but in hindsight it’s more incremental.”

Having seen the documentary, Williams says he appreciates the way the filmmakers made everything flow so seamlessly, not just the scope of the narrative but the breadth of people involved.

It was an inherently emotional time, and the documentary reflects that.

“It was crazy. If you suffered property damage, I’m sure it was unnerving for a lot of people but it was also invigorating. Two things can be true at once,” he says. “If you are part of a nation at a standstill because of this public health crisis, but there’s all this energy and change for good going on out in the streets – it’s messy, but we’re forced to look at ourselves in the mirror. I think it creates a level of energy that might’ve helped get us through.”

Regardless of Richmond’s sense of itself, Williams thinks that “its image in the national picture went up more than a few notches amid those protests.”

Some people would disagree with him on that point, but if enough folks can see this film, the city’s image, or reputation, might at least reflect a greater public understanding of what it took to get to this point in history.

Williams recalls the images of Black liberation figures that were projected onto the monuments that quickly became iconic across the country. “I like that new image moving forward, I think it’s something we can build on.”

As the film credits roll, we hear 1970s soul singer Merry Clayton wailing out her rendition of Neil Young’s classic song “Southern Man”:

“Southern change gonna come at last/now your crosses are burnin’ fast.”

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