AN INTERVIEW WITH VANESSA PAGE WRIGHT, DIRECTOR & PRODUCER OF "SANKOFA CHICAGO"
Award Winner - June 2021 Edition
. Best Educational Film
Nice meeting you Vanessa, thank you for your film. What was or were your major/s in college, and why turn to filmmaking?
It's nice to meet you too. I hold a Master of Arts degree in Entertainment & Media Management from Columbia College Chicago, a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in Communications with a Film & TV Production concentration, and Sociology with a focus on Race, Class, and Identity from The Ohio State University (OSU) as well as a post-Baccalaureate degree in ASL (American Sign Language) Interpretation.
I love learning, as you can tell! My favorite network was PBS (it still is) as a child. I would watch documentaries with my parents on the weekends and was fascinated by them. So, my majors at OSU were intentional, combining communications with sociology. I dreamed about making documentaries shown on PBS, but most of my opportunities led me to work in TV news, managing talent and casting.
A few years ago, I wanted to go back to school for a Ph.D., but with two kids and a husband finishing his graduate degree, it wasn’t an option. So, I felt that I could research my area of interest and use my passion and experience in media to make a documentary. It was like my own “dissertation” without credits or a diploma.
The "Sankofa" approach is particularly appropriate for a story of Chicago, be it a specific topic like yours. How did you go about choosing the panel of people you interviewed?
SANKOFA CHICAGO was the first documentary I had created, directed and produced since my school thesis, so I was a bit nervous about asking people outside my circle of family, friends and colleagues. We had to shoot during the lockdown from the pandemic, which had many challenges. Since the Illinois Arts Council partially sponsored the documentary, I had a deadline to meet. I had to rely on those who trusted my judgement.
It worked out, and I am grateful for them!
I first wanted a Ghanaian to explain the true meaning of Sankofa. I knew because of the meaning that I had to interview individuals that were a product of our history, senior citizens, and kids, who are our future. The oldest interview was with Ms. Play, who was 95 years old at the time. Her stories and the other stories from seniors should be cherished and shared with future generations.
I also wanted to find a way to add my boys, who are the inspiration for this documentary. So, I came up with a kid's segment which included them and other kids ranging from 4-14 and was a lot of fun to shoot! I was trying to find a way to make the documentary interesting for the entire family; that's why I went with a Kid's quiz. It was added in chunks like a fun "intermission" or an icebreaker to help with serious conversations. Also, we included their parents since they are a crucial part of the kids’ future.
The church, education, mental health and police play a significant part in our history and future of Chicago and this country, especially when it comes to black and brown lives.
I couldn't miss this opportunity to interview at least one expert from each field.
Most importantly, I wanted to incorporate people of all ethnic backgrounds to tell their stories and point of view. Although this is a film about black history, we must hear the voices of everyone because everyone needs to understand and learn the truth about American history. This is a documentary for everyone!
The Arts are a big part of Chicago's history, Music of course, but not only. What is your take on movements such as AfriCOBRA, what other Art movements can you think of that can be considered a part of the city's essence so to say, and why so?
Of course, as you mentioned, music is a big part of Chicago's history. Outside of music, before AfriCOBRA, there was The Black Arts Movement of Chicago (BAM) which began in 1967, when the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a Chicago-based Black artist collective, created a mural in Bronzeville (neighborhood on the South Side) called "the Wall of Respect." This movement focused on music, literature, drama, and the visual arts of Black artists and intellectuals.
The Chicago Black Renaissance art movement also arose from the Chicago Black Belt on the city's South Side in the 1930s and 1940s. Also known as the Black Chicago Renaissance, which was similar to that of the Harlem Renaissance.
The movement included:
Famous Black writers as Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Musicians like Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
Visual artists like Margaret Burroughs and William Edouard Scott.
I feel that AfriCOBRA, BAM and the Chicago Black Renaissance provided a platform in which they used art to speak out about injustice, and it paved the way for Black artists. These movements also helped to form various art ventures to empower the Black community.
In terms of police or no police in schools, as per the interviews in your film, both perspectives can be defended. In a country like France, there are huge social controversies on the topic, although gun violence amongst youths is not to be compared with the situation in Chicago. What is your personal opinion?
Yes. I believe both perspectives can be defended in the case of police in schools. However, based on my research during the documentary, it seems like it would need to be a case-by-case situation. Not all schools need police, but the schools also need counsellors. If they are going to allow police, they must also provide counsellors.
Have you heard of or seen "DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis" by Barbara Allen of Middle Passage Productions? As a Chicagoan scholar and filmmaker, are you aware of Allen's or other filmmakers' work about your city?
Yes, I am familiar with Barbara Allen's work and have studied many of her projects for several years. I am also a PBS fanatic, so I have seen “DuSable to Obama: Chicago's Black Metropolis” on WTTW (Chicago's PBS local station). Allen's Emmy award documentary, "Paper Trail: 100 Years of the Chicago Defender." was another inspiring film.
A few other documentary projects about Chicago by Chicago filmmakers that I have enjoyed include Stacy Robinson's “Ida B. Wells: A Chicago Stories Special”, the short “63 Boycott” by Gordon Quinn, and “America to Me” by Steve James. I watched these along with other documentaries as part of my research.
It is interesting to note that the different generations represented in "Sankofa Chicago", have the same vision of a possible better future for the Youths. Hence your title of course. Do you feel that there is a kind of Renaissance happening, a new awareness, a renewal in energies and the desire to make things better, and make the Community stronger?
Yes, I do. There has never been a better time for this documentary. 2020 has forced many individuals to witness and openly address the truth of institutional racism for the first time, from a global pandemic in which people of color have died disproportionately, to the killing of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. People of all ages agree that the quality and extent of Black history taught in schools should be reconsidered. The public is ready for a change. One example of change is happening in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. They are the first city in the United States to pay reparations to black residents who have suffered housing discrimination.
I decided to make Sankofa Chicago into a docuseries. The second part of the series, currently in production, focuses on the curriculum-based history and social science education in the Chicago Public Schools. Based on our research so far, parents want a change in how they are teaching history in schools.
A bit of a blunt question: What do you think of US gun laws and their impact on your country's history, past and present?
I'm not a fan of guns unless I'm watching a Wild Wild West film. The history of gun control is thoroughly entangled with systemic racism, and I don't even allow my boys to have a nerf or water gun.
The right to keep and bear arms is found in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified in 1791. The history of gun restriction dates back to the founding of the United States. Gun restriction legislation dates back to the colonial period, with the oldest law in America mentioning African-Americans being a 1664 ordinance prohibiting free Black Virginians from having firearms.
In the U.S., the risk of a male child dying from a gunshot wound is 62 percent higher than the risk of dying in a car accident for black households. Obtaining a weapon here is more accessible than receiving mental health care. This is particularly true in Black communities, where mental health is typically treated as a criminal justice issue, often resulting in imprisonment or murder. We need to put God first in our lives and hope the youth will too!
Short statement describing your vision of the post-covid cinema, do you think there will be notable changes?
I think there will be notable changes in cinema, post covid. I believe drive-in cinemas will come back and be popular while the large cinemas will become a novelty. Streaming services are already very popular, but I think they will offer more new releases on those platforms as they did during quarantine.
Vanessa Page Wright, M.A.
DIRECTOR & PRODUCER
VANESSA PAGE WRIGHT, M.A. - BIO
Vanessa Page Wright, M.A. is a former Talent Agent turned Filmmaker with a lifelong vision to create documentaries that preserve Black legacies via multifaceted historical storytelling. Through an empathetic, candid lens, she also aims to critically analyze race, culture, and identity within the Black community. Currently, she serves as the Founding Director of Tellers Untold and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia College Chicago.
Vanessa’s most recent creative venture is the award-winning documentary SANKOFA CHICAGO, which was sponsored by the Illinois Arts Council. Since its debut, this film has already received numerous awards, including “Best Educational Film” from Cannes World Film Festival (June 2021), the “Outstanding Achievement Award” from the Black Swan International Film Festival, and “Best Educational Film” from Druk International Film Festival (October 2021). This quickly earned success inspired her to turn SANKOFA CHICAGO into a full-blown docuseries.
Presently in the pre-production stage, SANKOFA CHICAGO: THE UNTOLD sheds light on curriculum-based education for the Social Sciences and History in the Chicago Public School District as well as their integration of Black history and other ethnic group’s histories.
When it comes to giving back to the Black community and serving as role model for the youth (her two sons especially), Vanessa’s determination is boundless. That being said, she is also the behind-the-scenes Creator, Director, Writer, and Cinematographer of a web-series called Your Kid Professors that provides children with a fun and engaging way to learn more about Black history.
Prior to that, Vanessa Page Wright was the Director of a documentary thesis project called Big Ten Athletes. Another multi-award-winning film that also aired on an ABC affiliate station, it featured prominent former NFL and NBA athletes from The Ohio State University.