Beyond Empathy

by Sonya Childress, Director of Partnerships and Engagement, Firelight Media

The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.”

-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Over the last 15 years I have read an inordinate amount of documentary film proposals for my work. So much so that I’ve come to expect to come across the line when the filmmaker is asked, ‘why does this story need to be told?’, and the filmmaker inevitably responds, “to put a human face on (insert marginalized group here)”. And in one line, the wheels of the empathy machine begin to turn.

The notion that film holds unique power to build understanding, connection, and indeed, empathy, for others is not a new one. In fact an entire industry has been built over the last decade on the premise that documentary films are particularly useful tools at sparking change in beliefs and actions.

But there is something implicit in the desire to build empathy that is based on the assumption that subjects of documentary films are so foreign to the audience that they must be transported into the world of this person or culture in order to empathize with their plight. This “othering” of the film subject is fraught with old notions of the colonial gaze, but it is, not surprisingly, the fuel that powers the empathy machine.

When empathy is the dominant goal, the filmmaker (or impact producer) positions film to “humanize” the subjects by presenting them as worthy of empathy, compassion, understanding — even rights. More often than not these people who need humanizing are the marginalized in our country: queer folks, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, etc. The hope is that audiences will connect emotionally with the woman who crosses a border to provide a better life for her child, or transgender teen who comes out to his family, or formerly incarcerated man who cares for his ailing mother. In essence, we want the audience to witness the film subjects behaving “just as we do”, so they are “humanized” before our eyes. But let’s be honest here, the “we” that always goes unspoken, is white America. And in order to present these “others” as human we need to present them in ways that are less foreign, less threatening, and frankly, more relatable to white Americans.

When we use film to build empathy for marginalized groups, we normalize whiteness by confirming the notion that whiteness is the lens through which others are viewed, understood and judged. Instead of naming white supremacy, or the standardization of whiteness, the empathy model often unintentionally reinforces it, and avoids the harder task of challenging the cultural myopia that undergirds biases towards marginalized groups.

Typically, the empathy frame challenges audiences to reconsider their preconceived notions about individuals and shift their opinions and behaviors (“Now that I see that immigrants just want a better life for their children as I do, I will treat the man who painted my home differently”). And while a change in perception is important, and, certainly the first step towards behavioral change, the overemphasis on attitudinal change towards individuals leaves less room for films that push audiences to grapple with the structures and systems that reinforce inequality.

Consider, for example the issue of mass incarceration. We have seen a rash of compelling character-driven films about men, women and children caught in the web of mass-incarceration over the last 5 years. One might argue that the cumulative impact of these narratives should amount to a measurable shift in perception on the African American and Latino communities that are disproportionately impacted by over-policing, unequal sentencing and over-incarceration (an impact assessment I would love to see, by the way). Add in a film like Ava DuVernay’s 13th and things get more interesting. The goal of 13th is not to humanize those caught in a racist system, but to expose the policies and narratives that provided scaffolding for the racist system. As such, the “aha” moment is quite different, and forces the viewer to confront the connection between their perceptions of criminality and their willingness to vote for tough-on-crime measures and policymakers, for example. What we often miss in character-driven films designed to build empathy towards individuals is an understanding of the structures and narratives that shape our attitudes and behaviors towards entire communities.

And frankly, this political climate demands new narratives.

Trump’s election painfully revealed the limits of appealing to white America’s empathy for groups that have been historically disenfranchised over their own (perceived) self-interest. It’s as if the past decade of using film to humanize the disenfranchised has been for naught. The mere threat of the loss of privilege that comes from whiteness is, it would seem, too much to overcome. As Toni Morrison suggested, “so scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

Cultivating empathy for those with less power or resources avoids challenging whiteness and the structural privilege that comes with it, and as scholar Robin D.G. Kelley astutely explains, “exposing whiteness for what it is — a foundational myth for the birth and consolidation of capitalism — is fundamental if we are to build a genuine social movement dedicated to dismantling the oppressive regimes of racism, heteropatriarchy, empire, and class exploitation that is at the root of inequality, precarity, materialism, and violence in many forms.”

The empathy frame also distracts us from more strategic uses of film: to validate and empower those who rarely see their experience on screen, to convene disconnected people and movements, and to build alliances and power. The power when we — the marginalized “others” — use film to speak to our own communities or across identity and issue silos to build common ground and strategize solutions. In this way, film still plays an important role in connecting groups who may see each other as different, but it does so with the baseline assumption that the film subjects are human, and do not need a film to assert that basic premise.

When film is used in this way the impact is categorically different, and we see that what lies beyond empathy is solidarity. The notion that our plight, and humanity, are intrinsically connected, and to create a better future I’ve got to get my hands dirty along with you.

When we brought our film about the 1961 Freedom Rides to DREAMers in 2011 they used the film to sharpen their tactics towards a reticent democratic administration and connect with the architects of that original movement for advice. And when we brought the story of the 1964 Freedom Summer to a coalition of young activists of color in 2014 it fueled their efforts to build electoral power in states facing unprecedented voter suppression like North Carolina and Ohio. What they saw in the story was a bridge to their own struggle, and a deeper connection with people whose efforts provided a useful roadmap to make real gains. Empathy was a given, solidarity was the lesson.

As we face political challenges that threaten the very fiber of our democracy we need clear language, honest intentions and courageous actions. When Mario Savio implored Berkeley students to put their bodies upon the gears of the machine, he was not asking his classmates to simply empathize with his struggle, but for them to question their privilege, sacrifice their comfort, and join him in the streets.

It is time those in the documentary film community concerned with social change move beyond using film to simply build empathy, and instead think about how film can serve the harder, messier, but ultimately more transformational work of building solidarity.

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