“We Need to Question Our Comfort”: Q&A with Director Mignotae Kebede

Kebede’s Debut “What Happened to Chocolate City?” Is Now Screening

Image courtesy of Mignotae Kebede. (https://zonekid.github.io/Chocolate-City/#/gallery)

D.C. was once a city known as a place where Black people could and did thrive, so much so that it was dubbed Chocolate City.

This is isn’t the case today. Since 1970 D.C’s Black population has dropped from 71 percent to 48 percent and a report from the Urban Institute showed that the average Black household has a net worth of $3,500, compared to $284,000 for the average White household in the district. How did we get here?

A new documentary titled What Happened to Chocolate City? explores the history of DC through three generations of DC natives: John Russell, who was working on H Street during the 1968 riots; Mike Perry, a returning citizen who lived through the crack epidemic and mass incarceration; and the precocious 13-year-old Zurina Witherspoon, whose life is being changed by the rapid gentrification of her community.

The film had its initial screening this past June at the Lincoln Theater. A couple weeks later I sat down with Mignotae Kebede, the director of What Happened to Chocolate City?, to learn more about her and her work.

Why did you decide to make this film?

I moved here eight years ago for school and I had heard it was Chocolate City. I grew up in the suburbs of LA, in one of the few Black houses in our entire neighborhood so I wanted to make sure so I wanted to make sure I was in a different environment. Once I moved here, I immediately started asking myself where is Chocolate City? This is not it.

Basically four years later, I decided if I were to stay in DC I wanted a job that would allow me to know the real DC. I took a job as a development manager at a nonprofit that serves Black boys and young men from wards 7 and 8 through the arts. Within my first two months, I learned more about DC that I had in my four years being at GWU.

That scared me because as someone whose background is in anthropology and development, and as a progressive thinker, I was able to navigate living in the city for four years ignorant to all of this. So, I wondered how many other people lived here not knowing the history and the realities of people who built this city and that’s what inspired the project.

You’ve said that through your work with a local DC nonprofit you’ve experienced the “binary composition” of DC. Could you explain what you mean by that?

I think what was difficult for me at that time was I was still learning a lot about DC history, and the present realities of Black people through that job, I recognize my privilege in all this because I would get off around 7 o’clock and meet my friends for happy hour or something.

I think that’s when really, I would see that juxtaposition. It became hard to leave that behind and then immerse myself into living the millennial life in the city. I didn’t necessarily want to be the annoying friend that always brings what I see in my job up but it was something that I could never erase. I started to ask, what do I do in this situation?

Why did you frame this story through three generations?

My film is told through the working class lens, so that’s very important to know. At first, I had written the film to focus on DC as the main character.it was going to be a four-part story with each quadrant being a story, but a filmmaker advised me that it is easier to tell stories through people and that got me thinking.

You know, lineage is so important in any community, especially in Black communities. You have this self-sufficient Black community, despite the PTSD of segregation and slavery, this community created the strongest Black community in the country. What was the turning point? This brought the story first to the 1968 riots, then mass incarceration and today the impact of gentrification.

I’m West African and being Black in America it can sometimes feel like I’m co-opting a narrative that is not mine. You’re East African, did your ethnicity play any role in the project?

I really wanted my first film to be focused on the self-segregation throughout the Black community. Growing up and seeing how my parent’s generation of immigrants tried so hard to distinguish themselves from that form of Blackness and having to understand your children are looked at as the same in America because they don’t see ethnicity or nationality. I think I was really lucky that it didn’t hinder my project as much. However, the Habesha community in DC largely immigrated here in the 80s in a time when DC was going through a lot of hardships. A lot of them bought up a lot of land which they still own. I think when we talk about ownership with businesses and homes, my ethnicity came up a lot.

I did a couple events with Ethiopian organizations out here where we showed parts of the film and had a discussion. I think it was therapeutic in the sense that I got to work with the Habesha community out here to rebuild their understanding of Blackness and really work to bridge this gap that exists.

What were the challenges you faced as a first-time filmmaker?

One of the biggest challenges was funding. A lot of grants for first-time filmmakers are for first-time filmmakers with a background in film. So, they require a portfolio and this was my first entrance into the film world, so that was one of the largest obstacles (and still is).

What surprised you during this process?

Image courtesy of Mignotae Kebede. (https://zonekid.github.io/Chocolate-City/#/gallery)

I was warned a lot before I brought cameras out that it was going to be difficult to get people to talk. What surprised me was that once I approached the community with the idea of the film and started talking to them about it is how literally everyone was so supportive of it

At first, I was very nervous that I wasn’t from DC, and I made it very clear that I wasn’t from here from the beginning. I wanted to remove my identity from the film so another thing that really surprised me was the benefit of not being from here, so I was able to go to every single neighborhood. We’re actually still moving things around and we want to reflect how people from different neighborhoods came together in this process

What do you want people to take away from the film?

I met with someone who wrote a piece referring to gentrification as urban imperialism and I believe that’s what it needs to be called. I think when we use the word gentrification it softens the blow and I know it’s already a controversial term.

I think the transient community needs to get more involved with DC, needs to begin questioning and not just take things for what they are. I think we as Americans oftentimes just accept a lot of things. I might get in trouble for saying something like that but we don’t want to question our comfort and we need to question our comfort.

What can we expect from you next?

I want to do a full series on DC. That has been my goal for the past year and a half. There’s so much that needs to be covered and it’s such a nuanced story that I can’t fit into the film so I really want to do a docuseries and either pitch this as a pilot or independent film with a spin-off series.