On Spending Time with the Slavery Detective of the South
It’s common knowledge that, today, racism — and an intolerance for those who’re different from “us” — remains on the rise in America; look through any of your news sources for a plethora of examples. And yet, the origins of this hatred is still debated. Animosity towards African Americans, for example, is easily traceable for some; for others, slavery is just old news — a thing that has nothing to do with the injustices that occur every single day. But history isn’t far behind us; we can learn multitudes from those who have lived through it, who are still waiting to heal.
A recent film from Vice dives into the lives behind some of America’s last sharecropping farms, which forced black southerners to labor against their will until as late as 1963 — the same period during which the Civil Rights Movement was underway. We spoke with Akil Gibbons, host of the film, about his experience following a Louisiana-based slavery detective, Antoinette Harrell, who tracks down cases of slavery.
Brittany Washington: How did you and your producers, Michelle Leung and Justin Fornal, discover Antoinette and her work as a slavery detective?
Akil Gibbons: Michelle and Justin worked together on a documentary in New Mexico called “Inside an Apache Rite of Passage Into Womanhood.” Michelle’s a friend of mine and told me about the work they were doing, and mentioned that Justin had contact with a genealogist featured in a 2007 People magazine article, “The Last Slaves of Mississippi.” I read it in disbelief, learning the story of the Wall family, held as slaves all the way through the ‘60s. It also mentioned Antoinette and how she uncovered these truths in the deep south.
BW: For some, slavery feels like something from many centuries ago, and the further away it feels, the quicker the lessons begin to slip away. But this film illustrates just how recent the institution of slavery was. Why is this a story that needed to be told in this societal moment?
AG: Yes, when understanding slavery as an institution of the past, it is common knowledge that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime,” so I always saw America’s system of mass incarceration as the legacy of slavery and racial subjugation in modern American society. It wasn’t until this project that I’ve come so close to the realities of chattel slavery on plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi, on the inventory receipts that had names of families held in bondage, and of course to the confederate monuments and history everywhere. There have been a lot of conversations in the media around the symbolism of the Confederate flag, of this history that we share, and of the value of black lives in America, so this story really ties those topics in a powerful short film.
BW: How did you approach filming Karsen? He reminds me of plenty of people I grew up with in Texas; the niceties are always omnipresent. What were the challenges of filming with him?
AG: When I was researching Antoinette’s current investigations, I learned about the relationship between Donald and Karsten on the Ballground Plantation. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, I’ve interacted with plenty of people who share views like Karsten, who feel pride in the confederacy and southern heritage. However, being on his plantation where slaves once worked (and Donald still does) brought a whole new intensity to this reality. When we first met Donald, both he and Antoinette were afraid that “the boss man” might see us, so I assumed we weren’t going to be able to get an interview with Karsten. Justin Fornal worked his magic, though, and convinced Karsten to participate — which was incredible. I really felt we needed the perspective of someone who had directly benefited from the history of these plantations as a white land owner, since everyone we had interviewed was black and economically marginalized. I walked into his home wanting to make him as comfortable as possible — to have an open and honest conversation about the history we both share — and I think, ultimately, that while it was one of the most uncomfortable interviews of my life, he really balanced the story we were trying to tell.
BW: One of the more striking parts of the film happens about seven minutes in, when you’re talking to Arthur Wall about what was brewing in other parts of the country around the time of the Civil Rights movement. His fear is palpable, and profoundly honest — as is your reaction. You don’t shy away from expressing your emotions as you process this story. What’s your take on “objectivity” (or a detached demeanor) as a necessary tool for journalism?
AG: Personally, when doing interviews, I feel like you, as the interviewer, need to make yourself as vulnerable as you’re asking your interviewee to be. That’s the way I try to build a feeling of trust and honesty in our discussions, especially when we’re addressing deep-seated trauma. This particular interview was the most powerful and emotionally intense of my career. I found that my own traumas were exposed within that conversation—the horrors of the experiences that align with my DNA — but ones that I never came truly face-to-face with until I spoke with Arthur. Objectivity is a term that’s thrown around a lot in journalism but is really a test of integrity to share and tell a story honestly and factually. I believe I displayed my journalistic integrity during the interview with Arthur in a way in which people who don’t share our skin color can feel the true pain of what black people have been experiencing in America.
BW: Were there any notable parts of the story that were left out of the final cut?
AG: Yeah, there were a couple of interviews and characters who had to pick cotton to help their sharecropping family members. The most striking story that I think was left out of the final cut was Antoinette’s work around the Dozier School in Florida — a notoriously brutal reform school that used child labor and brutalized, raped, and even killed several children. We weren’t able to include this part of her work, but one of the men who survived this school is featured on a phone call with Antoinette in the beginning of the piece.
BW: Many newsrooms and their staff endorse diversity and inclusion initiatives, supporting the need to combat a homogeneity of viewpoints and foster more work that reflect the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of the U.S. What’s your take on how far they have come?
AG: We all have valuable perspectives in understanding our world together and without diversity we don’t give an accurate perspective to our shared experiences in society. I think, ultimately, that newsrooms directly benefit by diversifying their viewpoints and including different perspectives, but as we see in the media, there is a large influence of branding and marketing particular viewpoints — whether it be political, social, or cultural — to specific demographics in the corporate media industry.
BW: Tell us about your filmmaking trajectory. What led you to where you are now?
AG: As a kid, I always loved movies and was drawn to the medium as a way of expressing myself and exploring social issues that I felt were underrepresented. Specifically, growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I felt that our history of Civil Rights was taught from a myopic perspective and dreamed of having the opportunities to explore these subjects myself. Today, luckily, it’s easier to make a film than ever before and share it with a wide range of people through the internet — which made Vice an ideal place for me to work. Before Vice, I worked on films that addressed the prison industrial complex, FBI surveillance and entrapment, and the school-to prison pipeline.
BW: You’ve also worked as an educator, designing curricula and organizing outreach campaigns. Can you speak about the intersection between filmmaking and education?
AG: Filmmaking is a very powerful medium that incorporates perspective and context as tools for the viewer to understand and relate to the issues presented in each story. And I apply that same truth to education, especially when it comes history and Civil Rights in America. This film looks at the history and identity of America, as African-Americans have been systematically erased. Meanwhile, my first documentary was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” and I started it while working as a middle-school tutor in the city of Holyoke while attending Hampshire College. My students at that time were facing a segregated school system, gang violence, and a very powerful drug economy — so I worked with community leaders, teachers, activists, and educational organizations to create a curriculum and film called “Paper City: Stop the School to Prison Pipeline,” designed to educate youth about the the school-to-prison pipeline and counteract it. This project taught me that, beyond the technical aspects of filmmaking, it’s really important to consider the impact of one’s work and how it can be purposed for intended audiences.
BW: What’s next?
AG: I recently flew down to Dallas with Vice to cover a story involving a black activist, Rakem Balogun, who was incarcerated for five months in federal prison after having his home raided by the FBI’s domestic terrorist squad based on a misdemeanor violation from over ten years ago. This story is important because he’s said to be the first “Black Identity Extremist” to be tried by the FBI, which refers to a leaked assessment from the government that revealed modern black activism against police brutality as a threat for domestic terrorism.The history of black activism and the FBI is a treacherous one, most notoriously through the FBI’s Counterintelligence (CoINTELPRO) program, which, during the Civil Rights Movement, targeted various activists and groups to disrupt and intimidate communities, even using extreme tactics like assassinations and false imprisonments. In this piece, we explored the case of Rakem Balogun and how his activism ultimately led to being targeted by the FBI, and if this new “Black Identity Extremist” assessment is truly a CoINTELPRO 2.0 in modern day America.