Changing Same: The Untitled Racial Justice Project

Dir. Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson
A collaboration with Scatter, MIT Open Documentary Lab, POV, and The Fledgling Fund

The lives of all Americans have been profoundly shaped by the era of slavery, the racial terror that continued from the end of Reconstruction until World War II, to the era of Jim Crow and racial apartheid that produced the civil rights movement, and now the era of mass incarceration. Too often we have appropriately celebrated black achievement and triumph in the face of these obstacles without exploring the very difficult reality of racial inequality and subordination. Our partner, the Equal Justice Initiative, believes a deeper understanding of this history is necessary for us to achieve truth and reconciliation across races that overcoming historic injustice requires.

Changing Same: The Untitled Racial Justice Project (Working Title) explores how our present day lived experiences of racial violence and discrimination reflect a long insufficiently acknowledged history of white racial oppression that dates back to slavery and continues to adapt itself to different social pressures leaving fundamental structures unchanged in our daily lives. People from all communities are still forced to navigate their lives under fear of reprisal and violence. Can we make the connections of how today’s violence is barely different from the lynching of the past and slavery before that, and how many of us continue to live under the threat of terror? Envisioning a different future for our nation depends on that acknowledgement and understanding.

Short Film Series

On October 26, 1934, Claude Neal was brutally lynched by a group of white men who stormed the county jail in Brewton Alabama where Neal was being held after being accused of the murder of a 20 year-old white woman, Lola Cannady.

The story of Claude Neal’s death ran in newspapers from New York to Los Angeles, detailing how a small band of men killed him, and how a mob mutilated his corpse. They called it a spectacle lynching, and historians say it was perhaps the worst act of torture and execution in 20th century America. The killing became Florida’s shame. Yet today, no physical markers exist to remind us of the brutal history and reflect on the legacy of that racial terror. Instead, people from both sides of the track try to bury and forget, thinking it might help. But the ghost of Claude Neal remains and hovers over the community. Death threats persist for those who stray from the unwritten rules and people continue to mind their place in order to survive.

Every October 26 Lamar Wilson, a native of Marianna, Florida who now teaches English at the University of Alabama Birmingham, comes home to run a very particular marathon to commemorate the lynching of Claude Neal. Lamar retraces the route Claude Neal took on that fateful night where he ended up hanged on the courthouse grounds.

Virtual Reality Experience

The Untitled Racial Justice Project brings the user on a journey of time-travel to contemporary sites along the last route of Claude Neal, who was brutally hunted down and lynched by a mob of white men in 1934 Marianna, a town in the middle of the Florida panhandle.

In this VR experience, the user accompanies the ghost of Claude Neal to retrace the route and meet his descendant community today, generations later, as well as his ancestors, in the era of slavery. It’s a respectful, haunting, story infused with magical realism, about the uninterrupted cycle of history of white racial oppression — past and present.

But this VR experience also lifts the user into a visually poetic speculative afro-futurism, dreaming a destiny of healing for our collective humanity.

The research and development phase of the short film series and VR experience was developed with the support and collaboration of the Sundance Skoll Stories of Change and the Equal Justice Initiative.

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