On Wednesday, Oct. 20, Trexler Library and the offices of Multicultural Life, Community Engagement and Religious and Spiritual Life came together to bring the Muhlenberg community another session of the VOICES series, which facilitates conversations with student leaders.
This event focused on Amira Jackson ‘24 and her documentary entitled “Pittsburgh: The People,” which won first prize at the Anti-Racism Film Festival in Pittsburgh this past summer. Jackson is a double major in theatre and film studies.
The film opens with Jackson’s voice reciting a poem by Antwon Rose, a 17 year-old who was fatally shot by police in Pittsburgh in 2018. The poem opens with and repeats the phrase, “I am confused and afraid.” After some shots of scenery, the film shifts to a man dancing in front of a memorial for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old woman who was killed in her home in 2020. On one half of the body of the dancer, there are red and white handprints and he moves rigidly, appearing restricted. On the other half of the body, the movement is fluid and free.
The audience is then presented with three different perspectives on racism in Pittsburgh: one from Zora, a child; one from Ericka, a teenager; and one from Jerome, an adult. Jackson asks each of these individuals questions pertaining to racism, specifically racism in Pittsburgh. Zora shares how she is the only Black student in her class at her private school, Ericka talks about the gentrified neighborhoods of Pittsburgh and Jerome discusses exclusive bills and legislation and the ever present racism in the city.
“It was so unreal to spend my summer as a college student fighting for my life.”– Amira Jackson ’24
The film concludes with a statement about how Pittsburgh is full of significant problems for Black people, and how, in order to fix the problems facing marginalized communities, individuals must first listen to the people who are being discriminated against.
As the film ended, there was a stark silence as though every single person present was holding their breath. Jackson was met with overwhelming applause.
AJ Carraby-Jones ‘25 commented, saying, “I think it was an amazing film. I thought it was pretty inspiring especially since she is just getting into filmmaking, and I thought the message that she tried to portray was definitely the most important part of it.”
After the screening of the film, a talkback was held to discuss the film. Jackson was asked about her inspiration, and explained that she heard about the film festival, and “wanted to depict racism as something the audience discovers.” Jackson began the project as soon as she got home from school last spring.
Throughout the previous summer, Jackson witnessed and attended many protests for racial justice in Pittsburgh. “It was so unreal to spend my summer as a college student fighting for my life.” She wanted to take that surrealness and put it in the film.
She also explained the unique genre of the film: documentary fiction. This is where a filmmaker talks about true events, but depicts them in a fictional way. The fictional aspect of the film was the man dancing with the handprints on his body. Jackson discussed the significance of this image, explaining that the white handprints on his body symbolized white privilege, and the red handprints symbolized police brutality. She had instructed the dancer to dance more rigidly on the side of his body with the handprints, and more fluidly on the side without. This was to symbolize the true beauty that occurs when Black voices are not discriminated against and pushed aside.
“And for white students: your support means a lot. You have a lot of privilege, you have a lot of a say in what happens, so when you don’t use that privilege it’s automatically interpreted as you not supporting us.”– Amira Jackson ’24
Another important aspect of the film was the age differences of those interviewed and how those varying perspectives shed light on the different aspects of racism. Jackson sought to combine these experiences to form a comprehensive view of racism in Pittsburgh, one that acknowledged generational differences.
Jackson also discussed making space for marginalized voices to talk about important issues. This is Jackson’s goal in all of her art forms, and she wants “to create films that appreciate voices that are not heard, because these people matter.”
The main takeaway that Jackson sought to instill in her viewers was that racism is much more than slurs and police brutality; not only does it exist in legislation, but it is also a highly individualized and unique experience.
Jackson stated, “As a community and as a student body we have a lot of work to do… We can say we are going to be more inclusive and support Black lives, but what are we actually doing to bring that to life? And for white students: your support means a lot. You have a lot of privilege, you have a lot of a say in what happens, so when you don’t use that privilege it’s automatically interpreted as you not supporting us.”