Alabama Filmmakers Tackle Systemic Racism with "Mobile in Black and White"

Excerpt from "Mobile in Black and White": Huggy Bear da Poet performs “Bama”

When Robert Gray and Joél Lewis, two educators at the University of South Alabama, set out to make their first documentary film, they chose an ambitious topic: systemic racism. Perhaps that’s why their collaboration, Mobile in Black and White, is now both a feature length documentary film and a four-part series of video segments used to encourage community conversation. I had the opportunity to meet up with them for a few questions after one of these segments aired at the Regional Justice Leadership Summit in Mobile, Alabama, this past April.

Ada McMahon: Talk about where you’re from and what inspired you to make the film.

Robert Gray: I got involved in this because it's an issue that's close to my heart, growing up in Alabama, and recognizing how even though people are less racist than they used to be, the racialized outcomes of people's lives are still just like they’ve always been, where we have inequities in the education, criminal justice, and health care – and pretty much any other – system in our society.

Joél Lewis: Yes, I’m from Mobile. I grew up here, grew up in the public schools here. I attended the University of South Alabama for three of my four degrees. So I’ve been here most of my life. It’s really an honor to be able to help our community be able to see some disparities and how we should go about looking at them and making our community better.

Ada McMahon: Is there a moment from making the film that really struck you on a heart level about why this is so important? Whether it’s hope for addressing structural racism or the need for addressing it, something that really hit you in the production process.

Joél Lewis: I think I’ve grown so much working on this project. There’s so much I’ve learned about myself, about individuals around me and my community. As for one part of the film – it’s in one of the segments – there’s a consultant out of Atlanta and he talks about the walking escalator at the airport. And how we are one of three people, we are either standing on it and just allowing things to continue as they have, we are walking fast on it – which means that there are people who want disparity, who actually are perpetuating it – and then there are people who walk against it. And so we are really encouraging people to stand up, have dialogue and actually speak against the disparities that we have in our community.

Robert Gray: I think one of the special things about this project is how there are so many nationally known people in this field that very willingly agreed to be on this film, made by people who never made a film before, didn’t have any credibility in that area. And yet, a lot of times it’s the local people that really get me. I’ve seen this film I don’t know how many hundreds of times, and yet when Huggy Bear’s doing “Bama,” there’s a part in there where I have to fight tearing up every time…

Ada McMahon: The film opens with your poem, Robert, which is about history, the day you were born, inheriting this legacy of white supremacy and structural racism. And then Joél, you have this deeply rooted history in Africatown. Can each of you speak a little bit to how you draw from history and your ancestors and how that informs your work?

Robert Gray: I was born, as the poem says, in 1965, almost exactly a month after Bloody Sunday in Selma, and I went to grad school at Michigan State. And it seems like anytime I go anywhere outside of Alabama, when people find out I’m from Alabama, they make all these assumptions about me. And so that has affected me in profound ways my whole life.

I was not in any way responsible for any of those things that Alabama’s famous for. And I’ve been around enough to know that Alabama’s not that much different than much other places in terms of interpersonal forms of racism, or structural forms of racism. But, just because I wasn’t responsible for it doesn’t meant that I’m not in some ways responsible for doing something about it. We inherited these historical issues and if we just pretend they’re not there, or if we just pretend that we’re not responsible for them, then they just keep hanging around and perpetuating. It’s important that we kind of wake up and say, we’ve come a long way but there’s still a lot of things that need to be done. And if we just wait on nothing to happen, then it will. 

Joél Lewis: Rob and I have grown in our relationship because we worked so much together on the film. One of the things I asked him was, “Hey, what’s changed since the beginning of the film to the end?” And he was like “You!” 

I’m a sixth generation descendant of Cudjoe Lewis, the last survivor of the slave ship The Clotilde. Growing up I learned about Cudjoe and what he did in the community, and one of the things he did was he helped the Africans who had settled there in Africatown be able to work with, talk with, and live with others in the community. And so, I really draw from who he was and what he meant to the community in terms of my inspiration for working on this project. Because it has been definitely a growth experience for me. I haven’t really been what we call a “champion” of this type of work in the past. So it was really great to be able to draw on who he was and what type of philosophy he had about his community and how he made it better. 

Ada McMahon: Any last words?

Joél Lewis: Join the conversation. 

For more information visit You can watch segments of the film there and use the contact form to get in touch with Ms. Lewis and Mr. Gray. Mobile in Black and White is on Facebook here.