It took Shirley a long time to say yes to the interview, and part of that was probably due to her discomfort. I was also a first-time filmmaker, and in fact, what she told somebody else was that I was so persistent in my keeping in touch to prod her into this that she finally just said yes to get rid of me. She never quite thought that I would actually make the film. [laughs]
So she respected your persistence just as you respected her’s, in a sense.
Yes, I would say it came full circle. When the film was completed and it got into Sundance, we had no idea that would happen. It was just one of the most exciting and wonderful moments to be validated in that way. We received most of our funding from grants and PBS, and because it was a film without narration and it had graphics, there were some executives who thought, ‘This isn’t the way that we tell stories.’ After you get into Sundance, people don’t have that fear anymore.
Now that the film is streamable on Prime Video, what do you hope the role of this film could be during this pivotal moment?
There’s something for almost everyone to take away from Chisholm’s story, but in this moment, I think that her ability to be true to herself and to engage fully in her environment, which was a political environment, is a huge takeaway. There are women and women of color who can be reminded of that by watching her. I also think that our political system is broken, and seeing somebody who is so free to be herself, regardless of the criticism, and who builds her community in such a way that her work gets facilitated, is so important. Most people like to think of her as this lone character, but she always had a husband. She was Mrs. Chisholm, not Ms. Chisholm, and she had her friends, her community and her allies who helped support her in the work that she was doing. So she wasn’t out there on her own, and sometimes that’s how we portray people like her in our historical retelling. Having community is a really important component of “paving the way,” as she liked to say.
The reason that the film is available now is because it was funded mostly by grants and it aired on PBS, which means that I own it, primarily. So through Sundance and their support of filmmakers and distribution, I had cleared rights in order for that film to live in perpetuity because it was an important piece of history, and I was able to raise the money to do that. If I had made it for someone else, it would be in their library and they wouldn’t be thinking about it. As filmmakers, especially now, we’re often not able to think about the business side of things, since we are always hustling to make a living. Sometimes we forget about the larger repercussions of the stories we tell and who owns them. I don’t think history should be owned by corporate interests, and that’s one of the things I was able to learn from the Ken Burns school of filmmaking. He’s got a great crew of people at Florentine Films.