Eavesdropping for Effect

I haven’t written anything about the Trayvon Martin murder, because I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said.  TNC’s been powerful on this, and I found James Fallows‘ take exactly on point, and what’s been said here speaks for me as well.  If I have any thought it is that if this isn’t our Emmet Till moment, we’re even more desolate as a society than I had feared on my worst nights. (And yes, Charlie Pierce went there, but I was thinking along this line before reading him. It’s hardly an unlikely remembrance.)

Yesterday, though, I couldn’t help but think about Martin’s death after one session of  a conference on the future of documentary.  There, I got the chance to hear, and later to talk to two of the collaborators behind Question Bridge — co-founder Chris Johnson and one of his colleagues, Bayeté Ross Smith.

That project turns on a deceptively simple idea:* find Black men with a question they want another Black man to answer, someone they may not know, someone of a different age, class, location, experience. Have them ask whatever it is while staring straight into a video camera.  The film makers then bring those questions to other men — strangers turned into confidants, who answer.  Again, they speak straight into the lens — or rather, through the camera directly to both the questioner and any eavesdroppers, you, me, whoever decides to click “play.

Here’s a sample:

<div align=”center”><iframe src=”http://player.vimeo.com/video/24180658?title=0&amp;byline=0&amp;portrait=0″ width=”400″ height=”225″ frameborder=”0″ webkitAllowFullScreen mozallowfullscreen allowFullScreen></iframe></div>

There are a couple of things to note about the project from in the context of a new media conference.  The first is that this  is incredibly simple film making, as noted above, but that simplicity highlights the rigor of the craft involved, the meticulous attention to what its creators wanted to achieve as an aesthetic (and hence rhetorically) powerful piece of work. Think sonnets:  when you have fewer elements and more formal constraints, whatever you do right or wrong is there for all to see.  Put this another way, as I often preach to my students:  high production values do not mean necessarily expensive production.  It merely means you’ve thought out what you intend to do with great care long before you ever say, “turn over.”

Here’s another taste of the work, from a variant of the project intended explicitly for use in educational settings:

<div align=”center”><iframe src=”http://player.vimeo.com/video/27258233?title=0&amp;byline=0&amp;portrait=0″ width=”400″ height=”225″ frameborder=”0″ webkitAllowFullScreen mozallowfullscreen allowFullScreen></iframe></div>

But back to Trayvon Martin.

Certainly, there’s nothing directly linking this project to that tragedy…except, as one of the two presenters yesterday said (I think it was Bayeté, and I paraphrase from memory), that such events are part of the fabric of Black male experience, part of the atmosphere in which Black men move.

In that context, Question Bridge has an explicit mission:  to enable Black men to speak out loud about the experiences and emotions that frame their daily lives.  Big stuff — like the blueprint clip above, or seemingly small (though, I suspect, not really so) matters like the one raised here.  Obviously, when a 17 year old kid is shot down, and the police do worse than nothing, that’s clearly a circumstance in which plenty of questions and answers will resonate — those already asked, and those to come.

Question Bridge is up front and center on this core goal: it aims to connect Black men with each other to address core questions of identity across all the barriers of distance and difference.  But, of course, by its very form as a web/museum/school/socially mediated and sourced effort, it invites others in.  It’s a triangle, built on asymmetries of time and place, questioner at a remove from his respondent, both separated from anyone else in the world who chooses to listen in…all of which adds up to a conversation that can only take place in a documented, enwebbed world.

And speaking now as what I obviously am, a middle-aged white man living a life of great good fortune (so far and mostly), what is likely obvious becomes more so:  there are lots of conversations that I would want to have, that I think our society, our culture needs to have, that in the ordinary course of the way Americans live now are vanishingly unlikely to take place.  But at Question Bridge, they do.  Of course, the exchanges constructed by the artist-film makers involved are just that:  made works of documentary art, constructed out of a whole hierarchy of choices made within the project — and hence anything but a live exchange, with all of the chance and serendipity of face to face talk.

But so what? Or rather, that’s the point.

This work entrains me, anyone, in a chain of thought and reaction, question, answer, argument, that if I were actually in the room would not happen.  And if there is anything to take from Obama Derangement Syndrome, from the seeming mainstreaming of dog whistle racism (and the old fashioned kind) — from Trayvon Martin’s death with its sudden, horrible reminder that possession of skittles can be a capital offense in these United States — then it is that one of the hardest and most vital tasks out there is to allow words that would not otherwise be uttered or heard to find voice and listeners across this wide world.

I don’t want to overclaim.  No video is going to approximate the job of living someone else’s life, and as the men of Question Bridge point out, that’s just as true within a group as varied as Black men as it is outside that particular cut of identity.  But speaking as both a guy living in America right now and as a someone who tries to work with the craft of documentary to shift people’s minds, I have to say that this is one impressive project, a genuinely innovative and (to me, at least) deeply effective use of our new tools to braid human connections that did not exist before they formed in this space.

And with that, I’ll leave you with one last video — the project explainer and pitch:

<div align=”center”><iframe src=”http://player.vimeo.com/video/26785858?title=0&amp;byline=0&amp;portrait=0″ width=”400″ height=”225″ frameborder=”0″ webkitAllowFullScreen mozallowfullscreen allowFullScreen></iframe></div>

*recalling, as Richard Feynman put it, that “simple” — or “elementary,” as the physicist put it in the context of an “elementary demonstration” of a proof –does not mean easy. Rather, it means that “very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence.”

Cross posted at The Inverse Square Blog.

19 replies
  1. 1
    David Koch says:

    Jan Brewer says the blacks in the video make her feel threatened.

  2. 2
    Karen says:

    When Obama won the election, gun and ammo sales didn’t skyrocket for nothing and as I was listening to the 911 call where Zimmerman basically says that he sees a black kid who doesn’t belong there and they always get away (plus some racist epithets) the first thing I thought was, under those circumstances where you don’t have to prove the threat, just being black was threat enough, Zimmerman could have shot Obama and claimed self-defense. And I had to learn to stay away from the comments on articles when I saw such gems like Treyvon was probably dressed like a “gangsta thug” “black people kill white people all the time” and that was some of the nicer ones. Basically, I think what happened here blows the idea that racism no longer exists out of the water and then some.

  3. 3
    BGinCHI says:

    Great post, Tom. The Question Bridge project is really useful for classrooms. My wife and another colleague do a Re-Thinking Race & Gender summer course and I am strongly suggesting this for them.

    I hope Trayvon’s death isn’t wasted (if that makes sense). If it helps add to some progress and less violence in this country, then it will have come to something.

    Such a sad thing and so fucking terrible that people would support the laws and processes that led to it.

  4. 4
    Luthe says:

    Ok, question for commentariat: Would it be awkward for me, a Hispanic female, to send this to the black men of my acquaintance? This list includes my boss and two professors, one of which will be grading me at the end of the semester. I think it’s an important thing to share, but I don’t want to be presumptuous.

  5. 5
    BGinCHI says:

    @Luthe: I’m a white dude, but I am a Prof. I think as long as you are clear about why you’re sending it, then it’s OK. It’s a provocative and interesting project, and they might find it useful. Not sure how it would be offensive.

    But maybe others will see something I don’t.

    I’d like to see them do the series with black women too, btw.

  6. 6
    Brachiator says:

    If I have any thought it is that if this isn’t our Emmet Till moment

    The problem is that for black people, it is not a moment, and not a moment that has passed.

    For most white people, it’s a movie plot, a Hunger Games, that you can be hunted down and killed, with your killer blithely claiming self defense.

    For Trayvon Martin, this was a no-win situation.

    A white man with a gun chased him down. What was Martin supposed to do? How could he have escaped? The clear belief of a lot of white conservatives is that Martin, in public, doing nothing, should have yielded to Zimmerman’s authority, just on Zimmerman’s say so. Zimmerman had a right to stand his ground, to fight, to shoot to kill, to do anything he wanted.

    Martin had no right at all.

    Some conservatives are eager to repeal the Civil Rights Amendments, going back to the 14th. Perhaps they would like to re-invoke the Dred Scott Decision, and Justice Taney’s chilling conclusion about black people:

    They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior race, and altogether unfit to associate with the white races, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect

    From the call Zimmerman made:

    According to police, Zimmerman spotted Martin walking through the community on the teen’s way back from a convenience store. The teenager was visiting his father’s fiance, who lived in the gated community. Zimmerman told a police dispatcher that Martin had his hand at his waistband and had something in his hand.
    “This guy looks like he is up to no good — he is on drugs or something,” Zimmerman said.

    Zimmerman did not believe that Martin had any rights, certainly no right to life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness.

  7. 7
    greennotGreen says:

    @BGinCHI: Actually, I’d like to see them do this kind of series with everyone. I’d like to think the sense of intimacy engendered by the single person speaking into a camera would illicit something more enlightening than one gets from general conversation – or blog comments, for that matter. I found this project fascinating.

  8. 8
    Miki says:

    Thanks for this.

    And thanks to the Question Bridge for what it is: it “radically transform[s] how people view black male consciousness.”

    I feel like my brain and heart just stretched.

  9. 9
    Ruckus says:

    Like BGinCHI I am a white dude so I also don’t have the perspective of living while black in america. But given that I find a lot to listen to and a lot to learn from this project.
    If nothing else just having the voice would seem to me to be a great thing, something that seems to be missing in our daily lives. I can see someone taking your info the wrong way but I’ll bet far more people would like that you thought enough of them to think they might like Question Bridge.
    Tom, this is a great project. Thanks.

  10. 10
    Joseph Nobles says:

    Brachiator: I love your post, but disagree in one point. Trayvon Martin had rights. Those rights were violated, but he had them. Governments are set up to protect the rights of people under their jurisdiction, and forcing America down the road toward protecting more and more classes of people has been a long and difficult journey. But Trayvon Martin had rights regardless of whether George Zimmerman or the police department respected them. It’s up to us to make sure the violation of his rights get the punishment due.

  11. 11
    p.a. says:

    Just to take a little bit of a twist on the Martin execution murder apparent suicide (h/t McArdle), since Zimmerman is sooo obviously not a racist nutbag, and since he is legally armed at all times, any pedestrians, of any color, should, if approached by Zimmerman anywhere within shouting distance, be in fear of their life. I believe under current Florida law said pedestrians would be within their rights to…

  12. 12
    Guster says:

    I want to send this to all the whites of my acquaintance. I’m white, and I live in an overwhelming white area, and I have no meaningful exposure to black men. Which almost never occurs to me. Until I do, and then I realize how impoverished my experience is.

  13. 13
    ksmiami says:

    I hope that the Sanford PD, Zimmerman and every single person that contributed to the ridiculous SYG laws gets implicated and thrown in jail for this travesty. It won’t bring Trayvon back, but it will clear out the maggots.

    I still hate the south – bane of our existence and progress

  14. 14
    Marktoon says:

    I say this as a guy with a per-existing health condition so Health care really was a big f****** deal for me. But I think the best thing about Obama is he makes it possible for a room of people of color and whites to work together for OFA. It’s the most racially diverse group I’ve ever participated in. And I’m in the politically correct Bay Area progressive movement. It makes the work seem like we’re really making America happen. It is a wonderful experience for a fifty year old to have which is a really sad statement about our country.

  15. 15
    Wily Jalapeño says:


    I’m a white dude and a prof too, but also Latino. I agree with what BGinCHI said: provided you give some context for what you’re sending, and why you’d like them to see it, then it should be fine. I very much appreciate students sending me stuff that they think I would find interesting, especially if it’s germane to our class.

    Let us know what the reaction is!

    And Tom – this project look absolutely riveting, in part because (as you note) of its elegance in simplicity. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  16. 16
    ExurbanMom says:

    @Wily Jalapeño: I’m also a teacher, though a white female, and I absolutely love it when students send me interesting things. Like Wily above, I think you only have to give the prof an idea of why you’re sending it.

  17. 17
    slag says:

    Great post, Tom, on a great project!

  18. 18
    Another Halocene Human says:

    Had an interesting convo at work. Coworker not from Orlando area but familiar. She has a suspicion that unless Zimmerman is put under protective custody soon, he may “disappear”.

    Also that others may become proxy punching bags for his perceived (well, real, but their perceived connection to it) crimes. Not sure I’m convinced of that one, actually. (As for stirring up distrust between races, I believe that, yes.)

    I’m just glad the Feds are in it now because some crooked coppers are going DOWN for obstruction of justice. Oh, not today, not tomorrow, but just check back in a few years.

    I hope they find some crooked county and town officials too. I will just DIE when I can read over some juicy indictments!

  19. 19
    NCDave says:


    For most white people, it’s a movie plot, a Hunger Games, that you can be hunted down and killed, with your killer blithely claiming self defense.

    probably the best thing I’ve ever seen you write

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