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Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren of Field Studio (Photo by Julianne Tripp)
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Rev. Hattie Lawson, cast member of "An Outrage" (Photo courtesy Field Studio)
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McArthur Sonny Gray, cast member of "An Outrage" (Photo courtesy Field Studio)
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Thelma Dangerfield, cast member of "An Outrage" (Photo courtesy Field Studio)
In the decades spanning Reconstruction to the civil rights era, an excess of 4,000 black people were lynched in the United States, according to a recent report from the Equal Justice Initiative. Casting the horrors of one of America’s darkest practices through a camera’s lens is difficult work. How can a film bring awareness to the cruel injustice of lynching while also respecting the dignity of the victims, whose names we may never know? It’s a question husband-and-wife team Lance Warren and Hannah Ayers of Richmond-based documentary production company Field Studio tackle in their latest project, “An Outrage,” premiering at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., on March 11, and at Richmond’s Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia April 17. The event at the Black History Museum, presented in partnership with the Afrikana Independent Film Festival, includes a pre-screening discussion with Kimberly Wilson (whose ancestor is profiled in the film) and the filmmakers, led by local historian Dr. Lauranett Lee.
Richmond magazine: How long have you been making films together? When and how did Field Studio come about?
Lance Warren: We kind of stumbled into filmmaking. We started incubating Field Studio while I was working with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in [New York City’s Harlem neighborhood] in 2009. That same year, the director of [the University of Virginia’s] Virginia Center for Digital History asked us to help with a project on Vinegar Hill, formerly one of Charlottesville’s most prominent African-American communities, which was basically razed by urban renewal in the 1960s. The history of that place was all but lost. He wanted us to shoot a short documentary, and even though we’d never done one before, we said, "Sure!" We had been dating for about five months at this time [both laugh]. … So, we made a plan on the back of a napkin one night, and a year later, we had our first film. “That World Is Gone: Race and Displacement in a Southern Town” won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Short at the 2010 Virginia Film Festival.
RM: Your work examines the intersections of race, history and social justice; one project, Richmond Justice, delved into the justice system. Talk to me about that experience.
Hannah Ayers: When we moved here [in 2014], we realized that we didn’t know what the justice landscape looked like in Richmond. In 2016, we launched a yearlong project, where we interviewed 129 Richmonders whose lives were touched in some way by the justice system. We featured a different interview each week on the website [richmondjustice.org], along with portraits of the interviewees. The project was featured in an exhibition, “Richmond Justice,” that opened at the University of Richmond’s downtown campus gallery last month. It’s about understanding the justice system at a local level, and how it impacts all of us as a community.
RM: What inspired your new film, “An Outrage?”
Warren: Many things. We both studied history in school and have always been troubled by America’s record of exclusion and marginalization based on race, class and other social markers. … We were also unimpressed by media coverage of lynching in America; images of lynching victims often become “wallpaper” or b-roll in documentaries. So, we wanted to show how damaging, how traumatic lynching was not just to one person, but to whole families and communities. We started by honing in on a lynching in Virginia, but quickly expanded to other states because we saw that there was no “typical” lynching; men, women, kids, pregnant women — they were all lynched. It was a horrifying, far-reaching tool of terror. Ultimately, we interviewed six people at six locations where a lynching occurred. We covered 4,000 miles while shooting this film, and went through every Southern state except Florida. Family of the victims, activists, community members … appear in the film and talk about how the lynching impacted their lives and communities. [Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Deputy Director for Human Resources] Kimberly Wilson talks about being the great-niece of journalist John Mitchell Jr., publisher of The Richmond Planet newspaper. Mitchell was a staunch anti-lynching writer during an incredibly dangerous time for him to even talk about it. Historians like Isabel Wilkerson [Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration”] gave us context on why lynching was an impetus of The Great Migration, that people were literally fleeing the South in fear for their lives.
RM: What’s next?
Ayers: We’re in pre-production of a short doc on John Dabney [a formerly enslaved black caterer in Richmond in the 19th century]. For us, it’s about uncovering those stories that have yet to be told, and showing their relevancy today.