Commentary
By Jazmine Steele 1-17-2018

It’s not easy to forgive when you have been blatantly wronged, but that’s what California filmmaker A.J. Ali did after he went for a walk and was attacked by police. Ali created a new documentaryWalking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer, as a faithful effort to reconcile his painful experience.

The film highlights stories in communities around the United States where police have turned negative community interactions into positive ones using the power of forgiveness and love. In a world where justice sometimes feels at a distant grasp, Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. Is The Answer provides a refreshing reminder that the real power of restorative justice lies in the hands of ordinary people.

Sojourners talked with director and producer A.J. Ali about his film as a response to police brutality.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jazmine Steele, Sojourners: Explain your need to make this film?

A.J. Ali, filmmaker: This film — which took 4.5 years to make — started when I was racially profiled in my own community, stopped for walking down a street where an officer said they were stopping everyone who looked like they were not from this community. So that’s the unfortunate start. 

Unfortunately, it mirrors so many other instances of people being stopped just for going for a walk, going for a drive, going to work or being in a store. I got sick of it … I decided to tell the story.

Steele: How have you incorporated your Christian faith into making this film?

Ali: It’s very core, because my initial instinct as a man who had been hurt and just really feeling abused — I wanted to get back at them. That was my natural instinct … to hurt someone because they had hurt me.

…So at first I wanted to tell a story that was going to get a lot of people fired and basically the proverbial “tear down the system.” … I tried very hard to make that kind of a film for two and a half years. I was angry during that time. I was frustrated, and I kept seeing more black men being killed and black women losing their lives, and the frustration kept mounting.

Two years later, I was sitting on a beach in Hawaii. I had just finished a 50-state journey for the wellness program that I do, and that was the last stop. I was soul-searching about this film and why it wasn’t getting traction, and why people kept dying around me, and I felt the Holy Spirit on that beach in Hawaii saying, “You’ve gotta do it my way. You’ve got to let go of that anger, fear, and frustration, and trust me.” And I did. I let all that stuff wash away.

And that’s when “love is the answer” became the core of this film. That’s when it started to take root, and started to move forward.

Steele: Why is it important for faith communities to mobilize this film?

Ali: When there’s talk of reconciliation without God at the center of it, it’s not truly going to happen. …In my personal opinion, the church has not done a good job with racial reconciliation, in particular. If you look at churches on Sunday, they’re the most segregated places in America. It might as well say ‘white only’ or ‘black only’ because that’s generally what we see. 

The church has largely dropped the ball on issues like this. If the church was really about reconciliation and what God has called us to be about — loving each other — then we wouldn’t have this problem of racial profiling, because we would have taken the lead in churches. When a black man gets shot and killed on the side of the road for doing nothing other than being black, and no one says anything about it but maybe some black people for a little while, and then it goes away, the church has not done enough. It has done nearly nothing. Where is the voice? Where are the leaders talking out, saying hey we have to come together and we have to figure this out? It’s not happening. 

The church needs to be at the center of this. Every church needs to say to their community, “Hey, no matter what color you are, or who you are, or no matter whether you even believe in God, just come and let’s have the conversation. And if you can’t come to us, we want to come to you.”

We want to have the conversation about, how do we get to a place where we care about each other, where we respect each other, where we can love each other enough so that police aren’t fearful of their lives. So that people in the community that are supposed to be served by the police aren’t fearing the police. And the police are there to do what they are called to do, which is to protect and serve.

How do we create that environment, where everyone is comfortable with that and that is actually happening?

When I think about that, it brings me to tears sometimes … we’ve put so much energy into the look and the show [of church], but where’s our heart?

Steele: Police brutality is a conversation this country has been having for decades. How do we keep problem-solving around this issue?

Ali: It’s been going on for hundreds of years! We have to be willing to say enough is enough. I’ve heard leaders at predominantly black churches say, “We’re the ones being offended, so it’s not up to us to reach out to solve the problem.” And, I’ve had friends that lead predominantly white churches tell me in private that there’s a fatigue — that people are tired of being blamed for something that they didn’t do, that their ancestors may have done. And I’ve also heard people say, “Well, we don’t know how to reach out.” So all of those things are probably not pleasing to God — they’re really just excuses for not wanting to do the hard work.

I’ve seen change take place, and it’s not easy. It does require work, time, and energy. But we have to put that time and energy in. We can’t just give up…we have to just do it. It’s going to take some brave people to step out of their comfort zone and admit that they haven’t done all that they can do and be willing to risk that maybe it’s not going to work right away. It might take another 100 years for it to correct, but the process can’t get started until we’re willing to put in the work.

Steele: How did you find stories and communities that have been able to tackle police relations in a positive way? 

Ali: Some of it was through personal relationships. Some of it was from [Walking While Black cinematographer] Errol Webber and I finding things online and searching down the story, like Andrew Collins and Jameel McGee in Michigan. We went to see them and spent time with them and got their story. It’s a beautiful story of reconciliation, where these guys were able to find common ground after they had both been released from prison, and I believe God brought them together … they wind up becoming best friends, like brothers.

But there’s stories like Chief Melvin Russell in Baltimore who was a friend I met while I was working on a television show, and we got to know each other and got to do things in the community together. As I was going through [this film] I would call him frequently, because he was a police officer I could trust.

…He’s a pastor as well as police officer and he’s able to do the job in an exemplary way. If he can do it, why can’t they all? His secret is, he leads with his faith. He serves with the love of Christ in his community.

Steele: What has the film distribution process been like? How do you encourage people to use the film?

Ali: It has been a struggle. We have no money for promotion, and we’re going up against films that have tens of millions of dollars in marketing, so you see TV commercials and sexy trailers. Trailers cost $2 million dollars to make. So we’re really relying on people who have seen the film, or just want to see a change to help spread the word. We’re using social media a lot and reaching out to organizations like churches, schools, and nonprofits to participate in our licensing program. We’re all grassroots.

We’re just hoping that at some point, we reach that proverbial tipping point where enough people share their experience with it, and it will take off. But it’s an uphill battle.

Steele: In an ideal world, what are your hopes for the film?

Ali: My hope is that it would make a significant difference in the United States and beyond. That it would get to the point where results could be measured, where there would be fewer incidents of shootings and other things happening. Where profiling by race becomes a thing of the past, where communities grow closer, and racial reconciliation takes place. 

All of those things are measurable, because churches can see when things shift, when it’s not all white or all black; police departments have stats; civil rights groups maintain statistics. Ten years from now I would like for somebody to say, “Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer made a difference, and here’s the proof.”

Steele: How can people get involved?

Ali: We’ve created the “Love is the Answer” movement, and we’re inviting anyone and everyone to get involved. On the website, we have information on conferences and workshops, 5-minute film contests, and other things that are designed to get people educated and to get them actively pursuing better relationships. Not only between police and the black community, but between all different races — between anyone and everyone who is in discord, or where’s there’s not harmony. These “Love is the Answer” principles can affect every interpersonal relationship that we have.

Jazmine Steele 

Jazmine is a native of Detroit, where she spent four years covering arts, culture, and her own creative take on community news, The Good News Banter Show.

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