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March 31, 2019 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
When “While I Breathe, I Hope” director Emily Harrold realized that Bakari Sellers, who holds the record as the youngest African American politician to take office in the United States, was running for South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor, she knew that his story was one that she had to tell.
“I thought his journey through the campaign, win or lose, would be a very interesting and important way to explore the role of race in southern politics,” she recalls. “And it was also a film that I knew nobody else would make if I didn't make it.”
Harrold had grown up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, site of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, where three black SC State students were killed and 28 were wounded by state troopers during a protest. While all nine of the state troopers were acquitted for their roles, activist Cleveland Sellers was arrested, tried, and convicted for inciting a riot. It would be 25 years before he received a full pardon, but he chose not to have the record expunged, calling it a “badge of honor.” Bakari is his son.
“I learned about the Orangeburg Massacre when I was middle-school aged,” Harrold says, “but not in middle school. Surprisingly it wasn't part of the curriculum.”
It’s one of many stories that she feels the South keeps quiet. “I'm working a number of projects from South Carolina because I feel that many stories from my home often go overlooked. As a southern filmmaker, I believe that I have a unique opportunity to help change this.”
When she learned that Bakari Sellers was running for office in 2014, she reached out right away to his campaign. “I had a family friend who was active in South Carolina politics and he made an intro for me,” she remembers. “It also helped that my mother, Judy Harrold, taught Bakari when he was in high school at Orangeburg-Wilkinson. Bakari said ‘yes’ pretty quickly, and then it just became about trying to keep up with him and his campaign team. It was an incredible adventure.”
South Carolina was a much different place, even five years ago. “In 2014, the Confederate flag was still flying on the South Carolina State House grounds—and it was politically risky for Bakari to say he wanted it down,” she says. “But he did it. His opponent started in politics working for Strom Thurmond and was a member of a whites-only country club that he refused to leave (they now have one African American member). The vestiges of a racially unequal political system are still very much fused into the fabric of the American South. And Bakari's campaign was a great way to shine a light on this.”
The project was a labor of love, funded on a shoestring budget. “I borrowed equipment,” she says. “I used my parents mini-van as our production vehicle. I called in so many favors. But I knew this was an important story that was getting overlooked.”
Post-production was slow and piecemeal, with Harrold editing the project in between other paying gigs. During that time, she says, “We kept filming Bakari in order to ensure the film would stay up-to-date.” Then everything took a surprising new turn.
“I had no idea, of course, that part of the film would include the events of the Charleston Massacre,” she reveals. The infamous shooting “really brought into sharp focus the extent to which race relations and civil rights are battles we are still facing today.”
If there’s anything that she wants audiences to take away from the film, it’s definitely that. “I want audiences to really think about how ingrained race is in the fabric of the United States,” Harrold concludes. “I think this film really shows what it means to be a young African American fighting to build a more equitable tomorrow. But our original sin of racism runs very deep, and it is something that hasn't gone away. Even though we might like to think that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s solved everything, it has become particularly evident in the last few years that this isn't the case. Until we face this, until everyone faces this, I don't think our country can fully heal.”
– Lara Klaber
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