Documentary Film's Action Hero
July 1, 2021 at 9:04:52 PM
Director Robert Greenwald remembers exactly when he decided to abandon the commercial television and feature films that had built his reputation and netted him 25 Emmy nominations, two Golden Globe nominations and a Peabody Award — not to mention the first-ever Golden Raspberry Award for worst director (for 1980’s movie musical fantasy Xanadu) — and use his skills to make the social justice documentaries that he’s become known for today.
It was when he was getting ready to speak at his father’s memorial service. “I can still visualize the moment,” he says. “I remember very clearly thinking, What could I say that was authentic and real and meaningful? I realized one of the great things he passed on to me was this notion that you can do things beyond your own narrow self-interest. You don’t need another house or cars. There are times when you can focus on others around you, the larger universe.”
Then came 9/11, and Greenwald’s thinking crystallized. “I have four children,” he says. “I realized it was a critical time to see if I could do work that could affect the world that I was terrified they were going to grow up in. A world of violence and hatred and guns and militarism.”
Greenwald’s sitting at his desk in his office at Brave New Films, the nonprofit company he started in 2000, specifically to make documentaries that call out injustice and those who perpetrate it. We’re talking via Zoom — him in Los Angeles, me in Winter Garden. Behind him, packed bookshelves stretch floor-to-ceiling. A large, striking self-portrait done by his daughter, the artist Maya Reese Greenwald leans against the bookcase as if awaiting a free moment to be hung.
Greenwald’s PR rep had arranged 30 minutes for our interview. Greenwald says he’s got 15 before he has to hurry off to talk with fundraisers. Fundraising. It's a constant of every nonprofit director's life. Then he pauses. “I’ll tell you what," he says, "we’ll compromise on 20.”
Greed, corruption, inequality
Greenwald started Brave New Films precisely so he wouldn’t have to compromise, at least artistically, on the films he wanted to make. Sure, he’d done political movies in his early filmmaking years. The now-76-year-old director helmed the groundbreaking 1984 television drama, The Burning Bed. It starred Farah Fawcett as a domestic abuse survivor who kills her abusive husband when he’s passed out drunk by dousing him with gasoline and setting their bed on fire. That movie, based on the 1980 book of the same name by the late journalist Faith McNulty, helped change the national conversation about domestic violence, recasting it as a crime rather than a “family issue.” Greenwald was also the producer behind the Emmy-nominated 21 Hours at Munich about the Palestinian group, Black September, that murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
Still, those were fictionalized accounts. Greenwald began making documentaries in 2002. With an investigative journalist’s determination to expose greed, corruption and systemic inequality, Greenwald wields his camera like a scalpel to reveal what politicians, legislators, corporations and other power brokers don’t want the public to see.
A simple formula helps Greenwald pick his topics: What’s not being covered and what's causing systemic harm? That’s where you’ll find him and his staff.
The result has been films on Fox News with Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism — after which Bill O’Reilly called Greenwald “a fanatical leftist” and “absurdly dishonest,” according to the Los Angeles Times. He’s also made films about President Obama’s drone wars (Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars); the connection between gun deaths and gun makers’ profits (Making A Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA); toxic capitalism (Wal-Mart the High Price of Low Cost); and the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp (Suppressed: The Fight to Vote). Suppressed showed, in stunning detail, how voter roll purges of hundreds of thousands of eligible voters, missing absentee ballots, closed polling stations and four-to five-hour lines at polls in Black neighborhoods on Election Day led to Kemp’s win.
Originally, Greenwald had planned a five-minute short about the Georgia governor’s race. “I was pulling together some of the images we’d seen on television, and the staff kept coming in and saying that they’d spoken to this person and that person, and these were deeply patriotic, real human beings with real issues, like I couldn’t keep waiting in line, I had to go back to work. I said, We’ve got to do more on this. At the time, it wasn’t being done. It was in the news the day of the election, and Stacey made that great speech saying I won’t concede, then things started to go down.”
The five-minute plan was out the proverbial window. Greenwald and his staff began interviewing Georgians who believed they’d been deliberately shut out of the voting process: college students whose absentee ballots never arrived; Americans who were told they weren’t citizens so they couldn’t vote; voters waiting for hours, then given provisional ballots that were never counted.
By the time they were done, Greenwald had a 38-minute documentary on voter suppression. Ahead of the 2020 Presidential Election, he added more footage, rebranded it Suppression 2020, cut new trailers and promoted the documentary relentlessly to continue warning about voter suppression tactics. “Hopefully it had an impact,’ he says.
Hearts, minds, action
In March, Greenwald released Brave New Films' most recent documentary, Racially Charged. Narrated by Mahershala Ali, it’s based on Alexandra Natapoff’s book Punishment Without Crime, detailing the ways the misdemeanor system disproportionately targets and imprisons the poor and people of color.
“It really opened my eyes,” Greenwald says. “I’m a reasonably well-read person and I was shocked. I was troubled.” He asked Natapoff to give a presentation to the Brave New Films staff, and as she spoke, the idea for the documentary began to form in Greenwald’s mind.
The film packs a lot into its 35 minutes, matching up historical stories of formerly enslaved people from the Reconstruction Era, pressed into convict-leasing servitude for violating “Black Codes” laws enacted after the Civil War, with contemporary stories of Black people being, arrested, tased and murdered for the similar petty offenses.
With Racially Charged, Greenwald found a new way into the discussion about police brutality, noting that misdemeanors are often what bring people of color into contact with police.
In Florida, for instance, Black people are 35 percent more likely to be arrested for misdemeanors and felonies than white people, according to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and the Brennan Center for Justice.
“We realized with so many of the police murders and violence, misdemeanors were the gateway,” Greenwald says.
Take jaywalking. Nearly 90 percent of jaywalking tickets in New York City are written for Black citizens. In Ferguson, MO, it’s 95 percent. Michael Brown, the teen whose murder by police sparked the national Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, had initially been stopped for jaywalking and the situation escalated. Police use-of-force is the sixth leading cause of death for Black men and boys after cancer, according to a 2020 study done by the University of Michigan, Rutgers University and Washington University.
Racially Charged also exposes the billions of dollars in profits that the prison system reaps from their incarcerated populations — a population that is 40 percent Black, according to Prison Policy Initiative, even though Black people only make up 13 percent of the U.S. population. Profits are fueled by markups on everything from food and commissary items to uniforms, phone service and monitoring devices.
The film also addresses the crippling imposition of fines and fees that can lead to driver’s license suspensions and jail as well as an inability to post bail ahead of arraignment or trial, which, for many, became a death sentence in 2020 because of Covid-19. Three out of five people in jail have not been convicted of crimes. They’re there because they cannot afford their bail.
As the credits roll, you can’t help but think, I want to help! What can I do? That is the magic of Greenwald’s filmmaking — he inspires action.
“If you reach people’s hearts, then their minds will follow, and action will follow that,” says Greenwald. “Too often on the liberal progressive side, we start with a five-point PowerPoint rather than reaching for the emotion. I think the power and greater impact and greater effectiveness is in reaching the emotion.”
Right now, the emotions Greenwald wants to reach belong to district attorneys across the country. He and his staff have been screening Racially Charged for DAs “who are committed to the safety of people, and that commitment means not putting people into the incarceration system for minor infractions,” he says. “District attorneys have tremendous influence over who goes to jail and who doesn’t, more than judges.”
He points to George Gascón — the Los Angeles County DA who changed the way many types of misdemeanors are handled on the day he was sworn in — ceasing to prosecute most non-violent and juvenile offenses.
“…the resultant costs and fees of misdemeanor convictions force many to choose between necessities such as rent, transportation, and medical care versus financial obligations to the justice system. Despite the immense social costs, studies show that prosecution of the offenses driving the bulk of misdemeanor cases have minimal, or even negative, long-term impacts on public safety,” Gascón wrote in his directive to his staff.
YouTube, Facebook, TikTok
That Greenwald can host screenings like these lies in the genius of controlling the distribution of his own films. He’s completely cut out the proverbial middleman. You won’t catch Greenwald’s documentaries at the multiplex. He posts them, free, on YouTube and Facebook and screens them at house parties — live and via Zoom for the Covid age. Racially Charged premiered on YouTube with a Zoom gathering of luminaries for a post-screening discussion, including Democratic California Rep. Karen Bass, Harvard Kennedy School professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Rashad Robinson of the advocacy group Color Of Change. Greenwald has a separate distribution program just for teachers. There’s another one for faith leaders.
“We go where the audience is already,” he explains. “I mean, I love going to the movie theatre. I was as happy as anybody if I made a film and it was on network [television] or in a movie theatre. But, think about this for a minute: who is going to pay money to see a film when they disagree with its approach to an issue or when they don’t really know about it? We found, as a social justice organization, we reach those people who under no circumstances are going to pay $5 to $12 to see something, even online. Slowly over the years, we’ve evolved an increasingly robust, increasingly sophisticated and increasingly time intensive distribution system.”
Indeed, more than half his staff, he says, work on parts of Brave New Films’ distribution system, whether that’s creating study guides for teachers to use in the classroom or reflection guides for faith leaders to use in worship centers or trimming a three-minute Facebook video to 30 seconds so it’ll work on TikTok.
“I’d love to have more people doing this so we could reach more people,” Greenwald says.
The wish for a bigger staff — that is yet another constant of a nonprofit director's life.
As our interview wraps up, I glance down at my phone. 28 minutes. I got more than I bargained for. With Robert Greenwald, you usually do.