Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

An Interview with Emmy Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Robin Smith

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KingPict1web.jpgDocumentary filmmaker Robin Smith has produced an award-winning film, Come Walk in my Shoes, that "follows the Honorable John Lewis on an emotional pilgrimage to the churches, parks and bridges where young people played a pivotal role in the struggle for equality and voting rights."

In observance of the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, I spoke with Smith about her film, its reception in middle and high schools around the country, and the importance of teaching American youth about the struggle for civil rights.  At a time when we commonly describe American youth as disaffected and disengaged from their communities, Smith argues, the history of the civil rights movement offers a powerful reminder to young people that they can change the world.

You can hear the highlights of our conversation here (about 4 minutes):

Or check out the transcript below:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Could you tell me a bit about the film, how you actually had the idea of doing this film, and who you think the best audiences are?

SMITH:  This film found me.  I was invited in the year 2003 to go on a pilgrimage that Congressman John Lewis was leading to what he called "the sacred sites of the Civil Rights movement in Alabama."  I knew it was a three-day event, but I didn't think that it was going to become anything bigger than just a short video.

I got on that pilgrimage.  We went to Montgomery, we went to Birmingham, we went to Selma.  And John Lewis would walk into the churches and tell you the story of how he first met Martin Luther King.  Or he'd take you into the Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham and talk to you about the high school kids who marched and were met with fire hoses and dogs in that park.  And then he'd take you to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and relive what happened to him when he left Brown AME Chapel thinking he was starting a peaceful march, and he was beaten unconscious.  So after the third day I looked at the cameraman and I said, "Oh, my god.  This is really powerful."  And then we said together: "This has to be a film.  This has to be a documentary."

When the film was finally done, I started testing it.  I took it into middle schools, and I took it into high schools.  And I have been blown away by the response. 

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Do you think there are any particular lessons that students have drawn from the film?

SMITH:  I think what they are noticing is that people their ages-14, 15-actually took a stand.  Young people who were upset about something were able to come together and collectively do something.  And that message is resonating, because there are a lot of young people today who maybe individually are upset about some things, but they don't have that sense that they can do anything about it.  So when they see this happening and they see, in this history piece, that these actions ended up with good results...They're intrigued by that.

Now, I think you can't just show the film and walk away, and hope that all these messages come together.  It's going to need some facilitated discussion afterwards.  I've started asking the kids, "If you look around you today, is there something that's happening in your classroom, is there a struggle that you're having with somebody else, is there a problem within your family, is there something within your neighborhood that's bugging you? And maybe you're not alone, and what would you do about that?"  Just start to get them to talk, and they're starting to design some of their own small, but public, presentations of concern about issues. 

And race: Race is a huge issue right now, and young people need to have safe places where [it] can be discussed.  And there are just so many different conversations that can come out of the film that, with the right curriculum, could be facilitated at those different levels.

One of the beauties of "Come Walk in My Shoes" is that it distils one decade of Civil Rights history-'55 to '65-into one hour.  A number of these young people are seeing the violence-the struggle-in a way that they haven't seen it before.  They're seeing pictures that they didn't know about.  And that's making it vivid for them.


Photo courtesy of Write Spirit