With race looming over the 2008 presidential election, it's no surprise that it is also the focus of three new documentaries.
Although the filmmakers behind the Hurricane Katrina documentary "Trouble the Water" set out to examine how race played a role in one of the country's biggest disasters, the directors of "The Order of Myths" and "Moving Midway" say race emerged as a major theme while they were filming. All three directors look at race through the prism of three Southern cities but say the issues resonate throughout America.
"I think race is the great unspoken in our country," said "Myths" director Margaret Brown. "And the movie is a way to start a conversation. It's an opening."
Brown originally planned to make a narrative film about American Mardi Gras, which originated in her hometown of Mobile, Ala., 15 years before New Orleans became a city. But as she began researching the film, Brown realized she had a better documentary.
Brown's documentary, which opened in Los Angeles last week and New York last month, explores the hallowed traditions and elusive forces that have kept Mobile's Mardi Gras celebrations divided along color lines -- complete with separate carnivals, balls and kings and queens -- since its inception.
But, while filming, she discovered a connection between the white and black carnival queens. One of the black queen's ancestors was on the last slave ship brought to the United States by the white queen's ancestors.
"The cinematographer and I looked at each other and said, 'We have a film,'" said Brown, who is white.
Realizing how much race would be a focus, Brown began to worry about how the people in Mobile would respond to her film. Two weeks ago, it was screened in her hometown before a sold-out integrated crowd of 1,800. Some older blacks in the audience had not set foot in the city's art deco theater since it was integrated in 1967.
The film received a standing ovation and, every day since the screening, there have been comments about the film in the city's newspaper.
"Moving Midway" director Godfrey Cheshire, a New York-based film critic and writer, also set out to make a personal film about Midway Plantation, his family's ancestral home, outside of Raleigh, N.C.
Cheshire's original focus was the decision by his cousin Charlie to uproot Midway's antebellum buildings from land that their ancestors the Hintons had acquired in 1739 that was being encroached upon by Raleigh urban sprawl. Cheshire wanted to trace the image of the plantation through American popular culture.
But soon it became clear that race was going to be a major theme -- within his family. Cheshire, who is white, discovered a letter to the editor in The New York Times signed by Robert Hinton, a New York University historian in the Africana Studies program.
"When I got him on the phone, you could have knocked me over with a feather," said Cheshire, who learned that the professor was researching Midway's history because his grandfather had been born a slave on the plantation.
But that was not the biggest surprise. During the filming, Cheshire met 96-year-old Abraham Lincoln Hinton, whose grandfather Ruffin Hinton was the son of a plantation slave cook and the white Charles Lewis Hinton, Cheshire's great-great-great-grandfather. In the film, Cheshire attended a reunion of Ruffin's descendants and connected with his black kinfolk.
"I started this film intending to make a film about family," Cheshire said. "Three years later, my definition of family had completely changed and was larger by 100 people."
"Midway" opens in New York next month and Cheshire is hopeful it will expand beyond the art-house crowd. "It's hard to have a conversation about race, because it's so abstract," he said. "I call this film a conversation piece about race. It gives you situations and personalities that people can identify with."
Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's film "Trouble the Water" will arrive in theaters next week, just ahead of Hurricane Katrina's third anniversary. Other films have focused on the New Orleans disaster, namely Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke," but this Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner uses footage shot by resident Kimberly Rivers Roberts, who was trapped in her home during the storm.
Lessin and Deal, who traveled to New Orleans a couple weeks after the levees broke to make a film about how National Guard troops had been slow to respond because so many were deployed in Iraq, changed focus when they met Roberts and her husband, Scott, at a Red Cross shelter.
They say the two gave a voice and face to many of New Orleans' black residents, who felt disenfranchised before Katrina and abandoned after.
"This film is such a personal story from ground zero, not just of Katrina but of New Orleans," Deal said. "You don't often hear from a Kimberly Rivers or a Scott Roberts, larger than life on the big screen. Network executives said you just can't make a film that features their voice. But we felt the best way we could do the film is to stay true to their account of events and elevate their voice in the film."
And, by elevating their voice, the filmmakers are also elevating the issue of race.
"Kimberly said it best, when she said, 'They treat us like we're un-American and have lost our citizenship,'" Lessin said. "It was clear this was an issue about race -- and class."
Three years later, the issues remain, Deal said. And with Sen. Barack Obama running for president, Deal believes there is no better time to have a conversation about race. The directors will be taking their film to both conventions for delegates to see.
"I'm happy these movies are coming out right now," Lessin said. "Race is still a pivotal issue in America, and if we don't get it right, we're doomed."