How did we get here? Filmmakers on capturing history through their lenses

Four filmmakers share what it's like being on the frontlines of history.

September 09, 2020, 3:31 PM

This report is part of "Turning Point," a groundbreaking month-long series by ABC News examining the racial reckoning sweeping the United States and exploring whether it can lead to lasting reconciliation.

In May, the world watched George Floyd die as a police officer pinned him to the ground by kneeling on his neck. The same morning that video was shared, documentary filmmaker Mike Shum knew exactly what he had to do.

“I remember sitting down and watching this really long video, cell phone footage, of this man in Minneapolis just dying,” Shum told “Nightline.” “At that point, all I knew to do was pick up my camera.”

The next day, protesters took to the streets in Minneapolis. The day after that, protests spread across the U.S., from Kentucky to New York to California. They continued for weeks.

PHOTO: Hundreds of protesters march in Manhattan over the death on May 25 of black man George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, June 7, 2020, in New York.
Hundreds of protesters march in Manhattan over the death on May 25 of black man George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, June 7, 2020, in New York.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“It was clear how much pain there was,” said Shum, a 35-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota. “It was a combination of tension and anger and frustration.”

Shum is one of four filmmakers who spoke to “Nightline” about being on the frontlines of history, capturing this pivotal moment for racial justice and equality in our country.

PHOTO: Mike Shum is a 35-year-old documentary filmmaker from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Mike Shum is a 35-year-old documentary filmmaker from St. Paul, Minnesota.
ABC

Chidi Nobi, a filmmaker and photographer based in New York, was also galvanized by Floyd’s death.

“I think when he died, there was a thing that came in that says, ‘COVID be damned. I'm just going to come out and do what I can do,’” he said.

Nobi said he knew Floyd’s death came amid extraordinary circumstances and that it would take its place in history.

“It was just capturing the people's emotions and anger and frustration and everything coming to a head because … a lot of people have lost their jobs or [been] furloughed... We're all stuck [at] home for months on end, and this tragic thing happened,” he said. “I did know at that moment in time that we [were] going to be [in] a moment in history, which, should be captured.”

Shum feels his work shows “just one angle” of a much larger story.

“When I’m at the protests and rallies. I'm primarily a filmmaker. I'm just there to record the events as they happen,” Nobi added. “I remain impartial. I record both sides. And I let the story play out and tell itself.”

Nobi spent the summer traveling between the boroughs of New York City, documenting the reckoning on racial inequality in the United States.

PHOTO: Chidi Nobi, a filmmaker and photographer from England, was also galvanized by Floyd’s death.
Chidi Nobi, a filmmaker and photographer from England, was also galvanized by Floyd’s death.
ABC

“This story never ends. And you just keep on. You know, you just keep on shooting,” he said.

History in images

Celebrated poet and activist Nikki Giovanni, 77, was a little girl when 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

“I know that we expected the law to find them guilty,” she said. “Of course, the law said, ‘Not guilty,’ as if it were a joke.”

Till’s mother famously insisted on holding an open-casket funeral to show the world the atrocity of her son’s killing.

“His mother was the bravest woman that I know,” Giovanni said. “Mrs. Bradley said, I want the world to see what they did to my son.”

PHOTO: Elizabeth Eckford ignores the hostile screams and stares of fellow students on her first day of school.
Elizabeth Eckford ignores the hostile screams and stares of fellow students on her first day of school. She was one of the nine black students whose integration into Little Rock's Central High School was ordered by a Federal Court following legal action by the NAACP, 1957.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

The photo of his mutilated body was published internationally, joining a collection of iconic images that framed the civil rights era, from photos of the Little Rock Nine to Norman Rockwell’s painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” and photos of the late Rep. John Lewis being beaten on Bloody Sunday.

“When I think about the images of John Lewis on that bridge, those marchers during Bloody Sunday being bludgeoned, I can’t help but think about the importance of visual imagery,” Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama told “Nightline.”

PHOTO: John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is beaten by a state trooper during a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965.
John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is beaten by a state trooper during a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were attacked by state troopers. Lewis sustained a fractured skull. The day's violence, on what became known as "Bloody Sunday," sped up the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
AP

Today, almost everyone carries a camera and can therefore play a role in capturing history.

“Nightline” co-anchor Byron Pitts remembers his own role in documenting the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

“I was a young reporter,” he said. “Then, like now, I find myself covering that same level of frustration and anger and streets across America.”

Ashley O’Shay, a 27-year-old cinematographer and documentarian from Chicago, attended her first protest in 2012.

“I was actually in college … when Trayvon Martin was killed,” O’Shay said. “That was really the genesis for the current movement for Black Lives [Matter]. At the time, of course, we didn't know that.”

PHOTO: Ashley O’Shay, a 27-year-old cinematographer and documentarian from Chicago, attended her first protest in 2012.
Ashley O’Shay, a 27-year-old cinematographer and documentarian from Chicago, attended her first protest in 2012.
ABC

Two years later, Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

Activist DeRay Mckesson was one of the many who took to the street for 400 days in the city.

“If we had not stood in the street [for] Mike Brown, people would’ve said that we didn't exist,” he told “Nightline.” “I've always thought about protesters telling the truth in public. That part of what we do is we use our bodies to say, ‘Here's what’s true.’”

The first time O’Shay brought her camera to a protest, it was during the fall of 2015. That’s when she started working on her documentary “Unapologetic,” which she says looks into the Black Lives Matter movement in Chicago, “told through the experiences of two young Black queer women.”

“I think a hallmark moment for me was the mayor decided to release the police footage of Laquan McDonald being killed,” she said. “There was literally a wall of police that was protecting this property.”

O’Shay says that “who is behind the lens matters as much as who is in front of the lens.”

“When I go out into the field with my camera to document a protest or event around me, I'm still a Black woman in America,” she said. “That's still how people are gonna see me. And that's not something I feel I can abandon because I have a camera in my hand.”

Photographers, artists and filmmakers are inextricably linked to how we’ve arrived at this moment in civil rights history.

“If not for the lens, white supremacy would try and convince you that [this history] literally never happened,” Mckesson said.

The fight for justice and equality continues

This summer, protests erupted in Louisville, Kentucky, after police killed 25-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor in her home. Three plainclothes police officers were executing a “no-knock” search warrant on two men who weren’t at the home. Taylor was shot eight times. There is no body camera footage.

PHOTO: People gather in the street during a protest against the deaths of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police and George Floyd by Minneapolis police, in Louisville, Kentucky, May 29, 2020.
People gather in the street during a protest against the deaths of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police and George Floyd by Minneapolis police, in Louisville, Kentucky, May 29, 2020.
Bryan Woolston/Reuters

Maxwell Mitchell, 32, is from the same city and attended the protests, the cause galvanizing him to become a livestreamer.

“People want to see what was happening. People want to see what was going on,” Mitchell said. “I say the chants, I stand with the protesters facing the police. So I always say protesting live streamer or live streaming protester, if you will. It's a combination of the two actions.”

He remembered the “impactful” images that came out of the protests, including releasing balloons for Taylor’s birthday.

“I remember tearing up, being out there with everyone and seeing those blue and white balloons being released in the air,” he said. “ It was such an impactful day. One that I will never forget.”

Mitchell says activists’ endurance is key to this cause.

“It's important that we don't give up. It's important that we stay strong at this, more than ever before.” he said. “We're in this until justice is served. That keeps me energized more than ever.”

“I do believe 50 years from now when people look back on this time, the imagery … will be the defining record of what happened in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020,” Nobi said.

How far we’ve come

With more than 7,750 Black Lives Matter protests in all 50 states since Floyd’s death, it has become the largest civil rights movement in history.

“The country is facing the same challenges because the challenges have not been confronted fully yet,” said Isabel Wilkerson, a journalist and author of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents." “It's almost like seeing reels of the same movie over and over again because we have not yet addressed the underlying issues.”

Indeed, police violence against people of color has not stopped. Three months after George Floyd’s death, 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot multiple times in the back in front of his three sons, who were in his car at the time.

“I'm hopeful that once we all can get on the same page about what has gotten us to where we are, perhaps then and only then will we be able to move forward and to heal from what has gone before us,” Wilkerson said.

Five days after Blake was shot, the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington took place.

“The energy in the crowd, the power in the crowd; just feeling that again, and also being in DC feeling that. It was unmatched. It was beautiful,” Mitchell said.

PHOTO: Protesters raise their fists during a demonstration against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 26, 2020.
Protesters raise their fists during a demonstration against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 26, 2020.
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

Since Floyd’s death more than 50 Confederate related monuments and memorials have been removed, including in Alabama, where Sewell was born and serves the state’s 7th district.

“We all have a role to play,” Sewell said. “Mine, as a lawmaker, is to try to provide that much needed connection between peaceful protests and grievance and righteous indignation on injustices that we see in our streets and in what we see in our towns and communities across this nation --have that be the catalyst for a meaningful social change through legislation.”

In the last several months, at least 13 cities have cut funding from their police department budgets.

“I believe that the loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many known and unknown unarmed black men and women at the hands of the police was not in vain, [that] this country will continue to march on, that we will see momentum in this moment, inspiration in this moment. Defiance, for sure, righteous indignation for sure,” Sewell said. “But at the end of the day, we have to believe, we have to know that this country is better than this. And we will continue to march towards that more perfect union, finding inspiration and finding hope in our despair.”

In their work, these filmmakers pour their hope for a more equitable future.

“I'd like to think that when I'm unable to hold my camera anymore, I'll be able to look back and see that something changed for the better for marginalized communities like the Black community, like the Latino community, like Asian American communities, like LGBTQ,” Shum said.

“I truly hope that we are on the cusp of an awakening,” Wilkerson said. “History has shown that there have been moments where people have worked so hard and risked their lives to bring about meaningful fairness and justice in this country, only to see things slip away. So I would hope and hope and pray that we are on the cusp.”

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