Shukree Tilghman Wants to End (the Way We Think About) Black History Month

Shukree Hassan Tilghman

Shukree Tilghman saw Morgan Freeman on 60 Minutes in 2006 say that he believed Black History Month shouldn’t exist, because it was insulting to relegate an entire race’s history to just one month. It resonated with the young man, so much so that after film school, Tilghman was determined to set out to find out the truth about Black History Month, even if it meant fielding and considering the inevitable questions such as “Why isn’t there a White History Month?” We asked him about the resulting film More Than a Month — which premieres on February 16 on Independent Lens at 10 PM (check local listings) — and how he managed to take a controversial racial topic and make it funny and accessible to such a large audience.

What impact do you hope More Than a Month will have?
That Americans will question why black history is taught as if it is somehow separate from American history. I hope as a country, we can imagine an America where Black History Month isn’t necessary.

What led you to make this film?
A growing feeling that African Americans continue to be seen as “Other Americans.” Watching how folks were treated during Hurricane Katrina and listening to pundits refer to those victims as refugees intensified that notion. I thought that this ideal of “other” is reinforced in society by things like Black History Month. That, combined with the new idea that we live in a “post-racial” America, led to an interest in exploring these themes.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?
The biggest challenge was deciding on tone, and then executing that balance of comedy and serious, tongue-in-cheek and sincere. Getting people to speak candidly about race-related issues is a challenge. Crafting a film that addressed these issues and making it entertaining as well as informative was a constant challenge.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film, get them to take you seriously, and also not become defensive?
We developed a dialogue sometimes over several months and — in some cases — years through phone calls and, emails as well as through in-person visits as we developed the film.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
We covered many stories that we just didn’t have time to put in the film. We spent a great deal of time with high school students. We could have made a great film just talking to the youngsters.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
The final scene (with out revealing a spoiler here) is a conversation that was a surprise for me. It wasn’t until we got to editing that I realized this conversation completed the journey of the film.

What has the audience response been so far?
It is not a film without some controversy. At screenings, More Than a Month has created a lot of vigorous dialogue, which, of course, it is designed to do.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
Money. I hope to be rich. But since documentary filmmaking doesn’t promise, or even suggest, the road to riches beyond measure, I must rely on my core motivation: a love of storytelling. The great thing about documentary is that it allows one to combine storytelling with the exploration of social issues. I love that. It can be difficult to work in any creative field, so I think the people who do it and stick with it just can’t imagine doing anything else.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
The film found some public television support in the early development stages. As the film grew in stages over the years, we were lucky that our support also increased. We were very fortunate to get on public television’s radar early on in the process, as they truly provide the best audience for the film.

What’s this about an app?
In working on the film we developed a mobile app that helps record and preserve the often invisible African American history that surrounds us all the time, everywhere. I hope people will consider downloading More Than a Map(p).

What are your three favorite films?
Documentary: The Agronomist, Hoop Dreams, The Thin Blue Line

Narrative: To Kill a Mocking Bird, Malcolm X, Annie Hall

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Do something different. Not for the sake of being different, but because all filmmakers (and artists in general) have a unique voice and, in my opinion, finding that voice can only come from embracing difference: what’s different about you, what makes you laugh, what makes you angry, how do you think, how do you approach issues? When you can find that, and start creating from that place, then you’re on to something.

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  • Crprock

    very powerful film project. to see how your thoughts evolve and mature must be exhilerating. ‘ african’ americans have a deep rich culture. unfortunatley from what i have seen america has a long way to go before we as a nation come to terms with the actions of our past. so how does a country of ‘today’ make up for the actions of a country of ‘yesterday’? and probably more important how does a country of ‘today’ take steps to ensure a prosperous more ‘well rounded’ country of ‘tomorrow’? in my military career i aided in several projects, one of which I produced and especially proud of, I was responsible for the production of a culutre presentation. I found it fascinating, the various ethnicities and the backgrounds that they originate from. too bad i couldnt enjoy it, duty calls. it really opened my eyes to the acceptance of others within a community. in order for one to ‘evolve’ one must come to terms with the faults they have made.

  • E.Diot

    History has been intentially white washed to monetarily benefit one group and disadvantage another. So History has to be intentionally rewritten to simply tell the truth. White man still speak with forked tongue.

  • Markwcartersr

    Hello Shukree, great job!! Your film inspires and encourages me in many ways. I myself am one who too ask the unasked questions and seek to understand or answer those questions, however small/large they may be. I really appreciate and agree with your journey and process, thank you. There is a “transcending” of perspectives of Black(African) History needed.

    “History tells us who we were…how we tell it…says something about who we are.”

    I just love the truth!! Keep going Bruh, we need cats like you!

    Your Comrade in the conscious struggle for our people,

    Mark from VA.

  • Truth

    I think this is ultimately a small issue. Cops are literally KILLING innocent Black people all the time and we worry about this? So they take away Black History Month (and trust me they will be happy to do so), now what? What did that accomplish? I think this is more of a scene from “Bamboozled” than anything.

  • Movethemembrain

    It’s funny because all month long I have been thinking that Black History Month
    is really an insult to black people. Sure white people have given blacks this
    “rare opportunity” to celebrate themselves and their history, as if it is somehow
    different than white history…why don;t we make March…White History Month?

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  • Phyllis

    The documentary was shown at the Roosevelt Thompson Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Roosevelt Thompson was the valedictorian in the 1980 Central High School class. He achieved the highest score ever by an Arkansas African American on the National Merit Scholarship exam and was preparing to attend Oxford University as the recipient of a Rhodes scholarship when his life ended in a car accident while traveling to Yale University.

    A provocative discussion of a racially mixed audience followed the viewing. The most offensive statement was made by an African American woman who said her son and his friends consider “The Central High Crisis a joke,” yet, her son is a graduate of the once lawfully segregated Little Rock Central High. People, black children are not being taught about the 500 years of legalized slavery, hereditary slavery meaning that a child born to an enslaved mother inherits her lifelong slave status, Jim Crow laws sanction by the landmark Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which used the rationale “separate but equal” to uphold a Louisiana statute mandating racial segregation in railroad transportation, nor the painful history of terrorism, violence and dehumanization of the black race in the Western hemisphere.

    Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

  • Phyllis

    “It is my “moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”
    Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Bell Prize Winner

  • Elizabeth_aka_Betty

    The history of blacks and the descendants of blacks in America has been ignored for most of the history of America. Many important records have been destroyed deliberately in an effort to deprive the descendants of Africans knowledge of their history in America and abroad.

    Much of what has been written has been controlled by whites and is about white women and white men and mulattoes who could pass for whites. Very little is said about the African and brown women who were the concubines and bearers of the mixed race children or their sons and daughters. Or its black men and white women and their mixed race children that can pass for white.

    Not much is being said about brown African American families. Recent stories are rather disgusting.

    Shukree Tilghman should not suppress the history of his own people. The month of February is only a beginning. Our efforts should be in including our history in the places where all history is taught and not let others control all the information the way that is shared.

  • Elizabeth_aka_Betty

    Confederate history belongs in a museum. Their story is a part of American history because they lost the war. Their story and is told from the time slavery entered America, through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Ku Klux Klan history and even until today. Confederates waged war against the United States of America and deserve to be suppressed and oppressed. Confederates are the enemy of the United States of America.

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    I just viewed this program 10 minutes ago and I was so moved I hunted for the next 5 minutes to be able to respond to this. As a white person raised in the north and the south before Civil Rights was fully implimented in the south, as much as it was in the late sixties, I have been privileged to understand nearly all of the points of view from the north and the south. Understanding all of the whys has really enriched my life.

    Yesterday I found myself attacked by about 10 different white people on Facebook and I couldn’t get them to understand my position. I told them to remember history and culture before you ever make a statement. For an example one person who I assume was white commented that she had a black child. My response was that I was shocked that she referred her child is black when in fact this child was both black and white. I couldn’t get the group to understand why do we have to describe our children as a color rather can’t they just be a child with a name. I certainly don’t go around explaining my children as being German Irish Swedish and English etc. They couldn’t get their heads around the fact that slavery was a hundred and fifty years ago. We need to respect all people the same like you said in your film we need to study all histories not just the winners of whatever war or battle. We need to remember the Japanese who were put into prison camps during ww2 we need to remember the insults to the Irish when they came over because they were starving to death in Ireland and were treated worse than the blacks while building the railroads. It was shocking to me that this group (one bragged about her degree in history, book learned history up north is not living it nor is it a complete education) could not see “blacks” (I despise that word as much as I hate the word “whites”) as people, equal citizens of the United States rather to still be doing reparations and dwelling in the past. I wanted to jump up and down and say amen to your film because it’s so represents all points of view get it remind everyone that until we view all people the same that we will still be living in the past and are no better off then when the black people were no longer enslaved but couldn’t get a job anywhere because nobody was going to hire them unless if they went way up north. By the way they didn’t know anything about that either. Their ignorance was appalling.

    I would say I’m a white moderate Republican but I am so awestruck by your film that you would dare say I’m almost a Democrat wink, wink. I can’t wait for the day when these things are implemented. All people are important.

  • Ashanti

    Doing some research and stumbled on this film. Never saw it. But there are at least 3 things I can already predict about the filmmaker. Sistahs know.