Filmmaker Robert Greenwald

The prolific filmmaker discusses his two thought-provoking short films, Racism Is Real and White Riots.

Award-winning filmmaker Robert Greenwald has executive produced and/or directed more than 50 TV movies, miniseries and feature films. Through his company, Brave New Films, he also makes political video shorts and full-length documentaries—substantive investigations of social issues, told through personal stories, and creatively distributed through such outlets as the internet and social media. He's tackled a variety of subjects, including human rights abuse, teens in prison, corporate abuse and drone warfare. His latest series of shorts deal with social justice issues, and include the thought-provoking films White Riots and Racism Is Real. Greenwald has received numerous awards, including a Peabody, AFI's Producer of the Year Award and 25 Emmy nominations.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Robert Greenwald back to this program. The prolific filmmaker and founder of Brave New Films recently made a series of shorts dealing with issues relating to racial justice.

The films titled “Racism is Real”, “Film the Police” and “White Riots” are all available online at bravenewfilms.org. Before we start our conversation with Robert Greenwald, first a look at a clip from one of the pieces called “White Riots”.

[Clip]

Tavis: First of all, good to see you again.

Robert Greenwald: Thank you. Good to be back.

Tavis: I was saying to you before we came on the air that I am amazed and I’ve become a believer in part because of you, primarily because of you, in the power of a short film–and we’re talking like three minutes here–the power of a short film to have such a huge impact on society and to generate the kind of conversation that a feature-length film or a TV show doesn’t necessarily have. Talk about the impact of these short films.

Greenwald: Well, we are in a culture and we’re in a world where social media is king and queen, and people get most of their information. You know, a huge percentage of people are getting most of their news based from Facebook and a significant number of people are getting their videos on YouTube.

And at Brave New Films, our mission is to reach as many people as we can, impact them and involve them. So we’ve gone where the audience is, in a sense. We’re not leading them, but with the three shorts on racism, we reached over 20 or 25 million people between the different platforms, and there’s no other way to do that.

Tavis: What kind of conversations are these three shorts about racial justice? What kind of conversation do you think it’s generating?

Greenwald: Well, they’ve generated a couple. They’ve generated anger, they’ve generated attacks. There are a lot of ignorant people who refuse to accept the fact that racism continues, that it’s no over. And then there are people who’ve been deeply appreciative, saying, you know, I knew that. I knew it instinctively, some who knew the facts.

But I think, most importantly, Tavis, is people can take these short videos and they can do something. So you don’t just have to sit there and get angry at your TV set or, you know, curse at somebody who’s an idiot.

You can take a video, you can forward it. You can post it on Facebook. You can send it to an elected official. You can send it to your local news station if they’re screwing up. You can send it to a reporter. So you can feel and actually do something active. So they’re real tools and building blocks for the millions of people who say I want to do something.

Tavis: So for those young budding filmmakers who are watching right now–and everybody wants to be a filmmaker these days–what are the ingredients? How do you make a three-minute film work? Don’t give away the secret sauce [laugh]. I’m not asking for the secret sauce. You do so remarkably well in three minutes what some people can’t do in three hours. But what’s the secret here?

Greenwald: Well, it’s basically telling stories and it’s telling stories that are going to reach people. You know, I sit in the editing room working on a three-minute piece, same editing room where I did a six-hour and eight-hour miniseries when I was doing commercial film and television, and the dynamic is the same.

What’s interesting? What can engage an audience? What can involve an audience? What’s different with these pieces is tell an interesting story, but make sure you motivate people to do something.

Not like sometimes they’d say, oh, this is too depressing. I’m going to go hide my head and give up, but I’m going to do this because I want to change peoples’ attitudes. And, therefore, make it short, tell a story, give them something they don’t know, and then they will be your people who will help spread the word.

Tavis: Let me play devil’s advocate just for a second, just for the sake of making a point. So a three-minute short film can have a huge impact. Tens of millions of people see these things, as you mentioned earlier, and yet for real racial justice to be realized, for social justice to be implemented, that doesn’t happen in three minutes.

So what does the success of these films say about the attention span of the American people vis-à-vis the time that it takes to make real progress? Does that make sense?

Greenwald: Yes, it makes total sense, and I would say it’s two slightly different arguments.

Tavis: Okay.

Greenwald: So, first of all, of all people, I’ll quote Margaret Thatcher who says, “First you win the argument…

Tavis: Get this on tape! This may be a first! Robert Greenwald is quoting Margaret Thatcher [laugh]! Jonathan, you got tape running? All right, go ahead.

Greenwald: I’m in trouble now [laugh].

Tavis: This is going to be my three-minute short [laugh]!

Greenwald: You can blackmail me now [laugh]. She says, “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” These shorts help win the argument. These shorts help convince people of things they may not be certain about or may not have enough information about, and then you go out and you do the hard work. But we’re just the first step, just the first step. No easy shortcuts.

Social justice, racial justice, these are tough problems. They’re difficult problems. We have a lot of people, and particularly a lot of white people, who do not want to see this, do not want to deal with this, want to close it out, want to pretend everything’s okay. These are tools to say particularly to them, no, things are wrong. We all have responsibility to do something.

Tavis: How effective can this medium be for tackling what many of us believe is–I certainly believe–is the most intractable issue in this country, that being the issue of racism?

Greenwald: Not clear yet. I think a possibility is–look, part of this reason we did this one was some great Nick Kristof columns. So there’s an audience that reads that column, but how about the millions and millions of people who don’t read The New York Times, who don’t read for their information?

So we think, and time will tell, we’re reaching a very large, a younger audience, and an audience that will be impacted by this. Now can we use these shorts? Can we use our full-length films to help move them to the next step, to take action, to do something?

First forward it, then get engaged, then call somebody, then join an organization, then raise hell if things aren’t changing? It is a long–as you know from your books and your work and your studies–it’s a long, slow process. I think the short pieces can be a tool, but not an answer.

Tavis: I saw so many young people in this “White Riot” piece that you did. My mind goes back to the still as yet unrepentant Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina. And I think the thing that disturbed me more than anything beyond the obvious that these are nine Black folk who were killed who should not be dead, the thing that disturbed me the most, Robert, was that this was a young white boy who did this.

If this had been a 70-year-old white man–you see my point–I might have expected that or seen that coming. But you want to believe in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever that a 20-some year old white boy isn’t thinking about doing what they were doing back in the 60s and 50s, etc.

I raise that because I’m curious as to what your thoughts are when you see something like white riots as to whether or not in this multicultural America we have broken through yet or what it will take to break through when you see these kinds of events.

Greenwald: Well, one side note to that, by the way. The young man who was killed, the youngest of all the people who were killed, the last thing he posted on his Facebook page was “White Riots”, the youngest one, the last thing he posted. So troubling when we heard that.

Racism is deeply inbred, is both ideological, it’s economic, it’s social, and it’s not going to be overturned immediately. So I’m afraid there are young people, old people, all kinds of folks out there who hold on to this. It’s dying, it’s going away. We all have work to do, but I’m not surprised that there are still young people.

I think it makes our job more important knowing that we can’t just talk to the angry old white folks on Fox News, but that there are younger people. And that’s another argument, not to beat it to death, but that’s why, hopefully, social media can be reaching more of that audience who can, say, to their friends and their colleagues.

But, you know, racism goes how many years, how many generations? How much has people been preached to about this? How strong is that hate? And then when it’s pulled away from them and they don’t have jobs, they’re looking for scapegoats.

Tavis: Before my time runs out, we talked about “White Riots”. Give me a top line on these other two parts of this trilogy, as it were.

Greenwald: The other one part is filming the police, showing the horrific, awful things that police have been doing primarily to African American and Latinos. And some states and some cities are trying to pass rules where you can’t film the police anymore rather than go the opposite direction.

So we say it’s a call to people. Protect those rights. And the original piece is “Racism is Real” in which it’s really to confront those ignorant folks, primarily whites, who say no, everything is fine. And there’s facts, there’s studies. There’s racism in the workplace. There’s racism in housing. There’s racism in purchasing. And we show with actors and a little bit of humor all those studies.

Many people are not going to read those studies done by some very brilliant academics, but you put it in a video, you make it interesting, and they say, “Oh!” So you get the resume, the exact same resume. One name sounds Black, one name looks white, who gets called for the jobs?

Tavis: Absolutely. How do you regard or view–how do you see this incongruence, to my mind at least, between some states, as you mention now trying to pass legislation that you can’t film–some municipalities, I should say–pass legislation that you can’t film the police with this call for police themselves that wear body cameras? I mean, it seems–isn’t that kind of…

Greenwald: Yes. Well, that’s the contradiction. You know, Marx talks about contradictions. So now he’s talking about Karl Marx and Thatcher in the same conversation [laugh]. I redeemed myself on that one [laugh].

Tavis: You balanced that out, yeah, okay [laugh].

Greenwald: But there is those contradictions and I think, you know, we’re experiencing that. And I think you and your audience and many others are working to heal the contradiction in the most positive way by doing something about issues. Again, issues that are structural, issues that are systemic.

That’s one of the things I’m proudest of, of the amazing women and men at Brave New Films who are taking on the systemic issues. Not saying this one or this one, but looking at the whole damn system and how we have to change it.

Tavis: So here’s my exit question. When you see what you see every day, and we know what you see because you bring it to us through Brave New Films, how do you sustain your hope?

Greenwald: It’s a good question. Well, four children, two grandchildren, that’s a big part of it. I get up every day and I think about them and I love them deeply. My youngest daughter is adopted. She’s African American. It inspired the racism period. Each one of the children affect me in different ways.

And then I can’t stress strongly enough, you know, I’m the front, but Brave New Films has this–you have to come visit us. The people, the women, the men, the effort, the intelligence and the passion of that group is extraordinary.

Tavis: I’m going to take you up on your offer to come visit.

Greenwald: Good.

Tavis: I’ll take you up on that. Go to bravenewfilms.org if you want to see these three pieces and, for that matter, a lot of other good stuff that these wonderful people at this company put out that challenges us, I think I can say this, to reexamine the assumptions we hold, helps us to expand our inventory of ideas, perhaps see America through a different prism than the one that you are used to looking through. And for that, we thank Robert Greenwald. Good to see you, my friend.

Greenwald: Thank you, man.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: July 17, 2015 at 1:52 pm