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POC Documentary Filmmakers’ Guide to Racist Feedback

POC Documentary Filmmakers' Guide to Racist Feedback

As emerging POC (people of color) documentary filmmakers we create a range of commissioned and independent projects. Given that we are often brought onto projects to offer some diversity, we aim to feature otherwise marginalized perspectives in our work whenever possible. While producing commissioned works for predominantly white institutions (PWIs), we have found that some of the feedback we receive on our documentary films is racist. 

The lengths to which our PWI producers sometimes go to legitimate white, middle-class male subjects as experts while calling into question POC folks’ capacities to represent themselves is particularly striking. For example, while we were making documentary films on environmental issues for a southern law firm this past summer, our producers insisted that we identify the primary white male subject of one of our films as a non-specific doctor in order to bolster his scientific credibility, when in fact, he was a chiropractor — and this was while refusing to feature POC folks talking about their own lives since they were not recognizable “experts.”

These critiques and suggestions illuminated questions for us about the legitimacy and definition of so-called “expertise.” How do conventional notions of “expertise” advance “whiteness” (which we understand as an ideological position and mentality and not only skin color)? How does the documentarian cinematically represent the real experiences of POC folks ethically and respectfully when their accounts of history and life in general are deemed inadequate?

These are questions we are faced with in presenting the stories of marginalized communities voiced by the people of those communities. We value feedback during the filmmaking process and are sincere in our openness to critique. In the kinds of cases we’ve discussed here however, reading between the lines can be trying and demoralizing. Drawing from our filmmaking work for PWIs, we offer a selection of the euphemistic comments we’ve heard alongside our translations.

When you’re making a documentary film featuring people of color who speak for themselves and…

Your PWI critics say: “You need an expert.”
What they really mean: “You need a white (middle-class male) person.”

Your PWI critics say: “Well, how am I to believe them?”
What they really mean: “You need a white person.”

Your PWI critics say: “Your characters aren’t relatable.”
What they really mean: “You need a white person.”

Your PWI critics say: “There seems to be a voice missing.”
What they really mean: “You need a white person.”

Your PWI critics say: “This is too much about race.”
What they really mean: “You need a white person.”

Your PWI critics say: “Have you thought about your audience?”
What they really mean: “You need a white person.”

Your PWI critics say: “This has to matter to everyone.”
What they really mean: “You need a white person.”

Your PWI critics say: “You’re not listening.”
What they really mean: “You need a white person.”

Your PWI critics say: “Something is still not working.”
What they really mean: “Your white person isn’t offering a white perspective.”


Dusty Gavin is a digital media-maker from Alabama and is currently pursuing a Masters of Art in Religion and Cinema at Yale University. Natasha Raheja is a documentary filmmaker from Texas and is currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at New York University.

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