In mid-April, Starbucks faced a publicity nightmare when two black men were arrested in a downtown Philadelphia store after an employee called the police when they declined to leave. The video of their arrest went viral, receiving millions of views on Twitter and leading to a firestorm of criticism and calls for boycotts. Two days later, Starbucks announced it would close its stories nationwide for a day of “racial-bias education.”
A few weeks later, Starbucks contacted filmmaker Stanley Nelson; it wanted to hire him to make a short film. “They came directly to us,” said Nelson, the founder of Firelight Media and the director of several documentaries about the African-American experience, including “Freedom Riders” and “The Black Panthers: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities.”
Nelson, who was referred to the company by NAACP director Sherrilyn Ifill, said he was keen to contribute to the bias training workshops. “I felt that there was a need to understand how minority people can feel in these situations,” he said. “There wasn’t an acknowledgement of the different ways we felt. It’s one of many things in our country we don’t talk about.”
The result: “Story of Access,” an eight-minute short about racial discrimination. The film, which is now available online, screened for Starbucks employees along with a series of instructional videos about understanding bias and interacting with others in the workplace.
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Underwritten by Starbucks but produced independently by Firelight, “Story of Access” combines talking heads who address their experiences of public discrimination alongside archival footage from the civil rights movements. “It’s important that people understand that in some ways, the civil rights movement was a fight for access to public spaces,” Nelson said. “Although we do have access to public spaces — nobody says, ‘You can’t come in here’ — there’s still sense that African-Americans are not welcome.”
People of color testify to the subtle feelings of discomfort they’ve encountered in various circumstances, though it closes with a montage of videos showing other incidents of discrimination similar to the Starbucks incident. Nelson and his team spent four days interviewing more than 40 people.
“We didn’t want it to be about that experience that all people of color have had, where you go into a store and they accuse you of stealing your own coat,” he said. “We didn’t want it to be something that could be chalked up to this idiotic, misguided person you ran into. We wanted it to be about the daily and weekly feelings that African Americans have.”
In the process, he encountered an unexpected observation from a handful of white subjects: They had no cogent understanding of racial discrimination because they hadn’t experienced it themselves. “That moment was shocking to me,” he said. “I had never in my life that was a reality. We thought it would be really interesting to include that.”
Other videos screened at the training sessions took a more straightforward approach. Several of them feature Common speaking directly to the camera about broad topics such as “What It Feels Like to Belong” and “Seeing Your Own Bias.”
Nelson’s film is a comparatively more confrontational encapsulation of the discrimination phenomena. He borrowed the approach of fellow documentarian Errol Morris, asking his subjects to stare directly into the camera at a video image of the director’s face projected onto the lens.
Nelson said the latitude he had in developing the project made him believe the company’s intentions are sincere. “I’m convinced that Starbucks really wants to effect change,” Nelson said. “If you look at how many of these other incidents have happened, nobody else has done anything like this. In some ways, it might be easier as a corporation to just forget about it.”
Of course, reports of a bias training video led to some assumptions, including a satiric video on “The Daily Show” featuring comedian Roy Wood Jr. discriminating against clients while dressed as a Starbucks cashier.
We got a hold of Starbucks’s racial bias training video: pic.twitter.com/ePXy5Qqtzr
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) May 30, 2018
“I thought it was funny,” Nelson said of the bit, “and it was also respectful, in some ways, of what Starbucks is doing. For us in making this film, it was more that we wanted people — black and white — to hear things they hadn’t heard before. That was our feeling. Some of these things are very painful. Even African Americans don’t want to talk about this among ourselves.”
Nelson said he hoped other corporations would create similar projects for their staff. “We need to find a way to start fixing this country,” he said. “That’s what’s important for corporations to realize. Most people realize that there’s a problem.” Still, he acknowledged that a new surge of public racism has made that job harder. “There’s a strand in this country saying, ‘We are going to choose to be racist,’” he said. “That’s very scary. I don’t think that was there 10 years ago. Some people won’t listen to any message and there’s nothing we can do about that.”
But Nelson, who is currently in post-production on a film about Miles Davis, said he felt optimistic about the prospects for filmmaking to play in impacting the national conversation. “There are certain things that films can do, to open people up emotionally,” he said. “Just by having people speak from their hearts, you believe them, and you trust them.”
Watch “Story of Access” below: