New Study Highlights Role Documentaries Play in Shaping National Conversation About Race

Exclusive: The report's aim is to show that in a time of rising public distrust of mainstream media, documentaries are viewed as a trustworthy source.
A still from Always In Season by Jacqueline Olive, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Washington PostAll photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
"Always in Season"
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The Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI) — based at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, D.C. — today released its new study “Breaking the Silence: How Documentaries Can Shape the Conversation on Racial Violence in America and Create New Communities.” Its aim is to show that in a time of rising public distrust of the mainstream media, Americans view documentary storytelling as a trustworthy source and a driver of communal discussion on topical social issues like racial violence.

Conducted in early 2020 (prior to recent nationwide racial justice protests), at the center of the study is the documentary “Always in Season,” an award-winning 2019 documentary which follows the tragedy of Black teenager Lennon Lacy who, in August of 2014, was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina. His suspicious death was ruled a suicide by local law enforcement, but Lennon’s family believed Lennon was lynched.

Directed by Jacqueline Olive, the film chronicles Claudia’s quest to learn the truth and takes a closer look at the lingering impact of over a century of the lynching of African Americans and connects this form of historic racial terrorism to racial violence today. The film is a co-production of Independent Television Service (ITVS). It premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and made its broadcast premiere on ITVS’ flagship series, Independent Lens on PBS in February 2020.

The study included over 200 participants in seven geographically and politically diverse cities in the U.S., and it found that at a time of unprecedented levels of media mistrust, the award-winning documentary provided a “true portrayal of a real problem.”

“I am heartened that this study finds that ‘Always in Season’ is helping communities to break down cultures of silence around racial violence,” wrote Olive in her foreword to the study. “Not only has the film encouraged people to speak out and become more conscious about lynching and related issues of racism, it has also provoked people to actively confront them in many ways.”

“Intimate, truthful independent documentaries play a unique role in fostering civil public dialogue around complex social problems,” said Caty Borum Chattoo, executive director of CMSI, in an official statement. “It’s meaningful, in these divisive times, to understand the richness of community conversations around racial justice that took place when people were able to watch ‘Always in Season’ together.”

Other key findings per the report include:

  • Documentaries are reporting critical stories on racial violence and other social issues that local and national media are overlooking.
  • Documentaries are helping people build a sense of shared community solidarity.
  • Documentaries are effective tools for community building.
  • Documentary-based community events are disrupting cultures of silence, provoking change and helping people to create new communities.
  • Documentaries are planting seeds of further learning, further action, and further self-awareness – all of which were then further developed through the community conversations that followed.

The study was funded by ITVS, made possible through support from the Ford Foundation. Read the full study right here.

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