For filmmaker Yoruba Richen, the germ for Crooked Lines, a documentary about the fight against racial gerrymandering in North Carolina, was born of the tragedy that was Donald Trump’s election in November 2016.
Richen, along with co-directors Monica Berra and Jackie Olive, came together to make the 11-minute short about how the Republican legislature in the Tar Heel state was using gerrymandering to keep themselves in power, and how that doesn’t bode well for anyone who is not a straight, white, Christian man.
“For me, it was seeing what was happening in North Carolina around the trans bathroom bill. I had been reading about how the Republicans in 2010 had taken over the legislature and were pushing all these really conservative, draconian bills,” says Richen, who said that heretofore North Carolina had been known as a beacon for the “progressive south.”
“And in 2016, there were a lot of questions of how did this happen? The issue of gerrymandering … I’d heard of it vaguely, I’d followed it, but it wasn’t until [Trump’s presidency] in 2016 that I really focused on it and started to understand how deep this was.”
For filmmaker Monica Berra, her connection to the state was a bit more direct. She’d gone to film school there as a graduate student, arriving right after the 2012 election, and got to see first hand the “whiplash” that occurred when the legislative and executive branches fell into Republican hands.
“It was the first time in many, many decades that Republicans had full control of the legislature and the governor’s seat as well,” she says. “And some of my first projects were involved in a lot of the activism that came out of that election and a lot of reactionary politics. So after 2012, fast forward four years, after another election, and I was just interested again to see what my previous home state was doing to respond to that election, and landed on a lot of the activism surrounding voting rights and then to the fight against gerrymandering.”
The third of this talented triumvirate, Jackie Olive, arrived in North Carolina in 2014, about the time that they passed HB2 bill, which rolled back rights for gay and transgender citizens (it was eventually amended).
“I was just really struck by how oppressive the policies were coming out of the legislature. And also at the same time, I was really surprised by the longstanding activism that was going on there,” she says. “I mean, nationally, people were tuning into gerrymandering in 2016, but I was really impressed by how educated people were about gerrymandering in the state.”
One of the most educated activists is a black woman named Val Applewhite, a black redistricting advocate, and plaintiff in the Covington v. North Carolina, which challenged racial gerrymandering in North Carolina (and won—but the struggle definitely continues.)
The filmmakers see the film as extremely timely as we near the 2018 midterms; it highlights the power of grassroots organizing, the importance of protecting one’s right to vote, and the forces at play that attempt to depress the black vote.
The three women of color (Yoruba and Jackie are African American, Monica is Latinx), were initially introduced through their connection to Stanley Nelson’s Firelight Media—and the rest, well, you now know. But inquiring minds wanted to know, how was it to have “three chefs in the kitchen?”
“I had not planned to co-direct a film, but I just started to warm up in the last few years with co-directing; particularly with black women, [it] was appealing to me,” explained Jackie.
“When we were on a shoot together, like Yoruba was on the shoot with me in Fayetteville, Yoruba was the director and I produced, and there were times when I directed and Yoruba produced. And I think for me that’s been a really good way to parse out the roles,” she added.
Yoruba agreed, saying, “For me, I loved the process and I loved working with these guys but also there’s sort of a structural thing; there are definitely structural barriers in terms of money and who gets jobs and who gets to do what, and I think that there’s something very powerful about us getting together and putting together our resources and our expertise and telling the stories that we feel innately passionate about.”
“At the end of the day, this was a story we really wanted to get out there,” said Monica. “I don’t think that any one of us felt super possessive about it … the collaboration at the end of the day made the experience and the storytelling that much more rich.”