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'And She Could be Next': A New Look at Women of Color in Politics

By Kristal Sotomayor

Georguia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (middle). From Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia's 'And She Could Be Next.' Courtesy of Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia

And She Could Be Next, directed by Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia, is a two-part docuseries that follows the campaigns of six women of color running for US public office, including Stacey Abrams (Georgia), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Lucy McBath (Georgia), Veronica Escobar (Texas), María Elena Durazo (California), and Bushra Amiwala (Illinois). Taking place over the span of the 2018 midterm elections, the film documents both historic wins and detrimental losses, while amplifying the grassroots transformation of the US democratic system. The miniseries is executive-produced by Ava DuVernay and will premiere June 29 and 30 on POV, marking the first time the PBS showcase has ever presented a multi-part documentary. 

The film is produced by a diverse cast and crew that includes field directors Yoruba Richen, Geeta Gandbhir, Amber Fares, Deborah Esquenazi, Ramona Emerson and Anayansi Prado. This range of perspectives is also present within the film by the inclusion of key community organizers such as Nse Ufot, executive director of The New Georgia Project. From on screen to off, And She Could Be Next is a unique endeavor to portray US politics through the perspective of women of color. Ufot joined directors Lee and Safinia for a conversation with Documentary about the series. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: How did you start out with the idea for the series?

GRACE LEE: In 2013, I directed this episode for another PBS series called Makers: Women Who Make America, and I did the "Women in Politics" episode. At that time, I met Rashida Tlaib. She was a state representative in Michigan. For the first time, I actually met somebody who I thought, “Wow, I would love for someone like that to represent me.” She was young, she was the daughter of immigrants, and she was a Midwesterner, which is where I’m from. She is really rooted in her community. I'd never seen a politician like that before. I realized that these people on the local level are really the ones where the action is. Then, fast-forward a few years later, Jyoti Sarda, who is our other producer, approached me about doing something related to women in politics. I really wanted to focus on women of color. Representation is something that we also struggle with in [the documentary] field. I felt like here's an opportunity to bring everything together, everything that interests me personally and, politically. Jyoti is not a filmmaker; that's when I called Marjan.

MARJAN SAFINIA: Grace is someone who I've been friends with for a number of years and obviously I really admire her, not just as a filmmaker, but as a voice for the kind of representation in our [documentary] community and as a field- builder. Anyway, Grace called and said, "I'm thinking about doing this film about women of color in politics." I was still reeling, to be honest, from the effects of the 2016 election. I'd lived [in the US] for many decades but I decided to become a citizen so that I could vote in 2016. I was feeling very personally exhausted and hopeless by what was happening in our country, and I was feeling hopeless. The idea of doing something that centered both race and gender in a very unapologetic way, in a story about American democracy, was just super-thrilling. It was a complete no-brainer for me to immediately jump on board.

D: Nse, as a community organizer, why do you think And She Could Be Next is important? How do you see this film playing into your work?

NSE UFOT: It was such an honor to be a part of the film and the process and telling stories about what is possible, but also demystifying the [electoral] process. When you think about certain figures, particularly political figures and the work that happens, often we are looking for messiah-type heroes. I'm hoping that, by our participation in this story and telling The New Georgia Project's story, people realize you can be a regular person and make meaningful change in your community.

D: Marjan and Grace, why did you decide to collaborate with a field-directing team of women of color? And how did you go about dividing the filmmaking?

MS: This was one of those non-negotiables for us from the start. In our own ways, we’ve been fighting this lack of representation and who gets to tell whose stories in our field for many, many years. It makes a radical difference who gets to tell whose stories and who represents whose stories and then how those stories represent entire segments of people. We're tired of a system in which people's stories are often told by not the best storytellers for that story. We knew we were going to need extra hands because of the scale of the story and the fact that it was all happening on one single timeline. There was no physical way that we could cover everything. But, much more importantly, we knew that we would tell better stories if we had a Black woman telling the story of the Black women and if we had a Muslim woman telling the story of the Muslim women.

GL: We wanted to match closely the communities we were following with people who understood those communities deeply. For example, in Texas, Veronica Escobar [was paired with] Deborah Esquenazi, who made Southwest of Salem and she's Latina and based in Texas. Same with Los Angeles: Even though Marjan and I live in Los Angeles, we wanted Anayansi Prado, who actually knew María Elena Durazo and worked with her before, to do that story. She speaks Spanish and she's familiar with the issues. I'm familiar, too, and we actually live very close to each other, but we wanted Anayansi to dig into that relationship more. Same with Yoruba Richen in Georgia [with] Stacey Abrams and Lucy McBath. Amber Fares, who's lived seven years in Palestine, made a film there and is Arab American, [was paired with] Rashida Tlaib. In a project like this, where we're talking about representation and politics, and expanding democracy and having a movement of women of color transforming politics from the ground up, we should also live our values in the way that we made the film.

D: Nse, as a protagonist within the film, what was your experience filming this series? What do you think is the importance of having women of color as directors filming other women of color?

NU: I don’t see how I or my organization would have participated had they not had the crew and leadership that they had. They had women of color behind the camera asking questions. I'll be honest, I wasn't the easiest to participate or deal with at the beginning. We were in the middle of a major election and I have a staff of several hundred young people who, in some ways, are really new to politics. In the beginning, it felt like an intrusion into my life and my work. After building and being in community, listening to the questions that were being asked of me, and hearing this story that they're trying to tell, and knowing the filmmakers' stories themselves, I allowed myself to open up. It's essential that their life experience gives them a perspective that is not always shared by the dominant society, that isn't always shared by some storytellers. So, adding some texture and color to the list of storytellers and the stories that they're telling benefits us all. We learn more, we develop empathy and it's so necessary.

D: How did you go about picking the candidates that you chose to document?

GL: That was also a long research project; there are so many people running, especially in 2018. Right now when you look back, it feels like, "Oh yeah, you got all these people." But at the time, [women of color running for office] wasn't something that most people were talking about. We hadn't had the wave that had come to Congress. We were just anticipating the stories that we've always been telling. Jyoti and another producer, Andrea Meller, were following leads that we would get from people, looking at different parts of the country. We definitely wanted diversity in every sense of the word—not just ethnic diversity, but also geographic, age, experience, all of that. It's like any documentary when you're following multiple characters. The ones who ended up filming with us saw the value. They understood that it might be annoying to have a camera trailing you right now, but it is, in a lot of these cases, really historic.

MS: This is a story about democracy and super-local government like Bushra Amiwala running for the Cook County Board of Commissioners. It is just as vital to participating in a civic life as it is to run for governor or anything higher. We wanted to make sure that the women we followed centered the issues that kept all of us up at night when we worried about this country and where it was headed. We wanted to make sure that those issues were centered in these women's identity and in their work. These are women who have been in movement work, fighting for social justice and equality for a long time. In a way, the next evolution of their social justice work was to run for office. Once we put those markers around things, the list narrowed. From there it was just [finding] compelling women who wanted to participate and be part of this story.

D: Something you don't see a lot of in documentaries about politics are the community organizers on the ground. Nse, what did you think about the inclusion of stories such as yours?

NU: I really do appreciate the filmmakers highlighting [community organizers] because there are millions of one-on-one, face-to-face conversations, millions of doors knocked, millions of hours thinking about how we bring about the change that we seek. I want people to know that it's going to take all of us, that we've never been able to compete with the enemies of progress dollar for dollar. We likely never will be able to do so, but we do have people power and that's what powers our movement, that's what wins campaigns and that’s what I want us to focus on. And so the pressure is on. I think that And She Could Be Next is just going to add gas to that fire, and I'm super-pumped about it.

D: Having shot for months with different candidates across the country, how did you go about editing hundreds of hours of footage?

MS: Mad, mad props to our editor, Juli Vizza, who really did exceptional work. I think that we knew from the beginning that this was a story of a movement and that we didn't want to tell individual portraits. We wanted to tie these stories together; actually, very early in the development, it was conceived a bit more as individual portraits. But it became really clear as we spoke to different women, who were in different states, doing different levels of work, that there was still an enormous amount of shared experience in the obstacles that they were facing. It became very clear that they were all people who were part of one story, one movement, and we wanted it to be inter-cut. We cut for about a year and a half and plotted away at it with great help from Juli to just try and boil it down to the essential piece and to always keep this idea of organizers as well as candidates. Organizers are as important as candidates at the forefront of our storytelling.

US Congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib, from Marjan Safinia and Grace Lee's 'And She Could Be Next.' Courtesy of Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia

D: How did you decide to make a documentary into a mini-series with two episodes?

GL: From the beginning, I always wanted it to be a series. It's such a huge topic, there's no way you can get it all in. We didn't know what shape that would take. At the time, we got a lot of pushback. There were a lot of films being made about women candidates, the wave of women, the Women’s March, all of that kind of stuff. A lot of distributors had the opportunity to say, "Let's just wait, sit back and see what's gonna happen to any one of these projects." We had to go back and forth. Plus, we didn't know what was gonna happen either. Maybe everyone would lose, or maybe everybody wouldn't go anywhere. Then, somewhere along the line, we started talking to POV. It so happened that this year, which is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, where some women got the right to vote, they were planning this massive "Trailblazers" programming initiative. They were looking for stuff related to women and politics, and plus it's a big election year. POV is excellent and I'd worked with them before on my previous film about Grace Lee Boggs. They were a great partner. [The mini-series] ended up being three and a half hours total, but over two nights.

D: How did Ava DuVernay join the crew as executive producer?

MS: Ava is someone who Grace had a relationship with from before. We were hustling and trying to put this thing together and facing all those barriers that we all face when we're walking into rooms and asking for large amounts of money to tell a story that's all about women of color. Ava is synonymous with this idea of representation and changing the narrative and who gets to tell whose stories. We reached out and she was very gracious and has been supportive. Ava is centered not just around filmmaking; but she centered her identity also in making sure that doors and opportunities opened for other women, particularly women of color. So it just felt like a good fit, and we're thrilled that she agreed to join as an EP. And in the end, like the stories we see in our film, this is not the work of one person to fix something that’s broken; it's all of our work.

D: For women of color in documentary, it's significantly difficult to obtain funding. Can you talk about how you went about getting funding for this massive undertaking?

MS: We had a pretty significant budget. I think that one of the things that, generally, we're told as documentary filmmakers is that we should be able to do things on a shoestring. Since we had stuck a stake in the ground about making sure we had a woman of color and a person-of-color crew, we weren't comfortable with trying to nickel-and-dime folks. People needed to be paid, so we weren't really willing to acquiesce to the forces that might suggest that we should take some numbers out of our budget. It was a big list [of funders], but we did it piece by piece, which is how we all have to do it in documentary. The majority of the money came in close to the end, which is how this game works, which is terrible because the majority of our costs didn’t come in right at the end, so we just had to make do. I don't know that it would have been possible for us to do something of this scale had we not both had 20 years of building a profile for ourselves.

D: Something I really enjoyed about the movie was how vocal it was about politics and the change that you want to see. This film will probably be compared to Knock Down the House because it's also about women running for office during the 2018 elections. Unlike Knock Down the House, And She Could Be Next has an unapologetic portrayal of women and people-of-color politics. You don't shy away from taking a side on political issues and on amplifying our voices both in front and behind the camera. Why did you choose to make this film political throughout the filmmaking process?

GL: We wanted people who were really close to the issues, whether it's immigration, the border, Islamophobia, gun violence, all these things. The people closest to the pain are the ones who should be telling these stories and who should be representing us. Look at what's happening right now with COVID. Which communities are getting hardest hit? It's the same communities that we're talking about in this film: Georgia, Michigan, Texas, all of these places. That was really important to us, too, because this is not a campaign film. It's not a film about some Messianic figures coming in to save us. None of these women need saving. We really wanted to tell a political story about the United States at this moment and we weren't gonna shy away from race and gender. How can you tell a story about politics in America right now without talking about those things? That was very important to us: The movement that brings all these people together, the movement of organizers and candidates. The candidates would not be there without these people on the ground making sure that they speak to what the community wants. That's what we wanted to document.

MS: I think what was really important for our project was, with great intention, to center race and gender. I don't think that it's possible to have a really astute conversation about what's happening in this country without centering both race and gender. From the get-go, that was a non-negotiable about the project, not just in front of the camera but also behind the camera, and then really understanding the candidates. I think we have a frailty in this country of wanting to make heroes. America is built on the hero narrative and I think that we do this with folks who are in office as well. We are expecting a savior. We're expecting a hero who is going to come and fix everything, and that's really not how it works. It works because of people power. It works because of movement-building. It works because of helping them find their own voice and then letting them use it. That kind of focus on a movement, as opposed to a series of candidates, is something that was super-central to what we were trying to tell, and I think that’s part of the difference that you see.

US Congresisonal candidate El Paso’s Veronica Escobar, from Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia's 'And She Could Be Next.' Courtesy of Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia

D: How do you define being American, having a democracy and the right to vote?

GL: My parents are immigrants, but I was taught from a very early age to have a voice and participate. I've voted in every election since I was 18, because that really is your voice. They grew up in a country where they didn't have that. For me, the promise of the United States is that we have a representative democracy and a government that looks after everybody here. I think that was one of the driving forces to try to tell the story of And She Could Be Next. We talk about the new American majority, women of color, young people, progressives. We made this film because we wanted to show what inclusive democracy actually looks like. I think it's here. There have been so many people who have just been turned off by politics and who have been ignored by those who are in power. It's what makes me so excited about The New Georgia Project. They recognize that if they just got people to see civic engagement as integral to their lives, we would be in a different position right now instead of just letting our leaders walk all over us.

MS: If we look at what America is today, we see that [people of color, women, and young people] are on the precipice of being a majority. It's certainly not a majority of all white men. When we look at our lawmakers who pen the laws that govern our lives, they are still majority white men, so for me democracy is an idea that we hold. We can have a separate debate about how functional the current American democracy is, but the ideal of democracy is a profoundly exciting idea. The idea that we all can shape the image of this world that we live in and it needs to be shaped and reshaped. It's a living, breathing thing and so, for me, the ideas that are central to being American are justice, inclusion, possibility, and dissent. I think dissent is fantastically American.

NU: I'm a naturalized citizen. I became a US citizen in high school and I think that, in a lot of ways, that is part of why I do this work. I'm a fierce patriot. I believe in the Constitution and I believe that the promises of the Constitution apply to me and my family equally as they apply to anyone else. So I work every day to make sure that we have elected officials that also abide by the rule of law, believe in the Constitution, believe in our unalienable rights, and see themselves as champions and defenders of those rights, making sure that those rights apply to everyone. I understand that in a lot of ways they are an ideal, and I work to make sure that we are pushing toward that.

D: What do you think the viewers can learn from your story with The New Georgia Project and from Stacey Abrams? Do you think And She Could Be Next could inspire people to vote?

NU: [I hope people learn that] it is often darkest before dawn, and don't quit. We know what it's going to take to save ourselves, to save our family, save our communities and we should trust ourselves and trust that knowing. I believe that we will win, and we're very, very close. I certainly hope that people are inspired to vote. I want people to come away knowing that voting is the least thing that we do to bring about the change that we seek. It's voting and then protesting and then organizing and so on. Voting is an important tool in our tool belt, but it’s not the end-all, be-all. I want people to see it as an obligation, as a duty, as a strategy. It’s imperative, as one of the things that we have to do in order to bring about the change that we seek.

D: For this November 2020 election, do you think the voter suppression in Georgia has changed or is it the same? Do you think this And She Could Be Next could help bring a national conversation?

NU: [And She Could Be Next] already has elevated this conversation to a national conversation, and it needs to continue. In a lot of ways,[the November 2020 elections are] going to be worse. We're already seeing them spend tens of millions of dollars to challenge states like California for mailing out absentee ballots to voters. In a lot of states, they're mailing absentee ballot applications. California said, "Forget all of that; we're just going to mail every registered voter a ballot to make it easier," and the Republicans are suing the State of California and wasting money to prevent that from happening. Georgia is an open carry state where people bring guns to church and the grocery store. We absolutely expect that to show up at the polls. There are over a million people who have requested an absentee ballot application in Georgia, and we're getting hundreds of calls and complaints every day that people are not getting their absentee ballot. It is absolutely still a concern. I think that folks are absolutely fighting it. I hope that this film serves as a wake-up call and also a how-to-guide on how folks can get involved either as a candidate, running for federal office, state or local office, or getting involved as a volunteer or a staff person with one of these elections buildings and community organizations. There is a role for us all in protecting democracy and maintaining the integrity of our elections.

D: How are you going to handle outreach and community screenings during the COVID lockdown?

GL: Everyone is pivoting to digital everything. On the one hand, it's sad because we were hoping to have all these screenings with the community. But I feel like everyone just has to deal with the reality of organizing online. Maybe closer to the fall there will be opportunities to maybe do some in-person things. The one advantage is people are home and hungry for content. I don't think anybody wanted to talk about politics for a while, in the first couple of months, but now I think it's coming back around because this is really critical at this moment.

MS: We have a fantastic agency that we're working with called The League, based in New York. They are also a collection of very, very talented women of color. We had a big plan that was very much rooted in physical community screenings and physical campus screenings. Like everyone else, we've had to pivot, and we're still working it out to an extent. The blessing and the curse is that potentially there are many more ways to reach people because 100 people can be in a room somewhere but many, many more people can be online. But then you have to cut through the noise of all the other people competing for their attention. Our impact conversation is really focused around this idea of there is an organizer in all of us and the idea that we all step into our power. By keeping those two ideas at the center of the work, we really want to re-inspire a sense of civic engagement. Our impact goal is to remind people that 2020 is right around the corner, but elections come every two years—and more when you add in local elections. There are going to be elections constantly coming and elections are really just a tool for reaching a more fair and just society.

NU: I'm looking forward to our viewing of And She Could Be Next in this age of social distancing where we are taking it very seriously. But I also think that this series is going to spark important conversations and I want to figure out a way to view it in person, in a social-distance way. This is the moment that we are being challenged by, but we've decided to meet that challenge and meet it head-on.  It's going to make us better organizers and figure out how to move people into action. And it's going to fundamentally change the campaign and how work gets done on the other side of this. So I'm really happy that it exists in the world, and I can't wait to be a part of discussion groups and help create discussion guides and all of the things that we can use to build on top of this as really organized people.

D: What advice do you have for young women of color interested in following in your footsteps to create change in their community through film and organizing?

GL: There are so many pieces of advice. Tell the story you wanna tell. I've worked on a lotta different things and I've been commissioned to work on things. But the only way my career has advanced is when I dig into the story that I care about, the one that I wanna tell, because I haven't seen that story before. I wanted to see a series of women of color as a movement in politics. Nobody from Netflix is gonna assign that to me. Make the story that you wanna tell. The other one is, Find your people that you’re gonna work with, because it's really hard. I couldn't do this alone. This has been one of the most rewarding projects, but also one of the most difficult. I say this every time I make a project, but I've been smart about finding the right people to work with—Marjan especially. There's a special mix of not just politics, but politics within the documentary world—race and gender politics. All of these things infused this project, and we have had to navigate a lot of different things. It's exciting because that’s what I care about, but I couldn't have done it alone. I probably would have collapsed in a fetal position a long time ago. But to have somebody else there, another woman-of-color immigrant who gets it—that's what keeps me going.

MS: If you ask most women-of-color documentary filmmakers how they ended up making documentaries, they're going to tell you it's because they didn't see themselves or stories about themselves reflected on screens and they felt an urge to do something about that. So in the end we know our own story. We understand if and how they have been misrepresented by the sort of dominant gaze and we have the power to take steps to reframe the narrative. So I think you just gotta jump in and get wet and understand it's a bumpy road and it's extra bumpy for certain groups of people because we just aren’t given the same kind of access. But we are in a changing moment in the world of culture and media where there is a growing understanding of the importance of representation. There are certainly some really fantastic inspirational role models, like our executive producer Ava DuVernay, who just changes the paradigm with every piece of work about what's possible. Don't ask for permission.

NU: I would say, Develop some rigor around whatever your organizing tactic is. If you are a storyteller or a journalist, it's important that you operate and move with integrity. If you are an attorney, the same rules apply. I would also say, Trust your voice and get in a community with people who you can learn from and people that you can teach.

Kristal Sotomayor is a bilingual Latinx freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and festival programmer based in Philadelphia. They serve as Programming Director for the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival and Co-Founder of ¡Presente! Media Collective. Kristal has written for ITVS, WHYY, AL DÍA, and Submittable. They are a 2020 Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow.