Burness Film Festival: A Journey to Become Better Allies
In the summer of 2020, issues of racial and social injustice were brought to the forefront, including acts of police violence on Black people, rising hate speech, violence targeted against Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders and the disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color. Since then, we have been on a collective journey to learn about the lived experiences of communities of color and about the challenges many face due to structural racism embedded in a range of institutions –– housing, education, the criminal justice systems and more. We have engaged in conversations across the company that inspired a company-sponsored film festival. Each month, my colleagues and I would select a film, announce it and provide Bunerssers a few weeks to watch the film on their own before convening together to discuss it.
Our journey started in September 2020 with the film Just Mercy, the real-life story of Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. The movie chronicles Stevenson’s early law career in Alabama where he helps those wrongly convicted or unable to afford proper legal representation. This movie led to a robust conversation about racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.
With discussions on a broad array of issues including everything from education, civil rights, gentrification, immigration and more, we’re nearly a dozen films in with a range of eye-opening conversations under our belt. The Hate U Give, a coming-of-age story about a teen straddling two worlds — one in the Black community where she lives and the other in an affluent white neighborhood where she goes to prep school – sparked a conversation about ‘the talk,” “The talk” is the conversation Black parents have with their children usually when they hand over the car keys for the first time about what to do and what not to do if pulled over by the police. History has taught Black people that if flashing lights signal for you to pull over to the right side of the road, your only mission is to avoid an exchange that can too easily go left — sometimes with tragic consequences. “The talk” is essential in American Black life and yet some in our Burness community had never heard of it. Our film discussion shed light on this rite of passage and opened many eyes to an unknown experience.
The unexpected turns our exchanges take are often as illuminating as the planned conversations. Even though we carefully plan and prepare for each conversation with clips and discussion questions, facilitators also embrace the opportunity to “follow the mood” — abandoning our planned presentation to follow the conversation as it naturally flows. This has led to some of our most frank exchanges where people have shared personal moments from their own lives that have helped to provide greater insights into the experiences that shape their perspective.
Other powerful conversations have emerged from the movie recommendations of fellow Burnessers as evidenced by our most recent film, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. This selection analyzed how storytelling in the West has helped to perpetuate a false stereotypical image of Arabs and Arab culture since the early days of American film to some of today’s biggest blockbusters. We discussed how more fully developed, nuanced characters are needed to provide a more realistic picture of this community as well as the responsibility shared by us as consumers to help change the stories told and not told.
For far too long, people of color have carried the emotional burden of living and working in spaces that diminish their existence. I’m proud this Film Festival gives us an opportunity to honor and better understand communities of color in all their complexity, challenges and humanity. Our discussions allow us to take an honest look at how some are cocooned in advantages they didn’t earn and others are cloaked in disadvantages they don’t deserve.
We come together, learn from one another and, more importantly, listen to one another. We’ve created a space for candid dialogue around racial equity, justice and inclusion, and we’re making inroads. An end-of-year survey found participants believed the Film Festival was a worthwhile experience that fostered strong collegial connections. We also learned many Burnessers watch the films with friends and families. We hope this means even richer discussions are happening at home. Last month, our colleagues in Nairobi launched their own Film Festival.
It means a lot that Burness is an organization that does more than offer performative statements — we are taking real action toward meaningful social change. The festival is part of a larger company-wide commitment to be part of the solution against racism and stand in solidarity with those who fight for fundamental reforms. Since the summer of 2020, Burness has contributed more than $100,000 in funds to anti-hate, anti-racist, pro-empowerment organizations and about twice that amount in pro-bono support of anti-racist organizations.
We can’t act on what we won’t acknowledge, and we can’t fix what we won’t face. The Film Festival has helped to create heightened awareness about the stark differences people of color experience and call on us to do what we can to level the playing field. The courage to authentically examine these issues in true partnership with other allies is an important step in ushering in meaningful change.
Film Festival Selections
Just Mercy (Available on HBO Max)
The Hate U Give (Available to rent on Prime Video and Apple TV)
Hidden Figures (Available to rent on Prime Video and Apple TV)
Selma (Available to rent on YouTube)
Living Undocumented (Available on Netflix)
The Farewell (Available on Kanopy for Free; Available to rent on Prime Video, YouTube, and Apple TV)
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Available to rent on YouTube)
Best of Enemies (Available on Netflix)
High on the Hog (Available on Netflix)
Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Available to watch here)