October 16, 2020
Disability, Blackness, and Representation: A Conversation with Black Disabled People in Filmmaking
Andraea LaVant: Thanks so much for having me. Hello. Good evening to everyone. So thrilled to be a part of this conversation this evening talking about Disability Blackness and Representation: A Conversation With Insiders that I think is certainly important to me. And I'm really excited to be able to do this with such a powerful group of Black disabled performers and filmmakers.
So before we begin the Q&A portion or the panel portion of this discussion, please do ‑‑ we will hopefully have some time for questions later. So if you have those, please feel free to use the Q&A box. I would like to have our panelists come and introduce themselves and provide an audio description.
So if we can, can we start with Rodney.
Rodney Evans: Hello. I am Rodney Evans. And I am an African American male and I'm wearing a black shirt with a blue T‑shirt underneath. Sitting in my kitchen with Film Forum New York City poster in the background in the hopes that they will be reopening soon for in‑person screenings.
I'm in front of a white wall and a black hallway. I have hair that is shaved on the sides with little twists on the top. And I am the writer, director, producer of the recent documentary Vision Portraits which chronicles the experiences of blind and low‑vision artists including myself as the film's director.
Andraea LaVant: Thanks, Rodney. So thrilled you are here. Forgive me for not providing my own audio description. I am in my home office/living room with a teal couch behind me and some pictures. I am wearing a black and white patterned dress, a purple beaded necklace, purple lipstick, turquoise and purple and black cat‑eyed glasses, and I have shoulder length curly black hair. So, thank you.
Now I would love to bring in Thomas. If you wouldn't mind to provide your introduction and audio description.
Thomas Reid: Hello everybody. Can you hear me okay?
Andraea LaVant: Yes. Thank you.
Thomas Reid: Good. My name is Thomas Reid. I am the host and producer of Reid My Mind radio podcast featuring compelling people impacted by all degrees of blindness and disability. Occasionally I share my own story as a man becoming blind adjusting as an adult. I do voiceover work as well, which includes narrating audio description. I've done several independent projects as well as have things on Netflix. I'm currently seated in my home office/den/workout room. It's one of those slash rooms.
In the Poconos in northeast Pennsylvania which is probably 90 minutes outside of New York City, the place I still call home.
I am an African American male with brown skin, freshly shaven bald head with shades on and a goatee. And I have what I believe is a tan shirt, which I'm told highlights my undertones by my daughter, and I don't even know what that means. That's who I am.
Andraea LaVant: I love it. I know exactly what that means. Thank you. We're thrilled that you're here. Let's have Diana.
Diana Elizabeth Jordan: Hello, everyone.
Can you hear me?
Andraea LaVant: Yes. Thank you.
Diana Elizabeth Jordan: Okay. Hi, everyone. I'm Diana Elizabeth Jordan. I am an African American woman. I have brown skin, red lipstick, short curly woo woo hair that's kind of all over the place. Woo woo hair.
I'm wearing a black floral dress. Big flowers on it. I am an actor in theater and filmmaker, solo artist, and a disability including artist. Artist educator. I like to do a lot of things. I am based in Los Angeles. My film Stand Up, directed by Kitty Hu and Dasha ‑‑ I don't want to mess up the last name. Costarring with Tatiana Lee in that movie at Superfest I believe on Sunday. I'm very happy to be here with these distinguished artists.
Andraea LaVant: Thank you, Diana. And now I would love to bring Charles Blackwell in whose film just ‑‑ we just had the pleasure of witnessing or seeing. Charles, would you provide more of an introduction and an image description for us, please.
Charles Blackwell: Okay. I'm Charles Curtis Blackwell. I got two lives. As a visual artist I'm Charles Blackwell. As a writer I'm Charles Curtis Blackwell. There's another Charles Blackwell that's a writer. I'm sitting here right now with my co‑worker and friend Jimmy Evans. We work at Youth Spirit Artworks in Berkeley. He's a visual artist and has a baseball cap on. Chocolate brown. He's a good brother. And me, I'm African American. What kind of? Am I tan? I have to ask him. I'm partly blind. I got a tan color. I got this shirt from a vendor. I think it's like an African design. It's the triangles going down. What color is it? Red?
Jimmy Evans: Green, gray, and black.
Charles Blackwell: Green, gray, black, and white. Let's see. I said I'm tan. I still got a little hair on my head. It's gray or white?
Jimmy Evans: White.
Charles Blackwell: I have to ask. So I'm ‑‑ I write in terms of poetry, short stories, theater plays, and trying to get the novel put together right now.
And lyrics. And I'm a visual artist doing abstracts. Pieces on musicians like jazz and movement. Create movement and color and design. And also I've been doing dances. The same thing, trying to capture movement.
And one of my favorite pieces I did some pieces on Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He was a totally blind horn player out of Newark, New Jersey. Originally from Columbus, Ohio. He resided in Newark, New Jersey at one time. I think that covers it.
Andraea LaVant: Yes. Thank you so much. So I actually would love for you to stay on, on video, because I'd like to begin our discussion since we just, your film was just shown. God Given Talent. Charles, I was wondering if you could share, your film shows ‑‑ let's make sure our interpreters are here with us. Your film shows an effort to create a space for Black disabled identities as the discrimination that you faced can't be reduced to just race or to just disability. So I'd love for you to speak about the impact that sharing your story through the film had on you personally and also how you think that it's been received so far.
Charles Blackwell: Wow. That's a lot. I like the way you put that. You know, I think I've learned to ‑‑ what can I do to be an inspiration and an encouragement? I did a research report one time. It was the Sacramento County low‑income/disabled in Sacramento, California. You know, me with my disability and I was meeting other people with disabilities and the low‑income. And it's kind of sad because the struggle and, you know, being cut out, left out, forced out. And it's there. And having a disability makes it even worse.
And so, you know, finding myself interviewing people and sometimes even trying to help them and I know it's kind of crazy, but me being disabled trying to help somebody. Yeah, it is real, and probably some of you all have done the same thing.
So I guess I try to put to work Martin Luther King. He didn't want to be remembered as someone that received the Nobel Prize. What did I do to help somebody?
It's kind of like in a sense it's like putting a philosophy to work. If you remember Vietnam, the Vietnamese didn't win the war based on military might. They had a philosophy. That philosophy, I don't know the name of it. I've heard it before. It said if it took us one year, two years, ten years, 20 years they did not want to be ruled by someone. They were determined based on that philosophy. In the end it was the philosophy that they continued on and they beat the big military might.
And so, I take this thing of taking the arts, trying to be an inspiration and encouragement because the fact of the matter is, African American people are beat down. And covered in the film I was working in the prisons. When I admitted to the inmates I was at Soledad Prison.
You know, I've suffered from poor self‑esteem. Immediately somebody said, yeah, that's what got me in prison. I wasn't going to go in college but Vietnam was going on. Man, Vietnam got me in trouble. People made me feel like they had a Ph.D. I was taking the setbacks, the bad breaks, the things that happened to me and I'm using all this stuff in a classroom at Soledad Prison. These people made me feel like I had a Ph.D. when I left. I felt like I had given something from inside of me.
I hope I'm answering what you're saying.
Andraea LaVant: This is great. This is great. And I want ‑‑ I'd love to bring in some others for us to see, I think even adding to the story and to hear more from you. Let's do that. This is amazing. Your story is so powerful.
So, I'm going to bring in, let's see here. This is kind of a free‑for‑all question. So I would love to start with anyone who is ready. I would just really like for you to kind of discuss the dualities. We just mentioned it with Charles and just talking about the dualities that you face as storytellers living at the intersection of Blackness and disability.
And I'd really love to hear your thoughts around how disability is or is not represented within Black film making and storytelling.
So perhaps Diana, would you be open to sharing here?
Diana Elizabeth Jordan: Um, I always like to say this is a billion dollar question because there is so much to unpack about the intersection of those identities. But I think what I'll do is I'll make it very, very personal. The question is that I can't deny ‑‑ it's part of my identity both. I can't want to deny either one of those identities. I've had cerebral palsy all my life. I don't know any other identity but having a disability and being Black. I came into the world Black. That's always been my identity. But what I've found is the barriers I've faced being in this career no matter what. Either ‑‑ I'm usually ‑‑ no matter what marginalized group I'm a part of, I still feel marginalized. For example, maybe if I'm in a group of other disabled artists I might be one of the only African American ones. I feel that sense of being one of the only ‑‑ or woman, woman of a certain age. Even in the African American community and films I still have a disability. So I experience these marginalizations within communities that are still marginalized. We're not visible for the most part on film. I've made a decision to say who do I want to be as an artist? What stories do I want to tell as an artist? I want to be part of the humanity of storytelling as an artist. Therefore it's important to me, no matter what story is being told, that there are diverse images and culturally diverse images of disability. We are the largest minority and we're the most diverse minority. Not just someone who uses a wheelchair. There's diversity on this panel. If we're truly going to use storytelling to tell our stories, there needs to be diversity within that storytelling, and hopefully as artists we are continuing to chip away the barriers. We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go. The majority of them have been Caucasians. I'm very happy for my friends. We still have a million barriers to break within Hollywood and within the Black Hollywood community, too. I think that's what I'll say for now.
Andraea LaVant: Good. I realized I was doing my church head nod.
Diana Elizabeth Jordan: High five.
Andraea LaVant: Yes, honey. I hear. You hit it. I'm not even going to say any more. You hit it. Anyone else? Rodney? Thomas? Charles, your thoughts as it relates to that intersection. Rodney. I see you.
Rodney Evans: Yeah. I can talk a little bit about that. Yeah. I would say similar things in that, you know, I'm Black. I'm openly gay. I'm partially blind. And all of those are different aspects of my identity. Right? I feel like when I walk into the room I want to bring all of me into the room. Right? And all of those are aspects of my identity that are going to be reflected in my storytelling, you know, and some of it is going to, you know, maybe draw on, you know, one aspect of my identity more than the other. But I think directly speaking to that intersection, I think the film that I just finished, Vision Portraits, you know, was really me kind of coming out publicly within the industry as a low‑vision director.
And, um, and, you know, that was something I really grappled with and I thought it was important to actually see me grappling with it in the film.
I do think there is still stigmas attached to doing that. As a director you hear the words "low‑vision" and, you know, that is going to put me into ‑‑ I think Hollywood loves to pigeonhole people. That's going to put me in a box of maybe not so competent. Maybe not the most visual director. What can he see? What can't he see? Even I've been doing it with this diagnosis for the past 23 years and building this body of work, those are still obstacles I'm going to come up against.
So, you know, I do feel like, you know, given the fact it's one in five people in the U.S. that has a disability, I do feel ‑‑ and I know people e‑mailed me after the film came out. They were really saying thank you for doing this.
Telling me that they were, you know, had vision in one eye. Never had vision in another eye or were always scared their entire life that someone would find out and they would lose their livelihood because they were a graphic designer or they were a filmmaker and it was this burden that they carried around for decades.
You know what I mean? And so for me the film was really a way of stepping into the fear of publicly acknowledging that disability and not being afraid of it. And really incorporating it as part of my identity and looking at the ways that other artists who are either blind or low‑vision incorporate that into their art and how that changes their art whether they are a photographer. You know, there's an African American dancer in the film who speaks about some of the challenges she faces. There's a writer in the film. I got to do a lot of exploration in this documentary.
So yeah. I don't want to have to hide certain aspects of myself. I want to fully come in as the multifaceted Rodney, as Black and as gay and as disabled as I am.
Andraea LaVant: I hear that. And it's so interesting because that even what you were sharing about kind of people sharing afterwards, you know, how it impacted them and I hear that in film spaces. I hear that in corporate spaces. When one person comes out of sorts with regard to disability and then more folks coming forward.
So that's super powerful especially as storytellers. And yet also I'm sure we look forward to the day when there's ‑‑ it doesn't take that, too.
Rodney Evans: Right.
Andraea LaVant: And not have to prove ourselves to move forward. Thank you so much.
Rodney Evans: No problem.
Andraea LaVant: Let's move on. Thomas, I'd like to bring you in. I know that as an advocate for access in cinema, how do you think good audio description needs to be? Can you share a little bit about it not being just about disability, but also understanding Black identity.
Thomas Reid: Yeah. So let me break that down into some of the components of what I think is good audio description and talk about it in that sense.
Good audio description or AD has several components. It's about being respectful, meaning you don't try to explain the plot because blind people can figure out the plot by themselves. You don't over describe the movie. For example, when a phone is ringing, there's no need to tell me a phone is ringing. I heard the phone. Right?
So you don't censor those things you find offensive. Because if it's on the screen and if it's in the story, we should know about it. Right? Good AD means good audio. I shouldn't have to ride the volume control up and down to hear the audio describer and then higher or lower to hear the actual film.
You take the time to make that audio right. Good audio description doesn't step on dialogue. Right? At its core, good audio description is about providing access to the visuals. Those who see ‑‑
Andraea LaVant: Sorry, one second. We are going to switch interpreters.
Thomas Reid: If I'm talking too fast.
Andraea LaVant: No worries.
Thomas Reid: You let me know when.
Andraea LaVant: We're ready now.
Thomas Reid: Okay. Yeah. At its core it's about providing access to the visuals. Those who see the film learn certain information about a character that can be their color, sometimes ethnicity, or race. Other indicative information about the person, it can be relevant to how they interpret that film.
Blind viewers also should have access to that information. Right now the so called rule that's in effect is that race or color is only given when it's important to the plot.
And people like me, we like to say this is America and race is always important. It's usually in the plot.
There are other situations, too, where it's important. For example, how about a blind child who should know that there are people on their screen who look like her. Or just as important, there are people on her screen that don't look like you and in different roles, playing different roles.
They should know whether or not a film is or lacking in diversity. And then it's up to the consumer, the viewer to do whatever they do with that information the same way a sighted person can see it, know it and they interpret it the way they interpret it. Right?
So, unfortunately the rules were literally written by a white man who has the benefit of thinking that race only matters sometimes. That sounds a little provocative, but it is the truth. Unfortunately the intent may not be malicious. I think the intent is similar to the idea of being color blind when it comes to race, that approach. We all know how that worked out.
Bad audio description in that same vein assumes that white is the default and bad audio description can literally erase people of color from a movie. We don't know they are there.
And, you know, that's problematic to me. Good audio description is sensitive to language, pays attention to people and places, and is culturally competent. Good AD won't draw you away from the film. This can include the voice of the person who is narrating. I like to talk about Black Panther because it is such a great example of that. We know that Black Panther was more than a movie. It was a cultural moment.
And it was all about beautiful Blackness on screen, and not just in terms of the visuals and the people, but in terms of the representation.
I like to say it was all Black everything. You know what I'm talking about.
For blind consumers it was not that.
Because the voice of the AD narrator was literally that of a colonizer, meaning it was a British white man who is probably a very nice person, but why was he narrating? It took me, literally it's not supposed to disrupt you from the film. It took me out of Wakanda and put me into Wa‑can‑da. That's literally how he said it. Good AD takes all this into consideration and allows the blind consumer to have a experience that's as close to a sighted viewer as possible. Good audio description, I like to say, is about inclusion.
And on that note, and just real quickly, and this in no way represents ‑‑ this is my opinion and it doesn't represent Mr. Blackwell, who was the subject of the film or Superfest for that matter. For me, watching a film that has the subject matter of a Black man who is blind, and there's poor or very limited audio description, to me it feels, and this is my opinion, it just feels a little exploitive.
To me, getting the opportunity to talk to Mr. Blackwell and as you heard, encouragement is such an important thing to him and his story is such an awesome story for people who are adjusting to blindness. Yet a person adjusting to blindness will not get the full story because of the audio description. That's one example. I'm not coming down on that movie. What I'm saying, in general, when there's a movie, and the subject matter is a person who is blind, and this has happened before and the person ‑‑ or I'm sorry, the audio description is maybe not even existing, I think the message is that it's not for blind people. Yet the subject matter is about blind people. That to me is a problem. I know I've given passes in the past to people who have done that. As my daughter says, it's 2020. We have Google. And to me, if you're writing a movie, if you are going to do a movie about a blind person, one of the first things you are going to do is how is a blind person going to access this film? If you make a decision to not do that, that's your decision.
I personally say no more passes. I don't think we should be giving out passes. I mean this about access in general. No more passes. Hopefully, Andraea, that answers your question.
Andraea LaVant: When I tell you I'm like, I'm speechless. First of all, your daughter and I want us to be friends, just let her know. All of that. No more passes. That is so huge. These are things, and I think what happens so much, and I've learned this most recently working as impact producer for Crip Camp, even as disabled folks, you know, we don't know everything about the experiences of our peers with disabilities that have different disabilities. I'm a wheelchair user. I'm sitting here like, oh my god. Wakanda. I'm grateful. Thank you so much for schooling us. That's not even sharing. That was schooling us. Thank you.
Rodney, as a follow up in a previous discussion that we had you shared about audio descriptions being an art form.
And can you share a bit more of your approach to this for your film?
Rodney Evans: Sure.
You know, I just want to say that I, you know, fully echo everything that Thomas just said. And, you know, so my approach was coming from the blind and low‑vision community because when I would mention what film I was working on they were like you are not going to do one of those awful audio description tracks are you? They are so bad. You know, they have no emotion. They are like monotonal. For all of the reasons that Thomas just said, you know, the word on the street was they were bad. You know what I mean?
And so I want to, I'll say real briefly I went to a talk that a disability studies scholar who is blind named Georgina Kleege who teaches at UC Berkeley was giving about audio description and showing examples of that audio description. I raised my hand. Do you have anything to say to a filmmaker and any advice how to do audio description that doesn't suck? She basically was like be involved in the process. It's part of the film making process. Don't let people take it away from you. You labor so hard on all of these other aspects of the film. Like stay involved in the audio description. Like make it a part of your creative process.
And so I took that advice.
And when I hired Erin Deward to do the audio description, she did a first pass on it. And I will say that I'm a filmmaker that likes to have moments for a film to breathe. So there were visual montages.
There were places for her to do audio description where she wasn't stepping on interview bites or observational dialogue or things like that. So just creating the space for that audio description to happen was already something that was in the cut. Right? And so, but, you know, I was involved in the language she was using. We discussed different words. We passed the text back and forth. Just really specific one word things like should it be orb? Is that the shape of light that's coming up from the bottom of the screen? And I think of it as poetry in its ability to be really succinct but really detailed and give you that visual image through language.
And I was also there when Erin was recording so I could give her direction. We were there and the sound editor was there. We could drop it into the cut, see how it was playing.
You know, try something different. Try a new phrase even as we were recording. So it was still a creative process as we were doing it, as we were recording and testing it out and seeing if it worked.
So, yeah. That's my thing. It's just like be one of the filmmakers that stays involved in the captioning and in the audio description of your film. Don't let that just get farmed out to some place where somebody else is going to take care of it. Then it will come back and it won't be satisfactory and you won't be able to do anything about it. So this way I had control of it. I had the say it could go out with the audio description to festivals the way that I wanted it to.
Andraea LaVant: Love this. Thank you so much. Oh my god.
Diana, I have a question for you, and then, Mr. Blackwell, there's some great questions in the Q&A that I'd like to bring you into as well. First, Diana. We talked a little bit about this when you were speaking just a bit ago, but I want to talk a little bit more about representation because we have seen reformation in other movements with regard to who portrays who. Right? And yet there's still so much misrepresentation in the media where non‑disabled actors are often playing disabled actors. I'd love for you to speak to this issue specifically as relates to representation or lack thereof of disabled people of color.
Diana Elizabeth Jordan: Sure. You know, again, you know, we have questions that could lead to a yearlong conversation which I know we don't have.
I'll break it down a little bit. Yes, it has been a long accepted practice in Hollywood for non‑disabled actors to portray actors with ‑‑ to portray characters with disabilities. Actors have won Oscars. I did my research, blah, blah, blah. Disability is a lived experience, not a trained skill. Right? People don't ‑‑
Andraea LaVant: When you said it the other day. Oh yeah.
Diana Elizabeth Jordan: You would never hear Russell Crowe play Martin Luther King. I researched what it was like to be Black and I hang out in the Black neighborhoods and ate some soul food and I really feel like I can embody Martin Luther King now. You know, we would be up in arms. Most recently where actresses have said, oh I'm not going to play that role. Halle Berry said I'm not going to play a transgender character. I am not a transgendered woman.
It's been accepted. I think we as an audience need to voice our opinions about why it's not acceptable because Hollywood is a money thing. We're not as a community saying this is not okay and continuing to say this is not okay. I think we need, you know, we are doing that. I think the more we can continue to say that. I think, again, we hear, "it's acting." Of course it's acting. Again, you wouldn't say that with the transgender community. Again, that's not said to other communities.
One of the things that needs to happen, and, you know, as we need to continue to bang at the door. But then I think we have to create our own work. Right? The whole Black community, Black Hollywood in the thirties and 40s. That's what Black Hollywood did. White Hollywood wouldn't let them in. Continuing to bang and the door. We need to create our own tables. That's what Rodney did. That's what people on this panel did. We don't need to wait for someone, especially now. There's so many platforms, so much. We don't need to wait for someone to give us an opportunity. We can create our own opportunities. And that's easier said than done. Is that a challenge? Yes. But if we're not going to be let in, then we just need to build another door and go in another way. Right? That's the thing. Hey. We can build. There's enough talent in our community to build and create our own work. We don't need to wait for somebody, especially now, to give us an opportunity. It is nice when we get that opportunity and I've had really good opportunities and I'm very grateful, but again, we need to create our own work.
And also use our voices.
This is a business where you need to ‑‑ where finding a way to say what you want is really important. Is it easy? No. Is it important? Yes. There's a huge ‑‑ I was talking to someone the other day. I have a community and they are producing a show right now. I would love to come play with you sometime. She said I'm glad you asked. Maybe next season because they had the season this year. Why did that opportunity happen? Because we asked.
You have a panel here of people who created opportunities of finding those ways to break down those barriers and we are breaking them down ourselves.
Andraea LaVant: Thank you. Yes, yes, yes. All of that.
I want to bring Mr. Blackwell. There's all your fans in the Q&A box and so consistent question in the film you mentioned that a prisoner asked you if you lost your will to live when you lost your sight and says you answered quite honestly that you did.
Some folks are wondering, as it relates to your story, what was the motivation to keep contributing, to keep moving things forward? Where did that come from? And you are on mute. If you wouldn't mind unmuting for us. Not quite. We can't hear you yet.
Charles Blackwell: How about now? Can you hear me now? You mentioned a while ago about the intersection, and let's say when I lost my eyesight I was maybe at the intersection. And I was devastated. You know, I would stay in the room. People would come over to the house. I was at my mom and dad's house. I was 20. And I didn't know what to do.
I wouldn't come out and visit. I shut myself out which is really not good. I had given up. I would stay in the room. I remember I was crying once, twice a day.
And it was a thing of hope and to see. I had this girlfriend and I wanted to go see her.
And I was in love and couldn't do nothing about that either.
And I didn't want her to come to the house because my folks were hardline. Hardline Mississippi. My mother would say things. So I want ‑‑ I didn't want to hear none of that which is really bad situation all the way around.
And it was a cousin, this cousin I had was trying to get me into the university. She came, she was going to fill out the application for me. Let's do that later. Come on. Let's go.
We went and somebody had ‑‑ there was a party at an apartment complex. There was that. Hey, come on. Some of her friends got a bottle of wine. And I was doing things. And you might say kind of like the rocket ship that takes off and part of it breaks out of and then it keeps going and something breaks off. Drinking wine and hanging out and this friend and that friend. Things that would keep me alive.
And then somebody, I remember I went to a church and a minister came with a sermon. I'm going to set that down because there's someone here that's really given up. I'm preaching the sermon. He was preaching to me to rise up and live and don't shut yourself off. You might say to me I'm a down home church going brother. I'm a hip Christian. I'm not a right‑wing Christian. I'm not a fundamentalist. I'm going to say I'm a hip Christian. It was God and Jesus Christ that kept me alive in a real strange spiritual sense.
Let me add something else at that intersection.
Because I was 20/20 eyesight and things changed in a short amount of time.
So I was in the sighted world and I was trying to be, I wanted to be that person I was. And that was that kind of left me reckless. When I did get back into the swing of things, not staying in the room and out mingling with people and doing things, I was still trying to be what I was before. My friends, going to the nightclubs. Couldn't get a job. So I was hanging out. I got into college and approaching somebody. Hey, would you like to go out? Hey, I'll pay for the dinner. I'll pay for the movie. I was really just almost like selling myself short and getting rejections and that it just came more and more. Finally it was a friend of mine said look here man if Train would have been playing what he thought he wanted people to hear, he wouldn't have been Train.
You got to realize that, you know, I ain't buying and I ain't selling if you don't like what you see. I started adopting that. Realize becoming more and more like self‑esteem was being built. So the more and more I got into that. I was out of art for seven years, and in between that time I discovered that God gave me the talent to write. The same thing not knowing where to go with it.
And so I remember I took a class from the writer Eugene Redmond and I was in graduate school and I was talking with a brother, his name was Gralon Johnson. He met with Fidel Castro. The brother was from my neighborhood. Shows you how dynamic he was. I took a class from Eugene Redmond. He gave me an A. Blackwell, let me tell you something, Redmond doesn't give out As. If you got an A, you earned it. You must have been doing some serious work. He hit me between my forehead. Part of my problem was self‑esteem and trying to get to that place. Realizing I have a talent. Realizing I can be an inspiration to other people. Realizing I moved from that point of giving up and losing hope and moving to a plane of being assertive and creative and a moving force.
And the other side of that was when I did get back into the swing of things, I remember I had to go to voc rehab. It was kind of a brutal experience.
The guy says, interviews me for about an hour.
And then at the end of the interview. Okay. Boy, I'm going to have you come back. I was thrown off. The guy was totally blind. Hey, I can talk freely to him. He understands me, my blindness. He's blind. I got hit with a rude awakening. My dad told me something. He said ‑‑ I was angry. My dad was in the car. I told him what happened. He said he's testing you. This is Mississippi talk. Testing me? What are you talking about a test? It took me a while to figure it out. I realized what Ralph Ellison was saying in the book Invisible Man.
Andraea LaVant: Yes.
Charles Blackwell: You fill them with yeses and stuff them with nos until they drown in their own vomit. That's a sad thing to put to work, but it did work.
And I realized that I had changed when I lost my eyesight and God and Christ worked in my life. I had changed, but the world was still the same. The brutality of what I had to deal with. Years later I've been in this exhibit in the Chicago, used to be called the Chicago Guild For the Blind. They changed their name to Second Sense. I really commend them. It's a beautiful organization. Instead of saying you lost your eyesight, you got to get busy. Let's see if we can get you back into the work force. No. It don't work that way. The Chicago ‑‑ the Second Sense, the Chicago Guild for the Blind, number one they say hi, how are you doing today? How do you feel? That's very simple, but it's important. And then it worked from there. What would you like to do?
They wasn't busy trying to push you into some cafeteria management program for the Randolph‑Sheppard Act or push you into a computer program trying to push buttons. They said, "what would you like to do?" They pushed to make people, whatever it is you'd like to do, they are going to help you do it. I recommended people from the other end of the country. If you've lost your eyesight, try to get in touch with the Chicago Second Sense.
Anyway. I say that because they are, I've been in the exhibit about ten years now at the Chicago Guild for the Blind.
Andraea LaVant: Thank you.
Charles Blackwell: Hope I didn't talk too much.
Andraea LaVant: I'm not going to talk this fast. I want to do a lightning round. I just want everyone, one thing apiece. I just have a final question. If you were to prioritize and just say what's next regarding Blackness and disability in the media. What ‑‑ give us one priority. What's the first thing that needs to happen? Let's start with you, Diana.
Diana Elizabeth Jordan: One thing is we need to break down barriers so artists can have opportunities to work no matter what side of the camera it is. Making sure we have, you know, access. There are many points to access, but in order for us to work we need access. Physical access. The one thing I would say is making sure we have equity inclusion in access behind and in front of the camera.
Andraea LaVant: Wonderful. Thank you. Rodney. One thing.
Rodney Evans: That was kind of my thing. I will say that maybe I'll put it a different way. Disabled storytellers being the first in line to tell stories that center disabled characters. Like we get to the top of the lot. We get the first call on those stories because that's our lived experience. That's what we bring to the table and it has incredible value.
Andraea LaVant: Awesome. Yes. I'm with you. The snaps. Thomas.
Thomas Reid: Yeah. I'm going to take this straight from Mr. Blackwell because one of the things that stand out to me is collaboration. And I think we have so much talent among this community that if we work together like you learn from one another and we can build together to me there's so much power in that and I don't think we make as much use of that as we really should. I say collaboration and let's work together.
Andraea LaVant: Thank you. Mr. Blackwell. Any final words?
Charles Blackwell: I want to do a thanks to Jeff Giordano. He did the film and was walking around following me from one place to another with his camera. Even though there's a bit of criticism. He did some put toil and sweat into it. Special thanks to Jimmy Evans who hooked up this equipment to help me do this. To respond to the question we can't really expect a whole lot from Hollywood. One thing is if the story is told, a person can be themselves. And the other side is that like Thomas is saying about collaborations and quality wins out every time. No matter what the story is, quality wins out every time.
If I could throw this, there was a movie years ago called Let No Man Write My Epitaph. Motley kept his identity hidden. And he went to live on skid row Chicago and he didn't want people to know he was Black and he wrote this book that was turned into a theater play and became a movie. By keeping his identity hidden he got published. There was a scene in the movie, you might remember years ago, maybe every once in a while you might see it now. Very seldom. The man was on a little cart. Like a flat, a wooden cart that had some wheels on it. He didn't have any legs. So this was real. And the man is trying to get across the street and he barely makes it as this automobile almost runs over him. It hits you because it tells you how ruthless the society is.
And so I guess I'm saying the same thing. As long as it's quality it's going to win out. Quality wins out every time.
Andraea LaVant: Amazing final words. Thank you all.
Thanks everyone for joining us this evening. I know there are two more days filled with amazing events and I know there will be updates e‑mailed to you. Thank you to Mr. Blackwell, to Rodney, to Thomas, Diana. Thank you for joining me for this powerful conversation and I know I have some work to do. Thank you. Have a great night.
>>>: Thank you.