Laying It on the Line: Film Director Samantha Knowles Stays Mobilized
Winner of the NAACP’s Image Award, filmmaker Samantha Knowles has investigated and depicted the intersection of racism and alienation many times over. Her latest work with Magnet explores workers of all backgrounds finding belonging.
Four days after the shooting in a Buffalo, New York, grocery store that targeted the Black community, film director Samantha Knowles struggles to express her thoughts. “These kinds of traumatic, horrific events, whenever they happen, a lot of Black people, we experience it differently than how the public might experience it,” she says. “We experience it as trauma, and we cry and get emotional, but it’s not necessarily surprising at the same the time.”
As an artist who addresses the Black experience and social bias, Knowles has investigated and depicted the intersection of racism and violence many times over. So her reaction of unsurprised shock is understandable. Yet her concerted effort to make the expected not seem accepted is palpably frustrating. “It was not surprising to me and it is our worst fear. It’s constantly our worst fear. And then it happens,” she says. “Many people say, ‘Now I’m mobilized,’” she adds. “I’ve been mobilized. That’s why I make the films I do.”
The winner of the NAACP’s Image Award, Knowles turned her lens on her hometown of Warwick, New York, for the 2018 NY Times documentary The Blue Line, which explored the mixed reactions in the small community when a blue strip in support of the police was painted on a main street. The film revealed how the varied interpretations of the act caused a rift among residents. For Knowles, it was a line that forever severed her from the town of her youth.
“Many people say, ‘Now I’m mobilized.' I’ve been mobilized. That’s why I make the films I do.”
“It was a very bizarre and at times difficult experience because I was experiencing this issue that the nation was dealing with in a personal way but also as a filmmaker,” Knowles says. “There was a meeting, a very climatic meeting in the middle of the film where things just kind of blow up, and I was there as the filmmaker and as a resident of Warwick, and it was just such an odd feeling. In a way I think it was lucky that I got to experience it as a filmmaker because I think it helped me process it in a particular way.”
In the film, Knowles interviews Warwick residents, asking them questions about race and policing. When petitions begin to circulate, it’s clear that there are underlying racial prejudices. Knowles takes it all in with her calm, critical vérité approach, filming as mistruths, hurt, and anger surface among her neighbors of twenty years.
Working within a complicated emotional register is something of a Knowles trademark. “I love to tell stories about people who are empowered but who are also very humanized, like the series I just did for HBO called Black and Missing.” Produced by Soledad O’Brien and Geeta Gandbhir, the docuseries profiles Derrica and Natalie Wilson, sisters-in-law who founded a grassroots organization to spotlight missing people of color, a group often overlooked by traditional media. It was for this series that Knowles won the NAACP Image Award as well as a Spirit Award.
With any subject, and particularly with traumatic topics like those addressed in Black and Missing, Knowles carefully stewards the process, artistically and psychologically. “Very often, with my body of work, I’m part of the community I’m representing. But we’re not a monolith; we’re different people in the community. I think it’s really important to work with the people that you’re featuring in your work. Black and Missing is an example. We honed our approach specifically to the fact that these were subjects that were going through something horrible, we really needed to be led by them. We needed a ‘do-no-harm’ approach.”
"I think a lot of documentary filmmakers right now feel we’re really lucky to be working in this time when documentary film is kind of exploding on a lot of fronts."
She takes this care and focus on the subject to her work with her corporate clients as well, work that she’s finding prevalent as well as rewarding. “I think a lot of documentary filmmakers right now feel we’re really lucky to be working in this time when documentary film is kind of exploding on a lot of fronts. There are a lot of streamers and now even corporations are embracing documentary as a medium and as a storytelling device.”
Magnet recently partnered with Knowles on a series of films for hiring software company Greenhouse. “I think when Magnet reached out about working on the Greenhouse project, what really attracted me was the challenge of taking the story about hiring and making it essentially a very human story,” Knowles says. “A lot of the stories I explore are very human stories; they’re about people at a crossroads in their life.”
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