Last May, 88Nine Radio Milwaukee released a series of conversations on the web in which 10 people talked about the experience of being a minority in America – and in Milwaukee and Wisconsin in particular.
On Saturday, a newer, expanded film version of that project premiered at the Milwaukee Film Festival as Invisible Lines, part of the Cream City Cinema programming. The film features frank talk about color lines, racism and prejudice as experienced by the people in the conversations – and it deserves to be seen more widely. In fact, the film is part of the work of understanding that Milwaukee needs to do more than anything else.
In the film we see Darren and Vedale, brothers who are co-founders of a North Side art studio, speaking in a matter-of-fact way about being mixed-race kids on the South Side and experiencing hostility from their neighbors, about the capricious (and perhaps racist) dress codes of some Downtown nightclubs and about being stopped by police for “driving while black.”
Vedale says he’s pulled over about twice a month in Milwaukee, and Darren tells a story about being stopped when police thought they saw a gun in his back seat (it turned out to be a broken toy). They put him in their squad car, and he texted his wife that he’d be late for dinner. “I wasn’t even upset that the dude panicked and put his hand on his gun, or that they pulled me out of the car, grabbed my hand and stuff,” he says. “I was mad because I was on my way home from work with two pizzas and they were getting cold, because they kept me there so damn long.”
There’s a conversation between Vaun and Latoya, in which she describes the killing of a neighbor she witnessed in front of her house, and her difficulty sleeping afterwards. She also talks about hostility from white residents on a trip she took up north. Later we learn that the boyfriend of one of her daughters – a young man she loved like a son – was also killed, and we see her grief as she talks to him at his grave.
Dianné and her mother, Luz, talk about being Puerto Rican in Wisconsin, and the challenges of speaking Spanish here. Dianné, a UW-Milwaukee student who aspires to medical school, tells about picking up trash other students had thrown on the floor in the Union and scolding them – only to have one of them respond with an ethnic slur. Jeanette and Selma talk about the difficulties of being gay in minority communities, and Amelia describes a blatantly racist confrontation when she traveled up north to a basketball game with her school.
There’s also a long conversation with Reuben Harpole, who remembers growing up in the 1940s when Walnut Street was the cultural heart of black Milwaukee and visiting movie stars and jazz musicians could often be seen walking there. And Harpole holds forth on his philosophy of education, a field where he’s worked for much of his life.
Dance, music and poetry performances by Milwaukee artists are woven throughout the conversations – perhaps the most memorable being SistaStrings playing and singing a beautiful version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
After the original six-part series of conversations was released in May on 88Nine’s website, on social media and also in audio on the air, all six segments were shown together in a public program in June at 88Nine, including live discussion from some of the people featured in the conversations.
The film screened Saturday was a reworking of the original series, with some scenes re-shot and new material added, including the cemetery scene with Latoya. Laura Dyan Kezman, video producer at Radio Milwaukee and one of the three creators of Invisible Lines, (the other two were Vianca Fuster and Nate Imig) says the producers are working on more public screenings of the film. “Due to the response on Saturday we’ve gotten many requests already,” she said in an email Tuesday.
Imig says you can inquire about screenings on the film’s website. “Our ultimate goal is to get as many people in Milwaukee and beyond to see it as possible,” he says.
You can also still see the original series on the 88Nine website if you don’t want to wait for the next screening.