GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A new documentary produced by a group of Grand Rapids creatives aims to highlight the city’s civil rights struggles and empower change.
“There’s so much [to learn],” said Victor Williams, filmmaker. “There’s so much when you’re documenting a community that hasn’t been documented.”
In 2018, Williams, Jazmyne Fuentes and Rodney Brown formed Grand Stand Pictures, a film-production company that’s focused on “the Black journeys and debates in Grand Rapids.”
Within months, they began work on their first project, a documentary based on the book A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids.
Entering 2022, the film is in its final stages of production and set to be released next August.
“It provides a lot of insight into a lot of the games that are played here in the city for a very long time,” said Fuentes. “There’s kind of a facade of a progressive, very open-minded community, but then there are a lot of road blocks that are thrown out at the same time.”
The book was authored in 2012 by Dr. Todd Robinson and studies issues around school integration and bureaucratic reforms.
It argues the “post-war political reform championed by local Republicans transformed the city’s racial geography, creating a racialized "city within a city," featuring a system of "managerial racism" designed to keep Blacks in declining inner-city areas.”
In an interview with FOX 17, Fuentes exemplified the Auburn Hills Development Project, in which a group of Black men wanted to create an integrated neighborhood in the city’s northeast side, but were denied.
“There were a lot of things done within the city to make it sound like this was a great idea and it would be well received by the government and by businesses, and yet there were just a million road blocks just put in the way,” said Fuentes. “Planning commissions would just bar things or table things forever.”
READ MORE: Grand Rapids' streets to be renamed after civil rights leaders
Fuentes added, “They kept feeling like they were getting a lot of support, and yet they didn’t even recognize how many of the road blocks were coming from the very people who said that they were supporting them.”
Grand Stand Pictures says the book articulates the Black experience in the city, but the film allows more people to understand and learn the ways in which it impacts their present lives.
“It’s a relationship whereby it’s always going to be in the interest of white culture and the business interests of this community no matter how you cut it,” said Brown. “The fact that we have a president that came from South High School, President Ford, and one of the greatest soul-singing legends in the world, Reverend Al Green… we never lift up Al Green in telling our story about our Grand Rapids.”
Since starting work on the project, Grand Stand Pictures says it has partnered with Dr. Robinson, interviewed countless people in the city’s southeast side, and held numerous community meetings to shape their work.
The company also recently acquired space in the Community Media Center’s Wealthy Theater Annex building. The goal is to turn it into a media incubator and help cultivate people’s interests in music, art, film and photography through training and apprenticeship opportunities.
“It’s [managerial racism] keeping people from achieving certain goals, from having opportunities available to them,” said Williams. “Our mission is to create an employment base of Black people here in Grand Rapids that can do these jobs and thus be able to go out into the community and fulfill some of these roles.”
READ MORE: Gov. Whitmer grants $65,000 for two projects in Michigan focused on Civil Rights history