A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone focuses on the life and work of muralist, activist and educator, Edythe “Edy” Boone, a self-taught artist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Filmed over five years, filmmaker Marlene “Mo” Morris follows the spirited and captivating septuagenarian who became an artist/activist simply because empowering and building community is “the right thing to do.”
In the following UNFILTERED blog post, Mo shares reflections about documenting muralist and social activist Edythe “Edy” Boone.
I met and fell in love with Edythe Boone (or Edy as she is known) when she taught my girls art at a Berkeley, California elementary school. Tough and compassionate, wise and funny, she lived through segregation and Jim Crow maintaining her faith in humanity. When the City of Berkeley honored her significant community contributions by proclaiming an annual “Edy Boone Day,” I came away believing that everyone should know about her. Like so many of the people Edy inspires, I found myself looking up to her too, and wanted to share her brilliance with a wide audience.
As a (not so young) film student, I began developing A New Color to capture what I’d witnessed repeatedly in the classroom: Edythe’s creative example sparking students to imagine new possibilities, challenge preconceptions and become agents of social change.
Edythe with two students painting mural at Berkwood Hedge Elementary School, Berkeley, CA (courtesy of Geoffrey Biddle).
So many documentary films are made and told through the lens of people like me — a privileged class of media makers. But, Edythe trusted me. And, I believed I could tell an authentic story. I drew strength from our relationship and my years as an immigration lawyer, cross-cultural trainer, and community mediator. I was mindful to build a diverse team that would “check me,” challenge me and support me throughout the process. However, what anchored me most was, and is, my affection for Edythe, the faith I have in the potential of cultural connections and the humility it engenders.
Edythe and me – having fun at Mill Valley Film Festival premiere party (courtesy of Jessica Jones).
Representing the intersection of so many marginalized groups – an African-American woman artist in her 70s with modest means – Edythe’s complex identity made my head spin. She was open about her life, accessible to me and intent on building a bridge of understanding between us. Later, I learned that as a child Edythe lived her first six years with an orthodox Jewish family. I shared with Edy the anti-Semitism I experienced as the only Jewish girl in my elementary school. She, of course, emphasized what we had in common. (Oh, and did I mention we’re both Aries, too!)
Admittedly, I was not fully aware of just how difficult it would be to represent racially charged events and everyday slights without having the lived experience of a Black woman in America. Edy and I had long conversations. I made mistakes. Advisors and production team members of color offered insights that helped me understand cultural differences and nuances that I simply did not know.
I tripped. For example, I used the adjective “gritty” to describe the City of Richmond in promotional materials and the residents of Richmond were offended by its coded meaning: dirty. Clearly, I had blind spots, but the blinders were coming down. Thanks to my team, these and other missteps were discussed openly among ourselves and with Edy, too. Given Edy’s personal and professional ethics, I wanted to be sure we were standing on solid ground, not only with her and for her, but with the community she embodies and represents. Yes, some conversations were more difficult than others. I learned and I grew — a lot!
At first, my proposals told a simple story about the value of school art programs. I intended to follow master teacher, Edythe Boone, for the year it took her and middle school students to create a mural advocating for access to healthy food in West Oakland.
What happened next changed the course of the film.
On our first production day at West Oakland Middle School, we found the students reeling after a weekend shooting incident had caught the school’s 13-year old star basketball player in its crossfire. Quickly redirecting her lesson plan, Edythe calmed the students then gave each child chalk to draw prayers for their friend Kenny on the court.
West Oakland Middle School students making chalk prayers for friend, Kenny (courtesy of Mo Morris).
On the following day, our crew went with Edythe to her other job at a senior center. Edythe facilitated dialogue to build community and uncover the group’s concerns about living in a high crime area. What emerged front and center for these elders was the pain they felt burying their young ones. The haunting image of wheelchair-bound seniors carrying a teenager’s coffin became the central image of their mural, and, the new direction for our film. Tragic as this topic was, it became necessary to witness Edy and her brand of art activism.
Long after the youth and seniors completed their murals, the story simply could not be tied up with a neat bow.
The world had broken open with the viral dissemination of videos documenting police brutality committed against Black men and women. Far from surprising to communities of color, these images were shocking to many with white privilege. We watched Edy help her students’ use mural making to grapple with the alarming number of shootings of unarmed young Black men. After Trayvon Martin’s murder, Edy guided young children in a housing project to paint a mural of kids wearing “hoodies” while clutching teddy bears.
Detail of student mural in Richmond, CA with teddy bear motif (courtesy of Mo Morris).
The issue hit home on July 22, 2014, when police in New York killed an unarmed man, Eric Garner whose final words, “I Can’t Breathe,” became of rallying cry for racial justice protests around the country. Eric Garner was Edythe Boone’s nephew.
Edythe is the eldest of ten siblings. Her family includes fourteen children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She found herself in the “eye of the storm” receiving calls from family across the country when her nephew was killed. The families shock heightened when the grand jury failed to indict the white officer responsible for Garner’s chokehold death.
Edythe was exhausted (as were the film team’s production funds) and neither she nor I believed we had the wherewithal to go back in the field. Moreover, we had just reduced 70 hours of footage to a final cut and were ready to submit to film festivals.
When Erica Garner, Edythe’s great niece came to Oakland, it became clear that Eric Garner’s death and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement was authentic to Edy’s story too. Therefore, A New Color‘s production team swung back into action to capture Edythe speaking alongside her niece and others like Oscar Grant’s “Uncle Bobby” who had lost loved ones to state violence.
In the edit suite, we struggled to find the film’s narrative arc but finally, it became clear — Edythe Boone’s personal legacy was to be the backbone of the film. Spanning from Harlem to Berkeley and from Malcolm X to Eric Garner, A New Color became an intimate portrait of an extraordinary woman artist who is disarmingly candid about her life and fears. Edy’s work and life have a mission, vision, and purpose and hers is a model for effective resistance. The fortunate people who are touched by her love are left inspired to live life more fully.
Edythe Boone with Councilmember Max Anderson and others at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Q & A panel (courtesy of Maureen Gosling).
While screening A New Color at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Berkeley Councilmember Max Anderson, summed it up perfectly. With tears in his eyes, he said: “The color that Edythe hasn’t discovered yet, but we all know she exudes, is the color of love. And if we can all begin to paint in that color, we will change the course of history.”
See a special collection of video “love letters” to Edy from friends, students and family members: #LoveMatters – Hugs to Edy
Director/producer Marlene “Mo” Morris calls Berkeley, CA home and has been producing and editing videos for nonprofit and educational organizations for over eight years on topics as wide-ranging as ecology, domestic abuse survivors, Jewish choral music, and restorative justice. She has been associate producer and editor on film projects with internationally acclaimed Bay Area filmmakers Jed Riffe, Maureen Gosling, and Abby Ginzberg. As associate producer at Berkeley’s Center for Digital Storytelling, Mo collaborated to create Silence Speaks, an anthology of short videos featuring survivors and witnesses of human rights abuses and domestic violence. With two young daughters, Mo followed her passion to study documentary filmmaking and sought out internships to gain practical experience. Years of social justice activism and professional experience as a mediator and immigration attorney enrich Mo’s approach to documentary filmmaking. A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone is Mo’s first feature film.
A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone will have its U.S. television premiere Tuesday, February 14, 2017 at 8 p.m. on WORLD Channel (check local listings), as part of the award-winning documentary series AMERICA REFRAMED.