As I’ve been going to community cinema events for TULIA TEXAS, the documentary I co-directed with Kelly Whalen, I’ve come to realize that what makes them unique is that they do something that a broadcast cannot, which is reveal people’s immediate responses to the film. And it’s been fascinating to watch how those reactions have differed. Last night at the screening in West Hollywood, I wondered if this film about a drug sting in a small rural town would be relevant in a city as large and complex as Los Angeles. When we’ve shown the film in urban areas, I’ve sometimes been concerned that the Tulia story could be viewed as “something that couldn’t happen here.”
But at last night’s event, with a strong and diverse panel put together by Community Cinema Regional Outreach Coordinator Desiree Gutierrez, those fears were quickly allayed. The panel tied all the key issues in the film to Californians’ concerns. The audience heard from Stephen Gutwillig, the California director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Kim McGill, an organizer with Youth Justice Coalition, and Kevin Michael Key, a community advocacy leader. Stephen Gutwillig set the tone by saying “The war on drugs is the new Jim Crow.” Earlier, he had commented to me that a film like TULIA, TEXAS conveys the human cost of the drug wars in a way statistics cannot.
Kim McGill took this a step further by demonstrating what it’s like to deal with law enforcement on a daily basis. She asked for a volunteer from the audience to submit to a mock arrest. Playing the role of an LAPD cop, Kim quickly demonstrated how policing tactics that seem invasive are actually within the scope of California law. Kevin then spoke about his experience working with poor communities of color in Los Angeles and how these people are the primary casualties of the war on drugs. The audience was engaged in the discussion and as the conversation moved beyond the war on drugs to the gang war problem in LA and the prison industrial complex, it was enlightening and rewarding for me to see the film reflected in this larger context.
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