Documentary Roundtable: Producers Stacey Abrams, Kerry Washington and More Talk Big Tech's Hold on Distribution and Fighting the "Fake News" Label
Lebrecht: Irene Searles/Courtesy of Subject. Washington: Kerry Washington/Courtesy of Subject. Ziering: Emma Kofman/Courtesy of Subject. Bradley: Garrett Bradley/Courtesy of Subject. Moss: Rich Fury/Getty Images. Abrams: Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Documentary Roundtable: Producers Stacey Abrams, Kerry Washington and More Talk Big Tech's Hold on Distribution and Fighting the "Fake News" Label

Six of the season's most compelling documentarians — including Amy Ziering, Jesse Moss, Jim LeBrecht and Garrett Bradley — discuss censorship, how history is determined by who is in power and the one person they wish would watch their films.

As the status quo continues to be challenged and dismantled, documentaries are uniquely poised to tackle the day's most pressing issues, from voter suppression to the pernicious reverberations of sexual assault. It should come as no surprise that six of the year's most talked-about and critically acclaimed documentaries — All In: The Fight for Democracy, Boys State, Crip Camp, The Fight, On the Record and Time — do just that. All In, which was produced by and features Stacey Abrams as its star subject, delves into the history of and activism surrounding voter disenfranchisement, while Time director Garrett Bradley illuminates the consequence of mass incarceration through the eyes of a woman fighting for the release of her husband.

On the Record co-director Amy Ziering tells the harrowing story of music executive Drew Dixon as she struggles over whether to go public with a rape allegation against Russell Simmons, while the Kerry Washington-produced The Fight shines a light on the crusading ACLU lawyers who waged war on President Trump's so-called Muslim ban. Boys State co-director Jesse Moss turned his camera on a group of Texas teens who worked together to build a representative government, offering a chilling mirror of real-life partisan politics, while Crip Camp co-director Jim LeBrecht mined his own teen years in a summer utopia that spawned the disability rights movement. But all share a common theme of placing compelling protagonists against the backdrop "of the systems that control them or guide them or try to limit them or silence them," says Washington.

On Dec. 8, at THR's invitation, Abrams, Bradley, LeBrecht, Moss, Washington and Ziering converged via Zoom to discuss their films' origin stories and why censorship is creeping into the documentary space.

What's something you learned about yourself during the pandemic?

GARRETT BRADLEY Introversion is overrated.

STACEY ABRAMS I thought I was going to have time to teach myself to play the guitar. I clearly can't count, so the hours that I thought I would have, they never materialized.

JIM LEBRECHT I'm finding that the advantage is that I don't travel; as somebody who's a wheelchair user, travel is a bit more difficult. So [the pandemic] has made it easier to engage with people. [Videoconferencing] is actually in a lot of ways a more intimate way of communicating because [the camera is] this close to our face.

BRADLEY I feel like there was a moment, right when COVID hit, where there was this amazing opportunity for a pause, and I was really curious to see if that was going to happen — and it just combusted into unequivocally revealing all of the problems that have always existed in our country.

I was hiking, saw a snake and broke my ankle. It was the first time I was forced to stay still in my whole life. Seeing what was going on in the news and trying to think about what a pause would mean for our country — how could we repurpose everything that we know in this moment — has certainly stayed with me. I'm still lamenting that we have not taken that pause. I wonder what it would take for that to happen.

Why did each of you choose to explore your respective subjects?

ABRAMS I went for this job in 2018, you might have heard, I ran for governor [of Georgia]. It did not quite work out the way I was intending, and a big part of the challenge was voter suppression. My opponent was the secretary of state [Brian Kemp]. He was responsible for actually running the elections while he was the contestant. So he essentially got to be the referee, the umpire, the scorekeeper and the guy at bat.

Shockingly, he won, and over the course of his eight-year tenure as the person in charge of voting rights, he purged 1.4 million people from the rolls. He used a system that the Obama administration warned him was racially discriminatory, and in 2018, 53,000 people were held hostage. Their applications to register were not processed — 70 percent were African American, 80 percent were people of color — and we sued him about it a few years before, when he did it to 34,000 people. He oversaw the closure of 200 polling places, which according to an independent analysis meant that between 54,000 and 85,000 people could physically not cast ballots.

When I think about what Jim has done with Crip Camp, a lot of the people who were denied the right to vote simply could not physically access the location, and we often don't pay attention to what it means to be rural, disabled, poor when you take away opportunities to physically go to a place to cast a ballot. People who voted by mail, there was a disproportionate number of people of color who had their ballots rejected.

And so I didn't become governor. I spent about 10 days being really angry, going through all the stages of grief and suing him. We sued a lot of people. The lawsuits meant we got more votes counted, but it couldn't undo eight years of intentional suppression that was on top of what has been a 20-year effort to block communities of color, poor communities, young people from voting.

I was having a conversation with one of the young people who worked on my campaign about what was happening in Florida when the governor [Republican Ron DeSantis] undid a constitutional amendment that would have allowed returning citizens (former inmates) [the right to vote]. I know, Garrett, you've been thinking about what mass incarceration means and what happens when people are finally free. Florida has laws that are from, basically, the advent of Jim Crow, where they're intentionally stripping people of their rights forever. This community of people came together, got 66 percent of Floridians to say, "We want you to have your right to vote back," and the governor stole it again.

For me, the goal was to find a way to remind people about the long legacy of voter suppression that began with the inception of our country but also modernize it so people understood that even though we thought we vanquished this evil before, it never goes away, and we have to know the enemy if we're going to defeat it. And I wanted to put it in a film. I found a producer and a director and said, "I want to make this film, and I don't want to be in it." They listened to the first part. They did not listen to the second part.

BRADLEY For me, the motivation in making Time was very much coming from making a short film called Alone, which was also looking at incarceration from an inherently Black feminist point of view, and wanting to extend that conversation with another family as a way of showing the way in which many families are moving through the system. Part of the challenge is you don't want [your film] to stand as the monolithic experience. We need to have as many different entry points as possible to get to the crisis that is the prison industrial complex in America. It was very much about trying to extend and offer a conversation around the effects of the 2.3 million people that are incarcerated in our country and the families that are affected by that.

LEBRECHT In my case, I've been mixing documentary films for many years and have been an activist in the disabled community at the same time. I wasn't seeing the kind of film that I thought really was from the inside that spoke to our experience.

JESSE MOSS Boys State really began with a question about this intractable political division in our country that I think we all confronted very acutely after the election of 2016. In the space of Boys State, [there was] an unusual opportunity to look at young people coming together with very different politics and trying to find common ground, wondering what would that process be like, what would it tell us about where we're headed, and also how has the political discourse of our moment really trickled down and affected how young people are thinking about their political future.

KERRY WASHINGTON I would say we had a similar experience of not knowing what was going to unfold in the making of The Fight. It was those very early days after the Trump administration came into power and the Muslim ban was enacted. I was home watching on my television. I had sent bunches of pizzas to the protesters at airports and was following online all the different lawyers and witnessing how the resistance was going to take shape to this attack on human rights and dignity. People were chanting, "ACLU." I was thinking, "Who is going to be following these lawyers?" These are the people who are going to defend us against all of these issues — criminal justice reform, disabilities, LGBTQ, immigration rights, abortion rights. I felt like, "I just want to be in the trenches with the people who are fighting the battle." I started making some calls and doing some research and found out that the team that made Weiner [a 2016 doc about Anthony Weiner's New York City mayoral run] was asking the same question. How lucky could I be to be able to partner with these incredible filmmakers who are so good at vérité, disappearing, being a fly on the wall? We could tell this story together.

AMY ZIERING In the wake of #MeToo, our cellphones started ringing because [co-director Kirby Dick and I] had made two films in the sexual assault space. In the course of doing a series of interviews in Brooklyn with different women from different industries, we met Drew Dixon. I have done probably close to 500 interviews with survivors of assault, and I remember thinking that this was an exceptional interview, and I remember looking around the room afterwards because I understand my own feeling, but I like to test it, and three of the crewmembers were shaking and crying. I called Kirby and said, "This woman doesn't know if she's going to come forward or not, and she's terrified. But maybe we should just follow her." She didn't want to sign a release. We didn't want her to sign a release and [said], "Let's just see where it goes, and we'll keep doing the other project we were doing."

We started following Drew, and we ended up showing a few clips to Oprah Winfrey, and she greenlit the project and came on as an executive producer. It's hard enough as a survivor to come forward and tell your story, but what happens if you're a survivor and you're a person of color? The film really carefully unpacks that. Four centuries of disenfranchisement of women of color and their trauma needs to be acknowledged and changed.

WASHINGTON That's another thing that ties so many of the films together — there seems to be a real interest from all of us in unpacking systems, unraveling the systems in a way that Amy was talking about, placing these very personal stories within the context of the systems that control them or guide them or try to limit them or silence them. Or learning to navigate those systems as in Jesse's film. Systems are made up of people, and people have the power to transform those systems, to right the wrongs, to change the narrative, to create community in different ways, as in Jim's film. To Garrett's earlier point, if we can't pause as a country for a whole season, we, with our films, allow people to pause for like 90 minutes, two hours.

ABRAMS When I saw Time, I personally experienced it. I have a sibling who was in and out of the carceral system. I've got cousins and family members that we mark their release time. That's the language of how we talk about family members: "Oh, he's out." You don't have to ask out of what. It's shorthand. When I was in the legislature, I was often chastised because I would not vote for mandatory minimums. And when I ran for office, it was used against me because I don't care what the crime is. We have to have humanity in all of our decision-making, particularly when we are stripping someone of their freedom. As a nation, we are so blithe about stripping away years without any sense of a consequence for community, for family and this notion of what it means to be human.

How does this ubiquitous label "fake news" impact the work of documentarians?

ZIERING It's horrible. Trump is saying, "We can't trust the [election] results," and is grabbing the rhetoric of truth and twisting it so that you create an environment where no one knows how to interpret anything. It's extremely dangerous and it's really scary. There have been attacks on advocacy filmmaking, but you're not necessarily advocating for something by bringing to light injustices — it's a way of pigeonholing, just saying someone's an activist. You're just a responsible citizen. So all those words that try and silo us are really dangerous.

MOSS To me, it's a reminder that the institutions that sustain our democracy are under assault and things that we've taken for granted for so much of our life don't rest on a stable foundation. They rest on our willingness and our ability to make them healthy and stable, and I see that in the work of my colleagues here.

I think that's what motivated [me and co-director Amanda McBaine] — this sort of existential realization that this democracy, which perhaps I've taken for granted, is not healthy and it's not enough to vote. We have to do more, and so I think an assault on the institution of journalism and the free press is just a small part of what we've seen eroded, in certainly the last four years but stretching back much further than that.

WASHINGTON As a Black woman, I stand at the intersection of so many "-isms" and identity challenges within the structures that govern us, and yet, even I as a filmmaker, when we set out to make The Fight, I thought, "OK, we're going to have one case that deals with immigration, one case that deals with abortion rights, another case that deals with LGBTQ." And of course, the abortion rights case had to deal with a woman at the border who was fighting for her rights as a refugee in this country. And the case that had to do with immigration — which I assumed would be a woman from Latin America because of my own biases — was an African woman, a Black woman. So it's being open to that connectivity and drawing those lines for folks, so that, again, we realize that we are fighting the same fight together for each other — what Fannie Lou Hamer said, that unless all of us are free, none of us is free.

There have been growing concerns in the documentary world about censorship from both ends of the political spectrum. Do you see censorship as a real threat?

LEBRECHT When we look at funding for our films, there's certain limitations if you're going to be picked up by ITVS [an organization that funds and distributes documentaries on public media like PBS]. There are restrictions on who can fund your project based purely on politics.

I don't think anybody could possibly make a warts-and-all Jeff Bezos documentary any time soon. If you look at your six films, we have Amazon, Apple TV+, Netflix and HBO Max, and then Magnolia being the only true independent distributor.

WASHINGTON Even for us, our distribution goes to Hulu after, right?

ZIERING It's terrifying. As the streamers consolidate, the options become more limited. I saw a much more open window five years ago than there is now. Now they're chasing algorithms much more, and it's more clickbait than integrity. It's less investigative journalism getting funded. I do see it as something we have to be very concerned about and really supportive of each other and our films and finding a way to get them out and seen. With On the Record, thank God for HBO Max. When Apple pulled out, we were rightfully terrified. These are not easy films to get made, they are not easy films to get seen or distributed.

MOSS I see the hazard as there is as much self-censorship — and I speak purely of myself and just needing to remind myself to be a risk-taker, to be confrontational, to ask tough questions. It may be hard for me to look at because of my privilege and where I'm coming from, and I've certainly made conservative choices and the work that I'm most proud of has been the riskiest work.

LEBRECHT Let me ask a question if I might. So, for my evening television watching, I often go to YouTube, and we all have the ability to post something to YouTube. Now, obviously, these are not million-dollar videos that people are making, but asking people to tell your own story and post it — we're seeing incredibly compelling stories that are outside mainstream distributors. I'm not saying that they're not important, but I'm saying that maybe we should be encouraging people to also go out and tell their own stories in the first person and just get them out there.

Absolutely. However, I will say that for Michael Moore, it was YouTube that censored his documentary. The growing concern is that the number of gatekeepers has shrunk, so we have fewer tech giants, if you will, able to distribute these movies.

BRADLEY Yeah, just one thing I want to add to that is I feel like there are two different ways of thinking about censorship. One of them is — I agree with Jesse — the impetus that's on you to go out and find things because I do think we are living in a world where we're surrounded by mirrors instead of windows. That's a scary thing, and that's its own type of censorship where you're just bouncing back off of yourself with [social media] algorithms. But I also think your question speaks to the history of journalism and who has been put typically, historically, in a position of saying what's true and what the news is.

We go back to the very first documentary, [the 1922 silent] Nanook of the North, and the complexity around the history of what was essentially re-created by a filmmaker who some might say didn't have ethical relationships with that community. A lot of folks have said this: I think the conglomerates are a question with censorship, but I also think that it has to do with trying to diversify who is telling stories.

I think the truth has always been gray in history in terms of who's in power and who's been able to tell us what history is.

ABRAMS I would tie it together by saying when you think about who supported pushing each of these films out. I mean, Kerry Washington and President Obama and Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, we've got moments where the gatekeepers shift because, yes, there is who can do distribution, but there's also who can make certain the story gets told.

And telling the story is the beginning. Then, it's finding out how we can make certain as many people can see it as possible. My experience with Amazon was unusual. It was a starkly political film that was apolitical in that voter suppression doesn't ask you what party you plan to vote for.

It was certainly taken by some to be the celebration of the left, although if you watch one of our interviews, I mean, we have the Heritage Foundation, we've got a young man from New Hampshire, not known as a bastion of liberalism. But not only should people be able to tell their own stories, but what you documentarians all do that is so fantastic is that you find the stories that need to be told and you're all ingenious enough to find someone who's willing to help you tell that story. Yes, there are going to be these roadblocks, but what is so powerful and heroic about the work is that you do it despite knowing there might be someone at the gate saying, "Never mind," someone who might shut off the spigot, but it's the willingness to tell the story and the compelling nature of what it is and the universality of the stories you tell.

My oldest sister was in [Boys State sister organization] Girls State in Mississippi in the 1980s. It was a very different moment than what you captured with Boys State, but, you know, it's a repudiation of censorship at its most basic — because you're refusing to be silent when it comes time to think of the stories that need to be told and the voices that need to be heard.

Speaking of the Obamas, this question is for Jim. You had the Obamas as executive producers, and it was one of their first projects for Higher Ground. How involved were they and what type of feedback did they give?

LEBRECHT They saw three cuts of our film, and we had a wonderful relationship with Higher Ground, Priya Swaminathan and Tonia Davis. Our notes from them came through Priya, but it was more that the president asked, "Well, are there scholarships, were there scholarships at Camp Jened?" It was incredible, this was really hands-on. It was like having another really wonderful partner helping Nicole [Newnham] and I to make the film.

If you could have one person watch your film, who would it be?

BRADLEY [Louisiana] Gov. Bill Edwards. Then maybe all the governors of all the states.

LEBRECHT I would really love people in the Senate to see Crip Camp because these attacks on the ACA, the attacks on the Americans With Disabilities Act, I mean, they call me Pollyanna, but could you at least have actual, absolute people that you would be affecting and hurting by your policies in your face for 100 minutes? And will that persuade you that what you're doing is actually reprehensible?

ABRAMS I would have the editors of The Wall Street Journal. They have engaged in the most disciplined false equivalence of voter suppression — which has evidence and people and examples that have stretched throughout our history — versus the false notion of what we now know in technicolor does not exist, which is voter fraud. Yet the editors of The Wall Street Journal have been sanguine about lifting up voices simply to deny not only the existence of voter suppression but, as a consequence, the legitimacy of every citizen as a rightful participant in our elections. It baffles me that there can be such disingenuity, particularly when the evidence is not only presented, but I think [All In directors] Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés did an extraordinary job of contextualizing, providing this gut-wrenching narrative that goes beyond my one election to this larger historical legacy.

ZIERING Who needs to see it? Not just one person. Everyone needs to see these films. Honestly, it's a great investment of your time, and you end up transformed and enlightened, and that enlightenment you carry forward.

MOSS There's a small part of me that would love to see the president-elect screen our film, but it's been as valuable for us to show it to high school students, on college campuses. I don't know that I've made a film before that could speak to young people, and we didn't anticipate they would be hungry for it.

WASHINGTON I have the same experience. Nothing has made me more proud of this film than young people who say they're inspired to pursue this line of work, to be a civil rights attorney or get more engaged with civic responsibility or civic joy, because of our film. I had a sense like, "Oh, these are the real Marvel Avengers, these are our real heroes."

MOSS I look at all of the work here and I feel like what we've all done is sort of sidestepped the black hole that is that person who will go nameless. I just think all of our films, they're not about him, we're not giving energy to him. They're about the problems that we need to talk about but in a different way — and I'm just happy for that achievement.

ABRAMS I will say I've been privileged to join this universe of auteurs as a sojourner. What I'm so privileged to be able to do is to spend every day working on these issues that all of you are raising. How do we make certain our young people grow into their power, understanding the full context of what is to be? How do we ensure that our criminal system actually has justice? How do we make certain that women, especially women of color, who have been subjugated and oppressed, believe that they have the right to be heard?

My opportunity in this moment has been that I get to be part of these conversations. I get to see what you all do and what I've been able to help put in the world but, more than anything, to try to give voice and shape to the changes that have to be made. That's a privilege that I can never underestimate, but I just want to extend my gratitude for how extraordinarily well each of you not only tells a story but makes that story resonate for so many who didn't think it was their story, too.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.