Tribeca 2022 Women Directors: Meet Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen – “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks”

Johanna Hamilton is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. Her previous work includes “1971″, which chronicled the break-in at an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania that revealed the existence of COINTELPRO; “Wrong Man,” a Starz series on wrongful convictions; “Parched,” a National Geographic Channel series about the politics of water; and “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which profiled a group of visionary women who demanded peace for Liberia. 

Yoruba Richen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has been featured on multiple outlets including Netflix, MSNBC, FX, HBO, Frontline, The Atlantic, and Field of Vision. Her recent films are the Emmy nominated “How It Feels to Be Free” which premiered on PBS’ “American Masters” and the Peabody- and Emmy-nominated “The Sit In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show,” which is streaming on Peacock. Her film “The New York Times Presents: The Killing of Breonna Taylor” won an NAACP Image Award and is streaming on Hulu. Her film “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom” was broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel and was also nominated for an Emmy. 

“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” is screening at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 8-19.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

JH&YR: It’s rare to get beneath the surface of a celebrated American icon and find something even more impressive behind it, but that’s what happens with Rosa Parks. She is not the “tired bus lady” as school children learn or the “accidental matriarch of the civil rights movement” as the New York Times eulogized her in her obituary.

The actual story of Rosa Parks is much different than the way she is celebrated. This is the powerful story of extraordinary courage and immense sacrifice over a lifetime.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JH&YR: Broadly, we are drawn to stories of individuals or communities who go up against great obstacles, perhaps insurmountable odds, in an effort to change society, often at great cost or danger to themselves.

In this particular case, it was a Twitter thread by author Jeanne Theoharis, whose book we adapted, where she enumerated fact after fascinating and little-known fact. We were hooked, read the book and here we are. Also, it was inconceivable to us that even though Rosa Parks is known worldwide, there has never been a feature-length documentary made about her! 

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

JH&YR: We’d like them to feel as we did while making it, that this history couldn’t be more necessary and urgent to where we are today. People like Mrs. Parks made hard choice after hard choice. The Civil Rights movement was not foreordained: many decent people stood in its way. It was disruptive and made people uncomfortable, similar to Black Lives Matter today. 

In showing Mrs. Park’s work over years and decades, we humanize her, remove her from the pedestal and distant past, where she has been relegated, show her extraordinary life and draw parallels to who we are and what we must do today.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JH&YR: Not having more varied and in-depth interviews of her on-camera. As Mrs. Parks says in the film, interviewers tended to only ask her about the one incident on the bus in 1955and nothing else. She got pigeonholed and stuck in time in the public consciousness when in fact she was a Zelig

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

JH: Yoruba, Jeanne, and I decided to partner with Soledad O’Brien Productions, who offered to make the sizzle reel that we then pitched. Peacock came on board with the full budget and we were off at a gallop!

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

YR: A love of stories, and wanting to elevate and explore cultural, political and historical narratives of individuals making positive social change in the world.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

JH: I grew up in the theater tradition where art and politics were connected. This is why documentary filmmaking appealed to me. I want to tell stories that haven’t been told before and empower communities to tell their own stories.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

YR: Best advice: trust your gut. And fast, cheap, and good: pick any two.

Worst advice: it won’t take long. 

JH: Best: Don’t be afraid of taking risks

Worst: I’ve tuned out bad advice so don’t know.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors? 

YR: Tenacity and a thick skin are key! I always derive enormous strength and comfort from working with a largely female team. And this film is no different, from our amazing producer Christalyn Hampton and extraordinary AP Okhela Bazile Charles, not to mention my powerhouse co-director, Yoruba Richen; consulting producer and author Jeanne Theoharis ;and our wonderful editor Elia Gasul (and Balada Navin Harrilal!). It was very rewarding.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors? 

JH: Think like a white male when you are negotiating pay, credit, etc. Don’t sell yourself short!

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

YR: “The Piano” by Jane Campion. The whole is just superlative.

JH: “A Dry White Season” by Euzhan Palcy. It’s a beautiful, incisive film about Apartheid South Africa. Palcy is a trailblazer who toggles between documentary and fiction with the Black experience at the center of her stories.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

YR: This was a pandemic project! We pushed it along, slowly – as with all things pandemic-related – since early 2020. So thrilled it’s now out in the world. Let’s get back out there, safely! 

JH: I have been lucky to have been quite busy these past two years. Our film was made completely in Covid times and we are so psyched to have an in-person  screening

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive? 

JH&YR: Everyone can help make change. We consciously built a BIPOC team for this film – it was a powerhouse crew, and a lens-expanding and dimension-enhancing experience. Resources are growing – both in terms of funding and communities – and much more is needed. Hoping that many new voices will emerge as a result.

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