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“Reflected as the Beautiful People That We Are”: Nailah Jefferson Discusses ‘Descended from the Promised Land’

By Kolby Ari

Jacqueline Blocker, person with long dark hair and silver hoop earrings

Film still of Jacqueline Blocker, from Descended from the Promised Land: The Legacy of Black Wall Street. Image credit: Marcus Guider. Courtesy of BPM

The films of New Orleans-based filmmaker Nailah Jefferson share similar grievances despite a variety of subject matter. Some of them try to remain in and protect a sense of place and abundance, as in Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache (2014). There are also stories of imagined worlds, escapism, and faraway places, such as Donyale Luna: Supermodel (2023), which was recently released on streaming service Max. And then, others unearth and rebuild a promised land and legacy that’s been burned and buried, such as Descended from the Promised Land: The Legacy of Black Wall Street (2021), which had its streaming premiere October 16 on Black Public Media’s AfroPoP Digital Shorts series. 

Over a virtual call, we talked about how Jefferson’s emerging canon shifts how we approach and view community struggle as audiences, as community members, and as a storytelling industry through the preservation of Black stories. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: You’ve profiled individual families, their land, and their legacies, from New Orleans to Tulsa, Detroit, and internationally. Tell me about the throughlines of the people you document.

NAILAH JEFFERSON: I was just interviewed about this the other day and someone said, “A common theme in your work is social justice and advocacy,” and I was like, “No, it’s not.” Because of the condition we’re in as Black people, those are the themes that come up because we’re always fighting against something. But that just happens to be a byproduct of being Black in America. For me, the common throughline is more preservation of Black legacy, family, and identity. Those are things that draw me to these stories and what I think pull audiences in and get emotional attachment.

Every director is different, but for me, it’s that emotional engagement that’s important. I want to make people feel. Not in a manipulative way, but to truly see people as they are and see their worth. 

When it’s the fishermen who were not fairly compensated after the BP oil spill when their families have been on this land and fishing these waters for generations and then all of a sudden that’s completely blown up—what does that do to family, to someone’s identity, to someone’s legacy, to the memory of them? Because [other] people had told this story, but they completely left them out because it was from a white perspective. 

Whether it’s them or it is Ghalani’s family or Mildred and Jacqueline’s in Descended from the Promised Land, it’s the same thing. Even with Donyale Luna, we keep seeing the erasure of Black people. As Black people in America, our contributions are often devalued and erased for no other reason than because we are Black. Some of these stories are sad, but I want people to walk away like it’s a gift and a treasure and something that should be preserved as best we can.   

D: What do you see when you step into the homes of the people at the center of these legacies? What do you see in people’s eyes when you talk about the loss that they’ve experienced, the ways that they’re trying to reclaim elements of that, or how they endure the ongoing loss that continues?

NJ: There’s something in the people I document that I wish I had more of inside of me. No matter who I talk to, there’s always a glimmer, there’s always hope. Even through the loss and through the pain, there’s always this “things are going to get better.” The hope of spending more time with your kids, your mother—that as long as I am breathing there is still life to be lived.

I don’t want to lean into the trauma porn of it all. I feel like a lot of white filmmakers did that for a very long time and found a lot of success in that, which I find a bit gross. As a Black filmmaker, I think we have to lens it differently because when you think of the things we’ve endured, our story is not just the sadness of it all. There’s something that kept us going that made us create in the arts, that made us more imaginative, more innovative. 

With Ghalani’s monologue at the end of Descended from the Promised Land, we left it pretty much untouched because I feel there is so much hope in it. A lot of this film is about loss and trauma, but he still sees a better future. For him, “this is what we have to do.” For me that’s the hope.

D: From your point of view, what care do your films deserve when exhibited to an audience as you present sad stories that are ultimately about hope? Considering these Black stories that are previously untold are typically bought by white distribution companies, and white-led exhibition entities that may not give these stories the appropriate care or context. 

NJ: What I try to do is have the protagonists in my films very engaged. Whatever the impact campaign is, I want their buy-in and their feedback. They’re the subject, one person, but they are also the audience. I lean on them because even though I’m telling the story I’m not an expert, just a vessel. For documentary, I feel like the institutions are beginning to listen and respect the protagonists of films more because we are built on an art form that has practices that are very much rooted in colonization. It hides behind a guard of journalism that would keep them separate from the protagonist. It’s really so extractive because you’re just taking someone’s life for your personal gain to build a career and leaving them in the exact situation that they found them in. For me, that’s not appropriate. 

When I was working on Vanishing Pearls, [the protagonist] Byron absolutely understood the power of film. He wanted to make sure people know how BP didn’t fulfill their promises to these fishermen and they destroyed our community. In order to do this work and to fulfill my purpose in this work, I need to help change things and not only extract. I want us both to leave this process better people, whether it’s me engaging with people in a better way or the protagonists in my project are better able to liberate others with these films as a tool. 

D: In what ways could you see Descended from the Promised Land making the most equitable impact as it plays festivals, venues, and streams directly to homes? I don’t think it’s your job per se to make the film, being present with all the ethics of being a documentarian andthinking about the distribution infrastructure—

NJ: But the thing is that you have to. What I just realized through my process with HBO is you still have to. I thought it was going to be like, “OK here you go.” But it’s like, “What are your ideas, what do you want to do?” They’re still asking. I can’t just do this and sit on my hands. There are so many films and you don’t want to think about yours getting lost after all the work you put in. You’re engaged no matter what and you don’t know that until you’re in it. 

D: You’re not in it thinking of social justice as a throughline. How do you hope your process of investigation and hopes for preservation will affect people’s lives and communities?

NJ: Dramatic tension comes with life and some of that is brought to screen, but I hope the biggest takeaway is that our life is a life worth living and it’s a beautiful experience no matter the hardships that come with it. What I hope we walk away with is that this Black experience that we are having while we are walking this earth is one that feels empowered and joyful. If we were unbothered, completely unchained, that’s who we would be. 

It’s been hard telling stories of race massacres, racism in the beauty and fashion industry, and racism in the fishing industry in Louisiana. But if I died tomorrow and I thought about the work that I left behind, I think of it as a beautiful testament to the way I see our people. Whether it’s how we are providing for our families from the water, being 50 years removed from slavery and building companies and theaters and flying our own planes, or becoming the first Black supermodel. I really just want us to be reflected as the beautiful people that we are.

Kolby Ari has a background in journalism, programming, urban design, research, and community facilitation. He is working to rebuild the Dreamland Theater in Tulsa, OK as a contemporary community hub that uses arts and information exhibitions to spark community imagination about how we can shape our communities. What’s your dreamland?