Evangeline M. Mitchell is an author, non-profit founder, lawyer, and documentary filmmaker. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law and the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She is currently working on her Certificate in Documentary Arts from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and her Certificate in Film & TV Industry Essentials from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana and raised in Houston, Texas, she currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“This film reveals that when it comes to anti-Black racism, prejudice and discrimination in America, the walls of law school offer no protection.” – Evangeline M. Mitchell, Director, Becoming Black Lawyers
I was shocked about what I experienced as a “Black” law student. I wondered if what I experienced was real or just something in my head because it was so hard to believe and process. I had attended a predominantly Black high school and a historically Black university in the South. So, although I was nervous about going to a predominantly White law school in a Midwestern state that wasn’t very diverse, I honestly didn’t expect to encounter issues around race. I didn’t really understand or have a true sense of what racism looked like. For some reason, because I was going to “law school,” I thought that it would be a place filled with people who believed in and wanted this ideal of “justice” and “fairness” including racial justice and social justice – for all. The fact that what I had envisioned in my mind and the reality I was faced with was so different was disheartening to me.
This project is what I would consider “heart work” because I have long felt that the experiences of Black lawyers in White law schools were stories that needed to be told – and that the world needed to hear them. The paradox of going to a place that is supposed to represent and stand up for “equal justice,” which at the very same time, was a place where Black students were treated unfairly and with hostility, never sat right with me. It didn’t make sense to me while I was experiencing it in various law school environments (I attended at my law school, a summer law program abroad, a law school in my home city, and a semester study abroad law program), and it still didn’t throughout the years as I spoke with Black law students about their experiences. I have remained disappointed in learning that many years later – things still have not changed – no matter where you go to law school in the United States, with the exception of those that are uncommonly diverse or HBCU law schools. That desire to share our unique stories and lived experiences fueled a fire that never went away.
I had a vision for this film well before I even put out a call to Black lawyers to participate. My inspiration and approach to the film came from watching HBO’s The Black List and Oprah’s Master Class several years ago. I loved the idea of people just telling their stories – transparently, directly – with minimal images and other footage to distract from their words. I felt that this pure storytelling would be effective, and would enable us to center these Black lawyers and their voices.
In talking to my own law school’s dean about my experiences, I recall him telling me that there was “nothing” that could be done about the mistreatment that Black students experienced by their White peers. I remember feeling like people didn’t want to talk about it and that it needed to be kept quiet, like a “secret” that we discussed with one another, but otherwise pretended wasn’t happening. There was an expectation that we suffer in silence. I felt the voices of Black lawyers – especially their sharing their struggles and the additional obstacles they had to overcome – needed to be heard and addressed. I wanted people to see the humanity and humility of these Black lawyers, and this particular format would enable that. Before the interviews, I provided all lawyers who agreed to participate with a general list of potential questions and only requested for them to tell the truth.
Although the film and show that I modeled my documentary after were both in full color, I really liked the idea of using a Black and White color filter and aesthetic. I felt that this look was important because this was an “old” issue of how White people treated Black people and considering the history of this country in the not-so-distant past, it would give an old school feel. I also thought that the Black and White would provide a beautiful and non-distracting look that would force viewers to really concentrate on the seriousness of the topic and focus on the person in front of them as opposed to everything else.
Through poignant, vulnerable, and honest storytelling, this film reveals that when it comes to anti-Black racism, prejudice and discrimination in America, the walls of law school offer no protection. The history of the United States has shown us that “the law” has had power in determining the status of Black people. We went from being viewed and treated as property and things to second-class citizens to citizens. The law was purposely used to enslave, subjugate, and segregate us – and then to free and give us rights. Because of this “special relationship” that Black Americans have with the law, that history and that legacy still impact the current status of Black people today. In considering the central role of the legal system in oppressing Black people in the past, do the institutions that train lawyers who will help create, and interpret, and enforce the law now need to take on a leadership role in advancing diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice? This film provides a vehicle to incite greatly needed discussion about where we were, where we are now, and the next steps for positive change in the future.