‘Showing Up for Racial Justice’ Sparks Conversation at the Marquis


“Sorry to Bother You” will be playing at the Hirschfield Series on Saturday, Dec.1 in Dana Auditorium at 3 PM and 8 PM for free.

College students and the community have the opportunity again this year to come together for racial justice and movies — the Middlebury Marquis will be organizing their Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) film series for the second time this winter with a new selection of films and fundraisers.

The Marquis partnered with the national organization SURJ, which encourages white people to fight for racial justice and organize against racism, and Black Lives Matter Vermont to show films to the Middlebury community that highlight themes of racial justice and discrimination. The Marquis first joined with SURJ to put on the film “I Am Not Your Negro,” a film about black writer and social critic James Baldwin, in 2017. After the success of that showing, Marquis owner Ben Wells decided it was time to expand their mission into a film series.

“It is an opportunity where people from the community can come together and talk about some of the events and issues in the world specifically around racial justice, or the lack thereof,” Wells said.

Last year’s film series covered a variety of topics, from the influence of Native Americans on rock ‘n’ roll music to the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage, to the killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson uprisings and more.

The first selection this year, which was shown on Wednesday, Nov. 14, was “Sorry to Bother You,” a 2018 film that addresses race and poverty in the context of telemarketing. The film is based on a short story by rapper and writer Boots Riley, and portrays a young black man named Cassius Green in an alternate modern-day Oakland, California, who takes a job as a telemarketer. In the business, he learns about the power of the “white voice” and uses an affected speaking style to talk to customers on the phone, making more sales as a result of the voice. Success in telemarketing, however, has consequences, as Cassius is asked to sell things he isn’t comfortable selling. 

“Sorry to Bother You” is a perfect film for the series, because it includes strong themes of racial justice and is also a captivating and interesting film with elements of magical realism and humor. The film will also be shown on campus as part of the Hirschfield Series on Saturday, Dec. 1 in the Dana Auditorium, at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Next in the series, the Marquis will be showing “The Hate U Give,” a 2018 film about a teenage black girl who witnesses the shooting of a friend by a cop and her subsequent involvement in the world of advocacy and civil rights in response to his death. The film will be playing on Wednesday, Dec. 12.

Although there will be a break in the series for January, the theater is considering a couple of films for the following months, including “Green Book,” about the friendship between a black pianist and an Italian-American man from the Bronx; “Blindspotting,” about a pair of friends whose relationship is tested after they witness a police shooting; and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” about teenagers in a gay conversion therapy camp.

All of the films are associated with a fundraiser organized through SURJ. The showing of “Sorry to Bother You” raised money for Monica Cannon, a Black Lives Matter activist in Boston, who is pregnant and unable to afford a doula. Past fundraisers have involved the Vermont chapter of the ACLU, the African American Policy Forum in NYC, Black Lives Matter VT, the Addison Allies Network, Migrant Justice, The Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe and the Rutland Area NAACP.

Wells sees the SURJ series as an opportunity to open new eyes to racial inequality and discrimination throughout the country. SURJ organizers Kathy Comstock and Joanna Colwell hope that the majority-white Middlebury community learns from the series, and that individuals who might not be exposed to or aware of certain aspects of racial justice have such an opportunity.

“What I hope is that our Middlebury community can get more comfortable with the fact that we are a very white town, and we need to acknowledge the privilege that this affords us,” Comstock said.  

Colwell said, “I feel like our mostly white, progressive community is inching toward a better understanding of race, and I hope we white people are getting a bit closer to understanding our own whiteness, and understanding all the racist messages we have absorbed, and the harm that we cause when we don’t work to dismantle white supremacy in ourselves and the spaces we inhabit.”

SURJ is an organization that has faced opposition in the past because of lack of accountability to people of color-led organizations and the debate over the existence of white-led racial justice groups. However, the Middlebury chapter of SURJ makes extensive efforts to stay accountable by sharing financial resources with organizations led by people of color, and by showing up to events run by these groups in support and solidarity. They also work to encourage community members to become a part of Black Lives Matter VT and are hoping to form a relationship with the Black Student Union on campus.

Film as a medium has incredible value, and can be used in important and influential ways. 

“I hope that these films give us the platform to stand on and become more verbal and physically active to change the inequities that exist in our neighborhoods and in our country,” Comstock said.