As the house lights went down at the historic Temple Theater in Meridian, Mississippi, I immediately questioned premiering my documentary on racism, “A Whiteman Walks Into A Barbershop,” in this small town two hours west of Selma.
My producers lobbied for New York or Los Angeles, but I insisted on Mississippi. When filming, Meridian welcomed my small, all-white crew with open arms, and I promised everyone at Jenkin’s Barbershop that we’d come back for the world premiere. I’m sure no one believed me or even cared, but I didn’t want to add yet another broken promise to a community that had seen more than it’s(un?)fair share of betrayals.
So as the opening scene unspooled for the mostly African American audience, I was second guessing, wondering if a white audience was…safer.
But I, like most white liberals, have been playing it “safe” for far too long. It’s what has gotten America into this mess where the mere topic of race itself is taboo. Why did we go from embracing James and Marvin on the radio and watching The Jeffersons and Good Times on TV to being petrified to even broach uncomfortable topics? When did we become so afraid of saying the wrong thing? When did we collectively agree to lean into the white liberal default setting: “I’m not racist. I don’t see color.”
These questions consumed me for years. They were the germ that grew into the film that a decade later would bring me to this theater in Mississippi.
In 2011, without a plan, I packed a crew into a rented van. I crisscrossed the country, looking for conversations that made me uncomfortable with people who did not look like me because, like Chuck D said, “If I can’t change the people around me, I change the people around me.”
From New York to Selma, DC to LA, I walked into black barbershops, churches, colleges, and anywhere else people would agree to talk with me on camera.
What did I learn? For starters, I learned to stop using the qualifier “black” when talking about barbershops. As a barber from Reno told me, “If you got hair, we’re going to put it on the floor.”
It wasn’t long before I was confronted by my own biases, by my own desire to step into the White Saviour role many white liberals imagine themselves. At a tiny barbershop (notice I didn’t say black barbershop? I’m learning) on the north side of Minneapolis, I was taught a lesson that changed the direction of my documentary and my life.
The lesson? Everything was white guilt.
All the peacocking, trying to be the most progressive, to “out woke” the next person to silence my white guilt. But white guilt is a luxury that leaves any meaningful conversations stranded by the side of the road. After George Floyd’s murder, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a white person holding a BLM sign. I am not saying that everyone didn’t truly believe that Black Lives Matter(ed), but I am suggesting that another motivating factor for protesting was to post pictures of our adorable blond children holding a “Say Their Names” placard for our friends to see. More peacocking.
If we want to make any real significant change, we have to admit that we are bound to say the wrong thing; we will react to situations in ways that make us feel uncomfortable and maybe a little ashamed. Let’s stop running from that feeling and confront it head-on. We were raised in a country built on racism and white supremacy, so we have two choices: lie to ourselves or admit that there is some racism baked in us all, but we are working on it.
Back at the theater in Mississippi, the film concluded, and the crowd was entertained. I had a new worry: Will white audiences embrace the movie similarly? It didn’t take long to get my answer.
The documentary was enthusiastically invited to film festivals, then unceremoniously disinvited. Black festivals adopted the film, while more mainstream festivals ran the other way. Several streaming services agreed to pick up the film under the condition that certain edits were made. Edits ensure their audience (read: white) would not be offended. Edits I could not make.
Luckily a black-owned distribution company picked up the gauntlet and fought to get the documentary released, and it comes as no surprise that Tubi, whose audience is largely African American, stepped up, premiering the film in May.
Yet there’s hope. We’ve held dozens of nationwide screenings for high schools and colleges. A charter school in Washington, DC, held a screening for their staff, hoping to create a dialogue and ease racial tensions. Community Diversity Committees showed the film for their towns, yet many more DEI committees balked, not the non-white members, but the white “allies” felt the film was a “little hard on the people trying to do good.”
Word of mouth for the documentary is building, and a grassroots movement is growing, hopefully making a small difference one viewer at a time.
You can watch “A White Man Walks Into A Barbershop” on Tubi now.
Kyle Schickner’s life changed after seeing Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” in 1989. He had always been interested in activism, forming the nation’s first collegiate group for Bisexuals called BiAS (Bisexuals Achieving Solidarity) at Rutgers University in 1992, but he left college to make movies. In 1995, Schickner formed FenceSitter Films with the philosophy that there are enough movies about straight white men and instead focused on telling stories about women, people of color and the LGBTQ community.
Since then he has written and directed seven feature films, including “Steam”, “Paradise Lost” and “Strange Fruit”. He has worked with Hollywood icons like Ruby Dee (“A Raisin in the Sun”, Do the Right Thing”) and Ally Sheedy (“Breakfast Club”, “High Art”) and newcomers like Kate Siegel (“Hush”, Midnight Mass”) and Alan Ritchson (“Reacher”) who have since taken Hollywood by storm. He is currently in pre-production on a queer-sentric romantic comedy called “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” and touring the country doing screenings and talkbacks for “A White Man Walks Into A Barbershop.” For more information, visit Fencesitterfilmsstudio.com.