On November 12, 2017, a small film crew and about 20 extras gathered in a park in New Orleans where a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, had recently been removed from a stone pedestal. In its place was a statue of a Black woman. The statue was temporary, but to any observer, it looked like a real, permanent monument.
The statue was created in the likeness of Keah Moffett, a New Orleans native actor and dancer. In character that day, Keah came upon a crowd looking up at something, walked through the group, and realized what we were looking up at was a just-unveiled statue of her. The scene, which we were there to shoot that day, is the centerpiece of the music video for “If All I Was Was Black,” the title track off Mavis Staples’ most recent album.
Staples, now 78, started touring as a child as the lead singer of her family’s gospel group, The Staple Singers, who performed and recorded from the 1950’s to the early 2000’s. The group opened rallies for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and performed at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration; after a conversation with Dr. King in 1963, they spent several years making music exclusively in support of the Civil Rights Movement, and they later had commercial success with tracks like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”
In addition, in a parallel solo career starting in 1969, Mavis Staples has recorded over a dozen albums. If All I Was Was Black continues her lifetime of music as activism, directly confronting what’s happening in the United States today, with tracks taking on, among other things, police murders of Black men and boys and the current president’s border wall proposal.
Zac Manuel, a New Orleans-based filmmaker, conceived of and directed the “If All I Was Was Black” video. Zac is a friend of mine, and when he put out the call for extras, I was fortunate enough to get to fly down to participate. Shooting the scene with the Keah statue was a powerful experience, and afterwards I sat down (over video chat) with Zac and Keah to talk about the experience, their inspirations and hopes for the video, and the process of creating it. The bulk of the piece below consists of edited portions of that conversation.
Zac and Keah had similar experiences leading up to their making the video. In April and May 2017, the city of New Orleans was taking down Confederate monuments. Mayor Mitch Landrieu had first proposed the idea to the city council after the white supremacist terror attack at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in 2015, and in 2017 the New Orleans City Council declared four of them a nuisance and ordered them removed.
People protested on both sides of the issue in advance of the removals. Zac was working on a commission piece for a documentary about the removals and protests, so two or three times a week he was out filming the process. During it, he wondered what, if anything, would be put up in the monuments’ place.
He researched monuments to African Americans in the U.S. and didn’t find very much. In addition, he said, “the ones that we have in New Orleans are all musicians,” prompting him to think “there are other Black figures besides entertainers who are deserving of being immortalized.” That was the beginning of the idea.
Ultimately, Zac and his team included images of three pedestals in New Orleans from which statues of Confederate figures had been removed—Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard—along with one in Durham, North Carolina, from which protesters had torn a statue of a Confederate soldier in August 2017. The statue of Keah, however, is the video’s focal point, and is what had such an impact on those of us present that day.
Zac Manuel: I didn’t want it to be a specific person, because when you specify people individually, it’s almost like propaganda, because you’re saying this person needs to be revered or memorialized or remembered for this specific reason, and then there becomes a whole politicization around it or politicizing about that figure. (Though I guess it is political in its vision or in its meaning, because it is a Black woman as a statue, which is hard to find... which is sad...) Instead of venerating one specific person, it was more about a collective disenfranchisement and turning that into a collective appreciation.
Brooks Emanuel: It makes me mad to even ask this question, because the sex or gender piece of it intuitively makes total sense, and I hadn’t actually thought about it until now. But in terms of the deliberate decision around whom to put up there, how did you decide it should be a woman?
ZM: I just think there are too many statues of men and at a certain point it’s time to step aside. And Black women as a whole are like the least respected people in the country. And it’s an opportunity to put something out there that says, “Respect Black women.”
Keah Moffett: I was doing the same thing [filming and interviewing the protests], but not officially. With all the statue things going on, I would pull out my phone and ask people, “What are you really protesting here?” As I was interviewing someone, a white couple came by, and they were like, “Is it gonna be better if they just put a Black person up? Is that the solution?” And I was like, “Nobody’s really saying put a Black person up.” That was the funny part. Nobody ever said what should go in place. I was like, “I mean, you could put a white person up, but put up someone who maybe didn’t fight for me to be enslaved.”
BE: [W]hen Zac first told me about the idea, [it immediately felt] incredibly powerful, and I think probably subconsciously part of that is that I hadn’t thought about what the replacement would be... . But being in that space, as soon as you see it, you’re [hit with the realization that], “Oh, I do not see this. Ever.”
But being in that space, as soon as you see it, you’re [hit with the realization that], “Oh, I do not see this. Ever.”
KM: Ever. I don’t think people think Black women have done things. First off, think of a woman statue. It doesn’t have to be Black. Then, add Black. I can’t really think of too many straight-up woman statues where it’s not an angel or a muse or something mystical. Even subconsciously, seeing a woman, seeing a Black woman, it’s like, whoa, finally, celebration of who we are.
BE: I’m thinking about the people who were saying, “If you put up a Black person, is that gonna fix it?” It’s really interesting that that’s where they went before anything was put up, like it’s almost like that’s what they were afraid of.
KM: Yeah. And there’s more people than Black and white people. There’s Latinx people, there’s Asians, there’s Native Americans—what about them [as possibilities for who would be put there]?
I heard all those little comeback comments like, “I’m not racist. I just feel like history is being erased. You shouldn’t erase history.”... I was like, “Do you know how much history of mine has been erased? I don’t even know where my ancestors are from.” This guy said, “Yeah, that’s true, that’s messed up.” But then I was like, “Keep the statues up and then put enslaved people all around them. How ‘bout that?’” and he’s like, “Oh, well, um . . . .” Okay.
[One guy I interviewed] believed that history was being erased, and I was like, “Is it really erasing history? You know, it’s a subconscious thing to have a little Black kid constantly driving by statues celebrating people who fought to keep them enslaved. That’s not cool.” And a lady, I told her that, and she said, “People put too much meaning in symbols,” and I said, “Then why are you here?” You can’t say people put too much meaning in symbols and they shouldn’t, and you’re here protesting that a statue don’t come down.
BE: [W]hen you actually were there that day and you actually did see yourself represented, for you to see that but also to see it be you, what was that like? Were you just in acting mode, or did you have a real reaction?
KM: At first I was like, I’m not really gonna look, because I’m nervous about it. I was just like, I don’t want to mess anything up. I felt a responsibility to be the person in the statue—like, take me away from it, you see the statue and you think that must have been somebody strong, somebody important. It was a good pressure, like I have to represent. And being that representation of not just me but a Black woman, it made me proud and I felt the good pressure of like, yeah, keep going, because you are being celebrated—people do want to celebrate you. And then on the set I felt like it was every different race represented and different sexes and everybody was just for it, nobody had a problem with it, and that was a beautiful thing. Everybody was on one accord, that this was a beautiful thing to celebrate a woman, to celebrate a Black woman, and so then the nervousness started going away. My momma keeps asking me where it’s at, like am I gonna bring it home, and I’m like, “You don’t understand—this is really a big statue.”
BE: Seeing the video, not being from New Orleans, I don’t know that I would recognize what these pedestals were, and so I was wondering if that’s intentional or if there was a decision around, do we want to be clear that this is where a Confederate memorial stood and now this is the person who’s here?” or is it more about just: “This is the person who’s here [now]?”
ZM: ... I thought about that, and also I was mixing pedestals, like, we shot one in Durham and then the rest are in New Orleans, so for me it wasn’t really a location-based thing. It was more about... [h]ow we should be thinking as a country when we look at... public spaces in general, but also if we’re going to look at these spaces in specific, how we can change the nature of these spaces and how we can represent people who need to be represented. How we can make these spaces feel better for people....
[I]t was really to say, you know, you’ve fucked up this part of history, you’ve fucked up this part of representation, and this is a little piece of fixing it. Not only did we take them down—that’s not enough. Now we should put something else up that really represents who should be up there in the first place.”
So that was the intent and it wasn’t really about what they were [before], and I think that if people want to do research into that then they could, and they could look at the Beauregard monument with the horseback rider in front of it and they could be like, “Oh that was the equestrian statue of P.G.T. Beauregard.” But for me, I had been to the spaces so many times, and so for me to change the imagery with something that I felt really good about personally, and then putting that image out there being able to represent it with Mavis Staples and on her platform, and to be associated with her and her legacy, it’s really a privilege and really dope.
And I think I hope that people would look at it and be like, “I wonder what these spaces are, or I wonder who they were,” but another thing that kind of makes me smile on the inside is that... if you’re looking at the stump that we show of P.G.T. Beauregard, they took the plaque off. There is no name represented anymore so it’s entirely stripped of its previous imagery and notion, and without even giving you the history behind it, without you even having anything to compare it to, we’re saying: “This is what should be here.”
I hope that it opens up conversation about... what needs to be in these different spaces... where these monuments were. I think it’s in kind of the contemporary zeitgeist and... I hope that it creates a larger conversation in the country about how we can be representing these spaces more honestly.
BE: And so that one is totally stripped, and then there’s the one that we were at, which was Jefferson Davis, and there’s nothing written there, right?
ZM: No, they took that [writing] off with the statue itself. [On top of the big pedestal that’s still there, there] was like a three- or four-foot-tall concrete base and then the statue on top of it.
BE: And then I know in the video hands go up over a monument to fallen Confederate soldiers.
ZM: That one was in Durham in front of the courthouse, and there was a video that went viral maybe six to nine months ago where there was a group of people, just citizens, who tore that statue down. When we were scouting in Durham, my cinematographer Justin Zweifach and I were talking about it and were like “Man, we really want to use these bases and physically take command over them,” and so we were like, why don’t I just jump... and try and climb on top of it?”... [T]hat’s kind of where the seed of that idea started, was seeing that and wanting to take control over it and just empower myself and other people of color to take control over these spaces.
BE: Okay, and so [another one you see in the video], the tall one, that’s [where the Robert E.] Lee [statue was]?
ZM: Yeah, that’s Lee Circle in New Orleans and that pedestal is 60 feet tall and then there was a 16-foot statue on top of it, and so my good friend Lloyd Dillon, who’s an actor, I was like, “Yo, what if we put you on top of [the] Lee [pedestal] in a hoodie? How empowering would that be to kind of memorialize victims of police brutality and just Black men who have been unjustly murdered, put them on top of a pedestal?” So the main thing was the statue [of Keah], but I felt like also with the video we had the opportunity to say other things and to speak to the broader spectrum of injustice.
BE: Are there any other things that show up in the video that you made intentional choices like that about... ?
ZM: I mean the horseback rider [who appears in the video in front of where the statue of P.G.T. Beauregard on horseback used to stand], for sure. He’s a Black horseback rider from New Orleans. He’s actually a member of the national Buffalo Soldiers historical group. I think had we had a little bit more time and a little bit more money, I wanted to travel to other monuments around the country too, but we didn’t have the opportunity.
BE: Do you think it’s going to expand into that... ?
ZM: I don’t know. I hope that it opens up conversation about... what needs to be in these different spaces... where these monuments were. I think it’s in kind of the contemporary zeitgeist and... I hope that it creates a larger conversation in the country about how we can be representing these spaces more honestly.
BE: Does anyone know what if any plans there are currently for any of these spaces?
ZM: I haven’t heard anything.
KM: I don’t think there is a plan.
ZM: [laughing] I don’t think there is one either.
KM & ZM [simultaneously]: I think they were just like, “Take ‘em down.”
ZM: When we did shoot with Mavis in North Carolina she was so down to earth and so knowledgeable and just really kind and generous, and I think that her spirit inspired how that day went and just kind of focusing on joy. A lot of times when you’re crafting a narrative you’re like, “What’s the conflict going to be?” and “How does this heighten the tension and keep people on edge?” and I had been thinking that way.
And then after being with Mavis it just kind of hit me that this video isn’t about conflict—it’s just about joy. Which I think goes into the visual with the monuments not being represented as what they were [Confederate monuments] and not really being explicit about that, because it’s not really about that. It’s not about saying that Black people are the negation or the converse or anything like that. We’re just deserving of being in these spaces from the beginning.
Which is kind of how people misconstrue Black Lives Matter and say, “All lives matter.” It’s not Black Lives Matter only; it’s Black Lives matter too. You know, you forgot... , and you didn’t believe it and you still don’t believe it, and it’s not a negation of anybody else. It’s just saying, It’s time. We need to be up there.
KM: Like, just because I’m saying this doesn’t mean it takes other people out of it. I like chocolate cake; it doesn’t mean I don’t like red velvet cake.
BE: This is making me think of the concept of “power with” instead of “power over,” and, right, it’s this fear that there’s only so much pie. So I like the Black Lives Matter parallel. I mean, it is directly analogous to this fear of what it means to have a Black person in this space.
ZM: That’s why the video’s so simple....It’s just: this person sees herself immortalized in a statue and nobody’s hating on it... [I]t’s just purely a positive image. Which honestly you don’t really get to do so much of that working in film—it’s all about conflict and drama—so it was a really good opportunity and it felt really good to do something that was just about joy and about positivity.
KM: I just hope I made Mavis Staples proud.