“We are collectively holding our breath about the disease of white supremacy, the disease of environmental racism.”
Thursday night, three months deep into the global health crisis and three weeks into the nascent stages of what may be the revolution, nearly a hundred folks from Seattle, Washington, to Lithonia, Georgia, gathered on a Zoom call to talk about a little town called Mossville.
The historic Black town of Mossville, founded by freed slaves and predated the Civil War, is now “a shell of a place” according to Daniel Bennett, Mossville native and producer of the environmental justice documentary Mossville: When Great Trees Fall.
At first, the community welcomed the arrival of an industrial plant, which came with plenty of new jobs and resources for the small town. But by 2015 the families in Mossville were surrounded by over 14 refineries and chemical plants. Residents were breaking out in skin rashes, losing dozens of family members to unexplained cancers, and having their homes sold from under them to companies polluting the air and soil.
The documentary’s producer Daniel Bennet, executive producer Michelle Lanier, and director Alex Glustrom talked with audiences after Scalawag’s virtual screening of the film about the destruction of Mossville and the global impact of environmental racism. Geography professor and Scalawag Race & Place editor Danielle Purifoy moderated the conversation.
Daniel Bennet talks about working on the film as a native of Mossville.
Danielle Purifoy: There was a profound sense of the preservation of the memory and the legacy of [Mossville] that was really powerfully captured in words, if not visually because the place was so transformed. Environmental documentaries often talk about the toxicity of the industry and the impact, and there’s less about what it is that community folks are fighting for. Can you talk about what was lost in Mossville?
Daniel Bennett: One of the biggest things was a loss of a sense of home. I’ve been married seven years, and my wife is from Austin. When we went back to visit Austin she was elated to be able to show me “This is the high school I went to, this is the park I used to play in, this is the store where I used to work at.” And she took me through her neighborhood and stomping grounds.
I had the privilege to show my children where I played peewee baseball, this is where I got in a fight with such and such. This is where I grew up. A lot of people will never have that opportunity again. I won’t be able to show my grandchildren that... I don’t have that ability anymore and people can truly relate to that because it’s fun to take that nostalgic walk through the past. That is one of the big things that’s been taken away from us in Mossville. I’ve lived here my entire life and I worked right here locally. Being one of the younger people, it’s odd because I always say “I got to get out of this city, because too many people know me that I don’t really know.” I’ll be at work and somebody will say “Hey you’re Choji’s boy,” and I say “Yea, who are you,” and they’ll say “I’m such and such.” And that sense of community has now been taken because we’ve been sent to so many places...
It’s odd when you can see an older gentleman walking around wearing a Mossville Letterman’s jacket and say “Well how long must he have he had this jacket?” It gives you a just vague concept of how important this community was—just the colors, the maroon and gold.
While much of the intimate beauty of Mossville could only be recounted, the film’s director discussed how he visually and sonically portrayed the dizzying fumes and the cacophonous sound of the factories that accompanied irreparable loss, not just of land, but of human legacy.
Alex Glustrom: It seemed very obvious early on that the tree is such an important metaphor for Mossville. On a very physical level, Stacey has this tree in his yard that he’s very attached to, and it actually fell down while we were out there filming. That felt like a turning point moment for Stacy, when that tree fell. As he says in the film, “It just couldn’t hold itself up anymore.” There’s this metaphor of roots and nature that’s so a part of Mossville’s history.
The same day that we filmed that tree, just after it fell, we were over at a mural [of a tree] that’s painted over in Mossville and each one of the branches is a different family’s name that were one of the founding families of Mossville.
When we read the Maya Angelou poem “When Great Trees Fall,” it felt like it was really written for the film in a lot of ways.
Alex Glustrom talks about working with Stacey Ryan, the film's main protagonist.
But it’s not enough to make a beautiful film, you have to make a just one. Efforts to resist extractive practices must be employed at every level from how the film is made to who tells the story, to considerations about how the community will be impacted and benefited.
DP: At Scalawag we think through the power dynamics of folks who come from outside communities to tell stories and it seems like this was an interesting and intentional way you went about creating this film. I wonder if you could tell us some challenges you faced or any pushback from the community how did you navigate that dynamic?
Daniel Bennet talks about the chemical industry and navigating different community perspectives on the refineries in Mossville.
DB: Growing up in Mossville we saw a lot of white faces behind cameras. We saw a lot of film crews come in and say “Hey, I want to tell the story of Mossville.” So when I first met Alex he was at my parents house, he’s a cool guy, I didn’t think much of it. I kind of avoided him and tried to stay out of the way. It was not unfamiliar to see my parents being interviewed about Mossville.
But one of the barriers though, one of my friends I grew up with—before he knew I was a part of the film—he literally started to go in on the film right on the Facebook page. He said, “We don’t need more white people to tell our story. Y’all trying to rob us again.” I said “Hold up, this is different. This is a group of people that’s not trying to be extractive. They’re allowing me to be part of the team.”
Michelle Lanier: We each have a different set of expertise around how to face challenges when it comes to telling what we hoped would be informative, powerful, provocative, and what we hoped would be a compelling story, not for but with the people of Mossville. The expertise I bring is emphasizing checking in with ourselves constantly around our ethics, our intentionality, looking at our own privileges, and thinking through how we are showing up at every stage of the film process, thinking through possibilities for reciprocity and true social justice as a repercussion of this work... I get the sense that everybody in this Zoom gathering is probably feeling a similar tightness that I’m feeling in my body. I think we are all collectively holding our breath about the disease of white supremacy, the disease of environmental racism.
Lanier then led the audience in a moment of synchronized breaths to connect the stories of Stacy Ryan and the Fisher family of Mossville to the murders of Goerge FLoyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all Black people who are struggling to breathe.
ML: We call this a story of environmental racism in the Global South. It absolutely connects to the experiences of folks in the Lake Charles area that are surrounded by more than a dozen refineries and petrol- chemical plants. That’s actually in a different part of the world from the Cancer Alley that a lot of us hear about.
We see “fenceline communities” and industrial waste all over the US South, certainly the birthplace of the environmental justice movement... And then across the globe, in the geographic South, the story of South Africa. Same company, SASOL, having the same impact on Black bodies in South Africa in almost identical ways.
DB: South Africa was probably the most emotional part of this film for me. Going to South Africa was a hell of an experience. We had the opportunity to show the film in one of the least idyllic situations. We had to put plastic bags on the windows. But sitting in that small building, I felt like I had an out of body experience. When I closed my eyes, not looking at where I was, not listening to the accents, I was at home again. It was almost eerie because I heard the exact same sentences, the exact same words. When I peered through the outer appearance it was almost as if I saw the exact same people. I saw my parents. I saw Stacey’s aunt, Deborah. I had to remind myself that I’m 18,000 away from home. But it was home. The smells were similar, the struggles were the same, and ultimately, we’re talking about the exact same company. I don’t really have a word for it. It was the only time I became teary-eyed behind all of it... I felt almost small, and I’m far from small. It was difficult to fathom what I was facing.
Fathom it—we must, if we are ever to change these realities. Scalawag brought in three environmental activists from different Southern communities to discuss how similar toxic and racist conditions are affecting Black and brown communities in Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina.
Meet three Southern environmental justice workers who have secured wins in their communities.
Pollution from the world’s busiest airport and persistent flooding were some of the issues mentioned by Eco-Action’s Dr. Yomi plaguing low income Black communities in Atlanta. A SuperFund site sits in Brunswick, Georgia where companies exploit hazardous waste permits and continue to pollute residents’ groundwater.
Members of North Carolina’s Environmental Justice Network discussed the situation in Warren County, North Carolina, where workers at hazardous waste incinerators face glaring health and safety concerns. Organizers also brought up the effects of lead and carbon monoxide on the quality of indoor environments and the presence of flame retardants and other hazardous chemicals in certain products sold in discount stores which many low income communities rely on.
Nina Morgan of Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) also mentioned that folks in North Birmingham and those near another Superfund site suffer from air pollution from nearby Coke plants. She went on to caution that living within these toxic environments leaves residents, many of whom are elderly, at even greater risk of death from COVID-19.
Naeema Muhammad, the organizing director of NC’s Environmental Justice Network admonished white environmental groups to start paying attention to environmental justice issues, like those happening in Eastern North Carolina, Birmingham, Brazil, Secunda, and Mossville. Mossville director Glustrom echoed her wisdom.
Alex Glustrom talks about the environmental justice connections to global demands for abolition.
AG: I don’t think there is a better example of predatory capitalism steeped in white supremacy than the way the oil and gas industry functions across the entire planet. It’s the perfect example of that. One of our hopes is that we can help make the term environmental racism become more of a household term. We’ve taken this film to environmental film festivals all over the country. We’re always the only film that talks about race in connection to environmentalism. And they are so interconnected. We’re always astonished that there are so many films about penguins but not about the people who are bearing the brunt of our energy production and consumption.