‘Listen! Please!’: J.D. Steele documentary explores systemic racism through the eyes of elders

7February 2021

While its origin dates back to the 1967 book “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation,” the term “systemic racism” has moved to the front of the national conversation in the time since George Floyd was killed in May.

But what does the term mean? That’s what J.D. Steele hoped to answer with “Listen! Please!,” a short film featuring interviews with four prominent Black people in their 80s.

The documentary will premiere with a virtual screening at 6 p.m. Monday via Steele’s Facebook page and on YouTube. Donations made during the screening will benefit the Capri Theater, which supports disadvantaged youth and adults in the North Minneapolis community.

Steele is best known for his musical career, as a member of the Steeles and for his work with Prince, George Clinton, Donald Fagen, Mavis Staples and many other artists. A longtime friend, activist Penny Winton, had just turned 90 and suggested to Steele he should make a documentary on racism.

“My first thought was, ‘OK, I’ve never made a film before,’ ” Steele said. “I have good friends who are wonderful filmmakers and I thought about referring her to one of them. But I woke up the next day with an epiphany: ‘I can do this.’ ”

J.D. Steele (Courtesy photo)

Steele decided he “wanted to interview octogenarians, who have gone through a lot. I have great respect for our elders and their strength for being able to live through things that long.”

He chose to interview Elder Mahmoud El Kati, Macalester College professor emeritus, lecturer and essayist on the Black experience Since World War II; Dr. Josie Johnson, Minnesota civil rights activist and creator of the Department of African American Studies at the University of Minnesota; Bill English, consulting project director for the Northside Job Creation Team and co-founder of the Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis; and his mother, Sallie Steele Birdsong.

“I thought since I have a camera crew, I’d interview my mother for the family archives,” he said. “I didn’t realize how compelling her stories would be. She told me stories I didn’t know about. They were all amazing, with so many life experiences to share.”

He interviewed the four of them in October and then hit the studio to write and record the score. He said each interviewee inspired a certain sound.

The editing process, Steele found, was more difficult than he expected.

“The hardest part was taking 5 1/2 hours of interviews and reducing them down to 18 minutes. I could do a full documentary on each one of them, they all have such diverse backgrounds. But I was working on a limited budget and was running out of time and money. I hope it captures their spirits. For me, it does.”

In the process, Steele also learned that “even some of my African-American friends don’t know what systemic racism is. You have to define it to overcome it. I wanted to inspire people to understand what it is, stand up and deal with it.”

Through his frequent volunteer work with children and teenagers, Steele said he’s optimistic about the future.

“These kids are diverse and brilliant,” Steele said. “They’re living in such a diverse society and they’re seeing things through a tunnel of diversity on TV and film and in school. The globe has shrunk, not just because of travel, but the internet. They’re seeing things a lot of people didn’t see 40 years ago. They’ve learned to live together and accept each other. I’ve got a lot of hope.”

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