Noted scholar, sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois once posed the question to Black Americans, “How does it feel to be a problem?”
In his writings, Du Bois was exploring the alienation that African Americans often feel in being part of America yet feeling apart from it in the face of racism.
More than a century later, Philosophy and Ethnic and Women’s Studies Adjunct Professor Thomas Keith is searching for answers to that question and more in a new documentary film aptly titled, “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?”
Keith co-produced the film with J.W. Wiley, a scholar, author and founder of the consulting firm Xamining Diversity. A showing and a panel discussion about the film is slated for Thursday, March 16 in the CPP University Theatre at 7 p.m.
Wiley came to Keith with the idea to contemporize Du Bois with a film, and the project evolved from there, Keith said.
The film, which is streaming on Amazon Prime, explores the impact of systemic racism on Black Americans and Native Americans, anti-Asian hate, discrimination against immigrants from Mexico and Central America and the way ideals around masculinity are related to white supremacy.
“When we started interviewing people, they were posing questions I never thought about,” he said. “I was surprised a couple of times, and I said we need to go in deep.”
The pair sought out people to interview who are invested in doing social justice work – authors, activists, scholars and even some noted entertainers such as actors Danny Glover and Ed Asner and musician Henry Rollins. Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne wrote and performed a song for the trailer.
The film has been well received, winning Best Documentary Film at the Soho International Film Festival and Best Director at the Queens World Film Festival in 2022.
While making the documentary, Keith also traveled with a crew to Detroit and Tampa to interview members of neo-Nazi groups.
Cal Poly Pomona Philosophy Associate Professor Alex Madva, whose is an expert on implicit bias, also appears in the film.
Madva calls the film engaging, powerful and timely.
“Questions about America’s racial history and racial trajectory are front and center right now,” he said. “There is an incredible fight happening in how we are teaching racial history and what that means to young and old people alike.”
Madva attributes the heightened debates about how schools teach race-related topics to parents feeling like they have lost the ability to have input in their children’s education, as well as to some politicians using scare and distraction tactics to win elections.
This film marks the fifth documentary Keith has produced and directed. His first three films tackled gender and masculinity, his area of expertise. He also has written several books on the topic.
Keith said he gave TV and radio interviews for about a year after releasing his film, “The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men” in 2011. His fourth film, “Bullied,” came out in 2019 and can be streamed on Tubi.
Keith said he has learned the ropes of documentary filmmaking through his experiences.
“To be a documentary filmmaker, you need a couple of things,” he said. “That’s tenacity because you have to be able to get to celebrities and other folks you need to talk to, and that sometimes means going around their managers. And you also have to be fearless. You can’t be starstruck by celebrities or afraid of Nazis.”
Keith and Wiley have done the rounds at various film festivals and are planning a summer tour at several colleges and universities on the East Coast, including the University of Pittsburg, Drexel and Spelman.
Keith, who is teaching the Ethnic and Women’s Studies class Race, Gender and Film this semester, also has done some interviews and Zoom events for the film, hoping to make his voice heard not only as a filmmaker, but also as an educator.
“Education is under attack, and some say that African American history doesn’t have educational value,” Keith said. “Voter suppression is being used to keep people from the polls. We’re in very scary times and we need to be aware of that. Fascism has made its way to America, and certain groups are supporting that. As educators, it is up to use to meet fire with fire.”