As musical performances and food truck aromas filled the air, Maymont was a mixture of glee and reflection on Wednesday night as more than 700 people gathered for the premiere and special screening of the Richmond-made documentary “How the Monuments Came Down.”
The film explores the centuries of Black resistance to white suppression in Richmond, such as the successful 1904 citywide boycott of Jim Crow-era streetcars led by Maggie L. Walker and John Mitchell Jr., and its connection to Confederate monuments.
The reckoning of the Confederate monuments started before the Robert E. Lee monument went up, gaining pushback from Mitchell, a prominent Black editor of the Richmond Planet, an African American newspaper.
Produced by Field Studio, with funding by VPM and the Virginia Film Office, the documentary examines how the monuments stood for more than a century and why they ultimately fell in 2020.
For many attendees of Wednesday’s event, the film brings the hope that it will serve as an opportunity for people to learn more about Monument Avenue’s history.
“It’s really important just so we don’t lose momentum. ... Anything that’s going to teach more people the significance of these monuments — how they’ve impacted the city, how they’ve divided the city…it’s an important story to tell,” said Aleese Gooden, an attendee from Chesterfield County.
“How the Monuments Came Down” features longtime Richmond residents and descendants of prominent African American figures, as it delves into the history of post-Civil War Richmond through the lens of the monuments, with the help of story advisers.
The film starts with the 2020 summer protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But it digs into Richmond’s rich history, from the 1880s — covering the rise of Black political power in the state legislature and along the way, the suppression of it, through the installation of the monuments, Jim Crow laws and segregation — to the historic 1977 election of the first majority-Black Richmond City Council.
Lance Warren, one of the filmmakers, speaking at the event about the documentary, said the full history of the monuments has not been “the dominant narrative” and hopes the film in its small way can change that.
“The stories that we tell are what make us who we are,” he said. “They tell our children how to understand the world. … We’ve got to tell truer stories if we want to move forward in a way that’s rooted in honesty.”
The event included a pre-screening discussion with Joseph Rogers, story adviser and public historian; Justin Hayter, story adviser, historian and associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond; Krista Weatherford, Maymont’s director of programming and community engagement; Chuck Richardson, former Richmond council member; Princess Blanding, co-founder of Justice and Reformation and an independent Virginia gubernatorial candidate; Sesha Joi Moon, director of diversity, equity and Inclusion at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and co-founder of the JXN Project; and Enjoli Moon, story adviser, founder of the Afrikana Independent Film Festival and co-founder of the JXN Project.
As the panelists reflected on the past year, many felt the toppling of the monuments was merely symbolic and more work in fighting for racial justice and Black liberation needs to be done.
“It’s been ... [one] large step for the politics of symbolism and one small step towards racial reconciliation,” Hayter said.
Blanding said last summer’s protests are part of a “continuous, evolving, strengthening movement” in enacting legislation toward Black liberation.
“We must do more; we must demand more. We will claim more,” she said.
Richardson, who served as part of the historic first majority-Black council in the 1970s, recalls how polarizing Richmond and the conversation surrounding the monuments were. He sees the past year as a teachable moment for the rest of the world.
“This is a big step for Richmond. This is a big step for the nation,” he said, “because in reality, Richmond can really be an example for the world.”
The screening was part of the Afrikana Independent Film Festival, a Richmond event that showcases and highlights Black films. The event was in partnership with Maymont, VPM and the JXN Project, a project that seeks to contextualize the history of Jackson Ward.
The film will air on VPM at 8 p.m. Thursday. It is planned to air on PBS stations nationwide in the fall.