Jesse Williams wants the world to wake up.
In a new documentary titled "Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement," the well-respected actor and activist is encouraging others to be more aware of America's (poor) treatment of black lives by exploring the evolution of a movement that is committed to the same mission.
Williams stars in and executive produces the film, which debuts May 26 on BET. It chronicles the birth and growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and its transformative power in amplifying black voices and issues.
"Black Lives Matter is in many ways, in its adolescence," Williams told The Huffington Post about his involvement in the film and his thoughts on various aspects about the movement. He discussed with HuffPost the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, how it subsequently swept the Internet by storm and how the hashtag helped to bring about real change. He also highlighted the daunting feat the movement's participants have in figuring out how to create lasting change.
The documentary is directed by Laurens Grant, who produced the powerful film “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” and includes interviews from some of the movement’s major players, including Black Lives Matter co-founders Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors along with respected black luminaries and leaders like DeRay McKesson, Johnetta Elzie, Darnell Moore, Michaela Angela Davis, Brittany Packnett and more.
"It's an ongoing movement, so we wanted to be sure that as we catalog its origin story and machination, we also wanted to be sure we do not treat it as a fixed, finite, closed circle," he added. "We want to look back without being conclusive. That was really important to us."
[Black Lives Matter] stands on the shoulders of folks who stand on the shoulders of previous movements.” Jesse Williams
For Williams -- an organizer and social justice warrior who has worked on the front lines of the movement -- the foundation on which the movement was built is something he wanted to highlight foremost in the film.
"I consider this movement a love movement," he said. "My experiences in Ferguson and everywhere else -- as an activist and educator -- are that all of our work and experience is, regardless of how [opponents] try to frame it, about love. Love for self, love for us, love for our people. Love for humanity and love for the real great potential we have as a culture but also this nation has by putting its best foot forward."
Black Lives Matter is inspired by the incredible work of black activists, civil rights leaders and movements of the past, too. Williams said the movement "stands on the shoulders of folks who stand on the shoulders of previous movements.” It also relies heavily, he said, on the support and leadership of black women and the black queer community who are fundamental contributors to the movement.
"There's simply no movement, there's not even a semblance of a movement without black women and black members of the LGBT community," Williams said. "We as men, in particular black men, are constantly supported, nurtured, forgiven, apologized for, led, followed and coddled by black women and they get very little in return."
At its core, Black Lives Matter is a movement that fights for the freedom and justice of black people in a world where these basic rights weren't afforded to men and women like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and countless others. However, for whatever reason, these demands have also made the movement the target of criticism and attack from right-wing responders, primarily on Fox News, who have bashed Black Lives Matter as a "terrorist group" and have spewed other dangerous misconceptions about the movement.
"I don't check for Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly or any of these demons on the right," Williams said. "They don't wake me up in the morning, I don't care about them and they certainly don't drive the conversations I'm thinking about, but they do have an audience and they do lie all day, everyday about disenfranchised people."
The actor said that while we can't live a life of being reactionary, he and Grant addressed some of these misrepresentations of the movement in the film as a way to scold others for spreading these myths and set things straight on what the movement is truly about. He told HuffPost:
"The interesting thing about white power and the desperate white knuckling grip on this thing call whiteness, which is a myth in itself, is that black folks… we're not asking you to invent new laws for us. We're asking you to include us in the laws that are already on the books. Trayvon Martin did not invent the hood on a sweatshirt and wear it down the street, he used the hood that already exists that white boys wear as a uniform all over this country. Anytime black people want to use the benefits of the flag that they pledge allegiance to and fight on the front lines of every single war since the founding of this nation, they treat us like we're trying to invent something new and special for ourselves when all we’re asking for, or demanding in this case, is inclusion in a fully formed, well-oiled machine that already exists."
While the film addresses some of the aggressive agendas against Black Lives Matter, it also touches on certain challenges within the movement, including how some elder civil rights activists did, and still do, find it difficult to get behind this new movement. However, Williams said that these disagreements are OK and that he and Grant decided to explore this topic in the documentary to show that diversity of thought is welcomed and encouraged.
"Blackness is not a monolith. We are not homogenous people, we are not all the same," Williams said. "It is not a failure to disagree, it is not a failure to experience bumps or turbulence, that's part of the process. We're just doing it in public and we're just doing it being black, which draws a magnifying glass to our flaws and to our triumphs."
"We have been conditioned to believe that black people are subhuman... and are told all of these intrinsically destructive tropes, which are flagrantly dishonest." Jesse Williams
Williams shares his thoughts on blackness on his popular Twitter page, which is basically a crash course on “Stay Woke: 101” -- and he’s far from the only one. Social media has played a huge role in driving the national conversation about race and black lives and has made it accessible for all to participate, critique and engage in.
Many users have joined the chorus online and raised their voices as a way to openly speak about important issues and the need for institutional change. As a result, many of these active users have been labeled as “hashtag activists” -- a term that Williams said comes with connotations that, in some ways, deflates the power of their demonstrations and, he said, he believes the term is "bulls**t."
"Miss me with that. I've yet to hear an intelligent reason or criticism of using your voice on social media," Williams said. "We're in the streets, we're at the halls of power, we’re impacting policy directly, we’re changing the narrative and the way presidential candidates have to come correct in order to even show up in our town. And then we're happening to report it online because those are the tools at our disposal. Ain't nothing changed but the technology… the activism is what’s happening."
"The black community has been in a state of emergency and crisis and pervasive traumatic stress disorder since 1619. Jesse Williams
Activism by those like Williams highlights the need for an important and immediate call for change.
"The black community has been in a state of emergency and crisis and pervasive traumatic stress disorder since 1619...there hasn't been a week in the history of this country where innocent, well-meaning human beings haven't been treated as subhuman by state agents," Williams said. "We have been conditioned to believe that black people are subhuman... and are told all of these intrinsically destructive tropes, which are flagrantly dishonest."
One of the first steps to being "woke" is understanding the depth of these dangerous myths and how societal constructs impede on the lives of marginalized people. In one poignant moment in the documentary, Williams says "no matter what we do, we're late" -- it's a striking comment that stresses the requirement for resolution and represents the urgent need to get woke, stay woke and better the state of black lives.
"I say we 'we're late' because the emergency has always been there, it's just taken a long time to break free," Williams said of the pivotal line in the film. "And if that means you broke free in 2016, then f**k it. You broke free in 2016. You're ready and you're here now."
"Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement" airs on BET on May 26 at 9 p.m. ET.
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