By Vernon Nickerson
Good afternoon. Today it is my honor to be in conversation with AJ Ali, Producer of a powerful new documentary that is a must-see-and-discuss event for a global audience: “Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer”. AJ kindly allowed us to have wonderfully diverse conversation with him
Vernon Nickerson: Welcome to The Art of Monteque.
AJ Ali: Hi Vernon, How are you?
V N: I am fine. I have been looking forward to our conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Walking while Black: L.O.V.E. Is The Answer. Can you explain to our readers in detail the meaning of the L.O.V.E. acronym in your film’s title?
AJ Ali: Yeah, we actually made the L.O.V.E. acronym into a pledge that people are invited to take :
I pledge to LEARN about the people in my community.
To unconditionally OPEN my heart to their needs; as if they were all immediate family members
To VOLUNTEER to be part of the solution in their life, during both good and challenging times, and
To EMPOWER everyone I meet to do the same as if our lives depended on each other.
V N: Thank You. So, one of the things that I was struck by was just how impactful the content of the documentary is to exactly what is happening in our nation, literally as we are speaking. This is the twenty-first day of May in the year 2021. My understanding is that you and your team conceived of this documentary in 2012 and began filming, completing the documentary before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic was even a thing.
AJ Ali: Yes. I started working on the project in late 2012, not too long after that fateful encounter with police in Maryland in June of 2012. (Baltimore police fired 44 rounds at Keith Davis Jr. on June 7, 2015, hitting with three, including one in the face.) We started working on it at that time, but we didn’t start filming until 2016 during that year and the first part of 2017 and we worked right up until the very last minute until our World Premiere in early February of 2018. We started licensing the film after that. Then we revised the film in the fall of 2020, so in September 2020 we made some minor changes to it and geared it up to get ready for broader release, and of course, today is the day that it’s on VOD (Video on Demand). We’ve actually licensed it to more than 100 organizations all over the country. Law enforcement, schools, ministries, non-profits and for-profit companies. We have put as much time into creating the support structure around the film plus distribution of the film itself. So we have had workshops, webinars, a book, other tools to help people learn these principles and be able to put them into action in their communities.
V N: Now, do you currently reside in Baltimore City
AJ Ali: No, I live in Nevada and I used to live in Santa Monica, California.
V N: Wow, small world, I worked at the lithium battery plant GTE Sylvania had in Henderson, NV, and also lived in Santa Monica for a time. I still have my PO Box in Santa Monica, and I am a teacher, and a “book pusher” so I was often at the beautiful Central Branch of the Santa Monica Public Library. But I digress.
AJ Ali: I love that library too, man. My wife would go and check out several books at a time. We licensed Walking while Black to them and they had a screening there.
V N: Excellent. That’s just what I would expect. By the way, my former employer was Los Angeles Unified School District. Have they purchased a license?
AJ Ali: No, but we donated the license to the film to a few schools within LA Unified. We also donated the film to a school in Compton and the King-Drew Middle school. LAPD members came out; it was one of the most moving experiences I have had at one of our screenings. At that screening we had a really big uniformed officer come up to me and said that he’s going to change the way he does business because of the film. He said he had been working in the community, and he hated the community and was treating people poorly and that he needed to stop ( mistreating people). And at that same event I had a young man, must have been 15 or 16 years old; he came up to me. Now, these two people came up one after the other; he said, “I have hated police my entire life, but because of this film, I’m gonna change that, I’m going to be part of the solution and work with them, and I might want to become a cop to make a difference. So the work that has been done in the Los Angeles area has been strong. We’ve actually partnered with New Roads School in Santa Monica where Amanda Gorman came from.”( America’s Youth Poet Laureate who wrote and performed her poetry at the Biden/Harris Inauguration in January 2021.)
V N: Oh yes.
AJ Ali: We’re working closely with them. All of their staff have the Love is the Answer book. We are working on some projects with them that are going to impact the whole nation.
V N: Excellent, that is very encouraging to hear. If LAUSD is a field, its fields are ripe and ready with school communities who would benefit from screenings and discussions of Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. Is The Answer. Hopefully, those schools that have watched the film will spread the news. It’s really exciting the power the film has already had. What new perspectives do you think that Walking While Black brings to the conversation in the spring of 2021
AJ Ali: Boy! I could spend about four hours answering that one question– but I’m gonna try and keep it short. This country and this world needs LOVE right now. I’m not talking about some weak, mushy, touchy-feely-laying-in-a-cloud-of-daffodils kind of love. I’m talking about the kind of love you described taking care of your student (as a social worker in DeKalb County, Georgia in the late nineties) you will pay attention to that person because that person is important. In school..as a teacher, you know this– young people aren’t taught…there is no class on how to love your neighbor. The love I am referring to is all about “standing in the gap” for the next generations.
V N: Correct
AJ Ali: And so what we need is to ( be role models of the change we want to see) because…people learn how to hate (different) races… people learn how to marginalize others from somewhere, so wherever they are learning that home, in schools, from what they see in media, etc., so there needs to be something to combat that. And what this film Walking While Black and this movement bring is exactly that. We are focused on one thing: teaching people how to love others and themselves. And we are seeing the results ( from our efforts)..being the change we want to see.
V N: Yes, thank you! Of course, I agree… and I’ve got 42 years of evidence in and around public and private schools even though it would be considered anecdotal unpublished data, but the need and the desire to change for the better is there. In 1953, six years before I was born in 1959, Oscar Hammerstein II & Richard Rodgers fought successfully against pressure to take out a song in the musical South Pacific because the lyrics: “you’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, to hate all the people your relatives hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” had prompted the Georgia legislature to introduce legislation that would “outlaw entertainment having an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.” Georgia State Representative David C. Jones claimed that a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life. Hammerstein replied that he was surprised by the idea that “anything kind and humane must necessarily originate in Moscow”. And if we think about West Side Story, it was considered radical in its day
AJ Ali: It sure was.
V N: These conversations have been going on for hundreds of years. So when you speak of love as “standing in the gap”, that is exactly what is needed. What I love about Walking While Black is that you reach out and grab your audiences and they’re riveted from start to finish. This leads me to my next question. I counted a minimum of 20 different professionals doing this work in communities in different parts of the country, How did you pull this team together
AJ Ali: (laughs) Man, that was just by the grace of God. We had no money, we had to stop and start…probably about 20 times of the 6 years ( 2012 to 2017) that we had to stop and start because we had no resources to work with…we had probably 100 people on our list of people that we wanted to interview. We wound up interviewing something like 60 people and you saw how many wound up in the film, so there’s a lot of hours of video that’s still sitting on our hard drive. Some of it will be used in training. It really came down to…God chose the right people for this project… the right people were made available at the right times in some really miraculous ways. An example is Tim Mc Millan (Lt. Col., Garden City, GA Police Department). So we had been trying to get him since we found out about his story…amazing story
V N: You’ll HAVE to go see the movie, gentle readers!
AJ Ali: We didn’t have any money, we talked to him on the phone; we said “if we can get you out here (Nevada) or we can get out to you, we want your story. So I said to him, I said exactly this- “I’m just going to have to pray about it and let it go, because, we’re running out of time and I don’t see how we’re gonna be able to do this, but we really want you in this film. He called me back no more than a week later, and he said, “AJ, you won’t believe what happened. He said TD Jakes people called him and wanted him on their show, but they were filming the show in Burbank. So he said. “I told them I’ll come out on one condition, and that is that you give me time to get interviewed by AJ Ali
V N: LOL. That is amazing!
AJ Ali: So we went to his hotel room in Burbank and filmed him on TD Jake’s dime.
V N: Wow! TD Jakes just earned a gold star.
AJ Ali: And there were other circumstances that came up.. just like that.. we wanted them and we were able to get to them just at the last minute. It was truly amazing. We spent, in hard dollars, …well let me ask you, how much do you think we spent on the film?
V N: Oh, gosh, I have no feel for that, but I’m going to guess 1 million
AJ Ali: You’re right on the money because if HBO had made that film, that’s what they would have spent.
V N: Clearly I’ve been living in LA too long.. (laughing together with AJ…)
AJ Ali: We made that film for less than $60,000 dollars.
V N: Wow!
AJ Ali: By the grace of God.
V N: So, here we are, less than 72 hours away from the 1 year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. Can you share one story… or maybe a couple of stories that would pique your audience’s interest? And then, in your answer, tell us the “profile” of your audience– who is your audience?
AJ Ali: So. The two stories, I would say (one would be ) Melvin Russell, the former chief out of Baltimore (Baltimore City, MD Police)
V N: Okay
AJ Ali: He’s animated in the film. And he’s just as animated in real life– just as passionate about people, about serving. Here’s a guy who’s spent maybe 40 years on that police department and rose up through the ranks, wound up becoming one of their four chiefs, headed up their Community Engagement (team). Melvin truly lives out the L.O.V.E. is the Answer Principles. And he was doing that long before I met him and long before I came up with that term. In fact, he helped to steer the direction of that film in a way that no one else did. Because, when I was going through my darkest days of depression and anxiety after that stop… and I was receiving (death) threats after they found out I was going to make a movie. I would call him from time to time; he and I had met, prior. He always made time for me. He always told me that he loved me. he always was there to listen. Just by being there, he stopped me from doing something stupid..a couple of times. I mean, they were coming after me and I was in the middle of making a decision (of how I would respond to their threats). His presence in my life stopped me from doing something really stupid. So, his story is tremendously powerful to me, cause he (directly) helped me. Now the other one is the one we closed the film with ..which is..Andrew Collins and Jamel ( Benton Harbor)
V N: Right
AJ Ali: That relationship right there is just…miraculous. It really is a model of (L.O.V.E. is the Answer Principles). If Jamel can forgive a man who put him into prison for 4 years for doing nothing… he didn’t do anything, and to lie…to set him up. If he ( Jamel ) can forgive (Andrew Collins) then I can forgive those who tried to harm me.
V N: Powerful, very powerful. And thank you for sharing that… it leads me to another set of questions on a theme, and the theme is war. Is this a war? If it is a war, is it a conventional war or a guerilla war? How do you move from being warriors to becoming peacemakers?
AJ Ali: Can I tell you quickly about the audience?
V N: Yes! Please.
AJ Ali: The audience is literally anybody and everybody. We need everybody to see this film, No matter what color, station in life, age. If they’re 12 years old and older, we need them to see this film. And what’s happening by opening it up and promoting it to a broad audience is that we’re getting a richness of conversations in the post-screening audience that we would not have if we didn’t have cops and thirteen-year-olds and older citizens, 90-year-olds and black and white and brown folks — in the same room.
V N: Yes. Once upon a time when I was a graduate student at Fuller Seminary, I ran a men’s workshop and had all the participants sit in a big circle arranged by age. In 1992, I asked the group what were they afraid of. In this predominantly Black and Brown group, those of us no longer in K-12 as students were stunned to hear that the school-age participants were most scared of being shot dead going to or from school! If we hadn’t had the diversity of ages in that room, we would never have al learned what the children were struggling with, let alone being able to offer practical supports, like escorts to and from schools.
AJ Ali: Hmmm
V N: And you had Police Athletic League, and you had after-school and summer programs and the police participated with the students. With my 18-22-year-old students, just saying the word police would get them to ask, what did I do? So I am glad you said what you said and included everybody. Especially since I wrote in my review that everybody should go see it with someone else and go talk about it after the viewing.
AJ Ali: Yeah, that’s our formula. Watch the film, discuss it, read the book, do the work!
V N: So, are there any upcoming events you want to share .
AJ Ali: You asked a question about war. Is that about the community and police relationship?
V N: Yes.
AJ Ali: Well, it’s a conventional war and a guerilla war, a little bit of both. Right? Because there is systemic racism. I don’t care what anybody says to the contrary because I see it every day.
V N: Right.
AJ Ali: So there is a conventional style war going on, in that respect, because the “system’ has actually been at war with black people for more than 400 years in this country
V N: Yes sir.
AJ Ali: And that’s well documented. And so there is a guerilla aspect to it because you know, I might be going for a job and might have a couple of guys thinking that they’re the law of that community , when they are not. Then they might come up to me and shot and kill me because they think I don’t belong in that community.
V N: AJ, thank you so much for sharing so generously of your time and bringing these wonderful stories surrounding the wide release of Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. Is The Answer. What is the most important message that you would like to leave with our readers?
AJ Ali: The most important message, is just give it a chance when you go see it. Say the pledge to yourself when you wake up in the morning and use those action steps with people in your life, then see what happens. Just try these four steps, learn about people, open your heart to them, volunteer yourself to be part of the solution in their life and then empower others to do the same. It’s going to require patience… it’s going to require energy for some… it’s going to require stepping out of their silos for others. But I challenge everybody to do it and report back and tell me what happened. I mean 99% times out of 100, it’s going to be a blessing to them and the people around them.
V N: Thank you again so much AJ. I also want to let everyone know there’s a way to connect with your efforts now and after they see the film. So they can text the message “LOVEAPP” to 95577 or visit TryLoveNow.com [TAOM]