Rokhaya Diallo during BET Awards 2016 weekend. Photo by Oluwaseye Olusa.

Filmmaker Rokhaya Diallo’s French Take on American Civil Rights

Today, the March on Washington Film Festival will screen an analysis and an examination of America’s civil rights movements from the French perspective. Steps to Liberty, directed by award winning filmmaker, writer and journalist, Rokhaya Diallo, draws parallels on the racial histories of France and the United States.

In the wake of the 50 year anniversary of the March on Washington and about 30 years since the French March for Equality and Against Racism from Marseilles to Paris, Diallo examines how the American Civil Rights Era inspires the social justice movements in France by bringing a group of young Americans to her home country and capturing their reactions and opinions of a country in the midst of what she considers is in its own identity crisis.

These reactions and reflections address the racial tensions still embedded in the contemporary French society with Diallo ultimately calling for the true fulfillment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Following the screening at the Naval Heritage Center in the U.S. Navy Museum, Diallo will join DeRay McKesson in a discussion moderated by Julekya Latingua-Williams, where they will touch on the state of civil rights in France, England and the U.S. and the similarities of the movements between Ferguson, London, Paris and Baltimore.

Steps to Liberty is one of many works where Diallo, 38, challenges her audience to step outside of themselves and think about the state of race relations, sexism and pluralism in France.

The film first premiered on French national television, and for Diallo, it was a moment for French people of color to finally have the space to talk about race.

“I used to have a show on the parliamentary channel in France and many people would stop me in the streets, people of color mostly—Arab and Blacks,” she tells me. “They would say, ‘You’re the only journalist to speak about what matters to us.’ People of different ages, from mothers to young people, because it’s so uncommon to see someone looking like me talking about these issues so openly.”

“In France it’s very taboo,” she continues. “Sometimes you get discouraged because you hear such stupid things in the debates. You’re like, ‘Why am I supposed to talk to this person?’ Then you have someone in the street that is throwing encouragement saying, ‘We need you because there is no one else,’ and that really helps me to understand.”

With a background in international law, human rights and TV production, Diallo, who is of Senegalese and Gambian descent, was raised in Paris’ 19th arrondissement . She first became interested in looking into and learning more about the world’s injustices when she was in her 20s. During her half a dozen or so years working in animation, she was also involved with several NGOs that fought for justice.

Inspired by the books of people like Naomi Klein and Aminata Traoré, Diallo not only speaks her truth through film, but through debates on French TV and radio on platforms including RTL, Canal +, TV5 and France 24. As one of the few women who do so, Diallo is fearless and will call out racism when she hears it in those discussions.

Those heated moments led Diallo to start Le Invisibles, an organization that is trying to reframe the idea of Frenchness to include people who aren’t white and Christian. The organization is a platform  to give a voice to the voiceless.

She started to produce her own projects, including writing books, documentaries and participating in conferences, while still being close to the grass roots organizations. Diallo’s most recent project, Not Your Mama’s Movement, is a documentary about a new and emerging generation of African-American activists after Trayvon Martin and Ferguson that took about a year to put together. Diallo went to Ferguson, Missouri to shoot profiles and portraits of the new generation of activists from her French perspective.

To Diallo, justice is ultimately the purpose of her work. Despite feeling a bit of pressure to represent well, she’s steadfast in pushing forward and making an impact through her books, including her most recent book on natural hair, Afro! and documentary films.

“I don’t feel like I want to represent anyone. I want to push justice, but I don’t want to run for any office. I want anything I say to be my own,” she tells me. “If people recognize themselves in what I say it’s okay, but if they don’t—when you belong to a group, you can disappoint them or you can fail and my goal is just to make sure that all the voices are represented and my ideas are represented.”

Diallo also uses the entertainment world to not only engage her audience with social justice, but also to contribute culturally to diverse perspectives through BET France. The host of two shows, BET Buzz and BET Docu, Diallo covers content for the network while she’s both in France and in the U.S.

For Diallo, being a part of something fresh and different adds to the importance of representation in France.

“We have another host from a Cambodian background, the other one is from a Tunisian background and we just hired another who is black,” she says. “That’s very new to have a channel in France that is so open to the world and especially to the U.S. to bring a new perspective on journalism and diversity.”

To keep up with Rokhaya, check out her blog, RokMyWorld and her website for more information.

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