'Walking While Black' documentary aims to bridge gaps in police, community relations

Filmmakers with Md. ties turn their lens to challenging topic: police-community relations.

After an interaction with Howard County police in 2012 that he found deeply troubling, filmmaker A.J. Ali says he was motivated to address relations between police and the African-American community.

"I wanted to do something, a short film … to say, 'Hey, look what's happening to us," he said. Soon, his idea evolved into a full-length documentary.

Last year, Ali — by then living in Santa Monica, Calif. — teamed up with Errol Webber, a Maryland Institute College of Art alumnus and cinematographer who previously worked on an Oscar-winning documentary short. With Ali as director and Webber as director of photography, they produced "Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. Is the Answer," which discusses bridging the gap in police-community relations throughout America. The acronym "L.O.V.E.," coined by Ali, is to encourage people to "learn about others in their community, open their heart to them, volunteer to be part of the solution in their life, and empower others to do the same."

The solutions-focused documentary, completed in January, features nearly 30 interviews with members of communities across the country, Ali said. Current and retired law enforcement members — including Baltimore Police Chief Melvin T. Russell, commander of the department's community collaboration division, and retired Los Angeles police Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey — appear along with community leaders, social workers and psychologists who discuss the effects of racial profiling on American communities and tragic instances in the history of police-community relations, which include the deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and the five members of law enforcement who died in a shootout in Dallas in July.

The film which premiered in Santa Monica on Feb. 1, held a screening at MICA Feb. 6, and will be screened Sunday at Messiah Community Church in Reisterstown. Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who appears in the film and attended the earlier screening, will also hold a private screening Tuesday at MICA, inviting civil rights and faith leaders, members of the Baltimore Police Department, activists and ex-offenders, according to Pugh's communication director Anthony McCarthy.

"The film shows the ways racial profiling affects both police and the community," said Webber, 29, adding that police officers are often "emotionally and physically fatigued" while policing communities and "forced to be desensitized."

"Everyone's affected by this problem," he said. "The whole community suffers."

Ali and Webber will continue screening the film throughout the year, including a May launch of a "L.O.V.E. Is the Answer" book and film tour, which will host a series of screenings, workshops and Q&A's across the country well into November.

The filmmakers are targeting high schools and colleges, police departments, churches, community groups and organizations to license the film. They seek "a deeper discussion, because this isn't a popcorn-and-soda film," said Ali, noting that it's not just his story. It's everyone's.

"It's the story of America and the horrible problem that it has," he said.

If you go

The Messiah Community Church will host a screening of "Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. Is the Answer," at 6 p.m. Sunday. 909 Berrymans Lane, Reisterstown. Free. walkingwhileblackthemovie.com.

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