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Q&A with filmmaker Carmen Scott: Mississippi wants to ‘move forward’

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Carmen Scott is a producer of The Sunflower County Freedom Project, a new documentary about an enrichment program in the impoverished Mississippi Delta. The Freedom Project started in 1998, and now offers after school and weekend classes to push students academically and introduce them to colleges and leadership opportunities.

Carmen Scott, co-director of The Sunflower County Freedom Project. (Photo courtesy Carmen Scott)

Carmen Scott, director of The Sunflower County Freedom Project. (Photo courtesy Carmen Scott)

In the wake of desegregation in Mississippi, white communities opened up private schools known as “segregation academies” to avoid mixing their children with black students. Many white students in the state still attend these schools.  Black students still make up the largest share of public school enrollment in the state, while representing just 40 percent of the population

Scott used to work for the Freedom Project and grew intrigued with Mississippi’s trials, treasures and its history of racial inequality.  The Hechinger Report spoke with Scott after a recent screening of her film, which will be making the rounds of film festivals in hopes of getting a wider distribution deal.

Q: What was your purpose in making this film?

A: I feel like people think of Mississippi as backwards and kind of a lost cause, and our point was to highlight the challenges but also to show that it’s a treasured place and it has these characteristics that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s the most American place on earth. The challenges are apparent, but the treasures are apparent as well. I just feel like the remnants of slavery, sharecropping and segregation are most apparent there. I don’t believe that means it’s stuck in the past, I think it’s trying to move forward — but when you have these remnants it just makes it hard.  So I just wanted to tell the kid’s stories. I didn’t want people to think they could just write them off.

Q: The film looks at the inequity of racially divided schools in the Delta. Did you see this racial tension play out in other ways during your time there?

A: Yes, definitely. I felt it when we were filming. On the surface [everyone] is very kind and generous and very congenial. But when we went to North Sunflower Academy, there was a huge Confederate flag on the side of the building. You have to understand ….what that conveys.  That is what your façade conveys, and if you’re not apologetic in that and you don’t want to invite others, then no, I would never go to that school as a black person. There’s a certain level of fear.

Q: What were some challenges that came with making the film, especially about a difficult topic like segregation?

A: We tried to get into some of the other [segregation] academies, and we weren’t able to gain access. We just wanted to have an objective view of it. We wanted to come in and try and understand the academies.  Also, one thing we didn’t really get to in the film is a solution. The Freedom Project is great, but in a way it’s sort of a Band-Aid.  For one, it doesn’t reach every single kid in Sunflower County, or in the Delta, and then it doesn’t have the same effect on every single kid. Certain kids need more than the Freedom Project can offer.

Q: From your reporting, what do you think are some solutions to improving education in Mississippi?

A: You can’t just throw money at it. Obviously they’re underfunded and don’t have the resources. We were in a classroom and the textbooks had George W. Bush as the current president. I mean, that’s ridiculous.  I feel like if you get more minds on the topic, we can come up with something. It’s just such a broken system, and it’s an enigma. We touch on it in the film. At first you’re criticized, for just teaching [kids] to get up and leave their community. But the truth is, most kids who get that enlightenment, they do want more for themselves, more than what Sunflower County has to offer. So they go out and find it, and they usually don’t come back.  So how are they supposed to progress as a community if the people who do get that education, and the ones who could make a difference just go out and leave and make a difference elsewhere?  How are they supposed to progress? [A kid] might go back and start a business, but will he send his kids to a school that ill prepared him? So we need to move into solutions at some point. We’re in the awareness phase, and I wonder how we’re going to get to the solutions phase. If you get more minds on the topic, we can come up with something.

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