“Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism” won the award for best documentary at the International Black Film Festival of Nashville over the weekend.
Cliff Vaughn, managing editor of EthicsDaily.com, and I knew “Beneath the Skin” was the best of our five DVDs, topping other valuable productions: “Always…Therefore: The Church’s Challenge of Global Poverty,” “Golden Rule Politics: Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics,” “The Nazareth Manifesto” and “Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationship with Jews.”
We knew the narratives were powerful and the interviews were effective and moving. We knew the broad sweep—from a slave castle outside Accra, Ghana, to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—encapsulated social movements and theological arguments. We knew that recalling some of the worst and best moments in Baptist history would challenge Baptist church members. We knew that Baptists know they must deal with this issue.
What we didn’t know was whether our documentary-style DVD would find a larger audience, an audience outside the Baptist community.
We knew the film’s subtitle with the word “Baptists” would both attract Baptist interest and probably limit the DVD’s appeal. At the same time, we knew that the DVD is really about more than Baptists. It is about how historically some Christians justified theologically slavery and segregation. It is also about how contemporary Christians see theologically and read culturally encoded racism.
On Sunday, we got our answer unexpectedly delivered by the IBFF judges about whether “Beneath the Skin” had a market outside the Baptist camp. They watched a host of DVDs in advance and determined that ours was the best of the batch. We consider their decision a high honor, a validation of a film that deserves widespread viewing.
Know that IBFF defines itself as “a collaboration of dedicated professionals who support the need for a ‘community’ effort to bring African American and other Communities together to showcase their work as emerging and skilled independent filmmakers, actors, composers, screenwriters, directors and other film industry professionals.”
IBFF says it “strives to insure culturally accurate depictions in film with special emphasis on providing a forum for unheard, unseen and unknown viewpoints, and to showcase the rich creativity and diversity found in communities of color locally, nationally and internationally.” IBFF doesn’t organizationally identify itself as a Christian or faith-based enterprise.
Given IBFF’s nature and mission, we think its decision will help “Beneath the Skin” break out of the Baptist market.
Nonetheless, we think our newest DVD can provide churches with two different educational experiences based on the two versions placed on the disc. First, the DVD has a short version that runs 35 minutes and is designed for community forums with panel discussions. The thought here is to invite racially and ethnically diverse church members to view the DVD together and to dialogue about its content, helping to create the needed community to address the pressing problem of prejudice and injustice.
Second, the DVD has a longer version that runs 47 minutes. The longer version is designed to be used over a four-week period in Sunday school classes or Wednesday night Bible studies. The thought here is that classes would view separately each of the four chapters and discuss the content. An online study guide provides an additional resource for a more intense focus on the DVD.
In many ways, “Beneath the Skin” is the most substantive resource to emerge for goodwill Baptists since the New Baptist Covenant meeting earlier this year in Atlanta. Among its interviewees are leaders from American Baptist Church-USA, Baptist World Alliance and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Interviewees include Hispanic-American academicians, African-American pastors and Anglo-American denominational leaders, as well as women and men.
If you haven’t ordered “Beneath the Skin,” you really need to do so, but not because I say so. I’m a little biased, well, a lot biased. You need to order it because it deals with one of the most pressing issues of our day, and an unbiased group says it does so very effectively.
IBFF’s decision surely trumpets the DVD’s quality and announces to Baptists and non-Baptists a timely film.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.