Documenting the Divide: An Interview with Lucian Read

By Bradley Bethel

February 7, 2017

We’ve all felt it for some time now: America is divided. When the feeling began, when it became widespread, is hard to discern, but the feeling has undoubtedly infected our political life. We felt it during least year’s presidential campaigns, and we’ve felt its sting these first weeks of the new presidency. Trump clearly isn’t going to bridge the divide, leaving many to wonder who or what will.

The recent Epix documentary series America Divided illuminates some of the causes of this divide that continues to plague us. Educational inequities, gentrification, and mass incarceration are just a few of the issues the series addresses. In one episode, “Democracy for Sale,” actor and comedian Zach Galifianakis returns to his home state of North Carolina to examine the gerrymandering and voter suppression that has been happening. Each of the five episodes features one or more celebrity correspondents tackling an important issue.

Zach Galifianakis courtesy of America Divided

We recently got to chat about the series and the current state of America with one of the series creators, award-winning filmmaker and photographer, Lucian Read. Read the interview below (edited for length and clarity), and find out how you can watch and attend a free screening of “Democracy for Sale.”

CLTure: Lucian, thanks for your willingness to chat with us. After making this series about divisions in American, are you more, or less, hopeful for the country?

Lucian Read: We found people all over the country who are working to solve the problems they’re facing in their own communities, to close the gaps in equality, to make the country more equal, racially and politically. We found people who are working on trying to make the country a closer, more equal, less divided, more just place — North Carolina being at the top of that list. So I didn’t come out of the series feeling less hopeful. I came out of the series feeling more hopeful. At the community level, there are a lot of people out there who are dedicating their lives to trying to solving the problems that we all experience — problems about who gets to live where, and can we all get a decent education, and does the criminal justice system treat everyone equally, and so on, and so on. And that’s why my faith in people was renewed by the experience.

CLTure: How did you you decide which celebrities to approach to be correspondents for the series?

LR: We didn’t just identify a problem, identify a community, and then go recruit some celebrity, well-known type of person. We really thought about the areas and the topics that we were trying to deal with and then we found someone who had some natural connection to those topics, to those places. It was holistic. It wasn’t just pulling some celebrity out. Zach Galifianakis is the perfect example. Zach is from North Carolina, and he’s a real North Carolina patriot. And almost all the correspondents were that way. We had a story about inequality in education. Jesse Williams was the correspondent for that. Before he was on Grey’s Anatomy, he was a high school teacher in Philadelphia. We had America Ferrera doing immigration in South Texas; she’s the child of Central American immigrants. We had Common doing criminal justice in Chicago; he’s a Chicago patriot and has done a lot of work there through his foundation and other support for young African Americans. So it wasn’t just, who are the most famous people we can find? It was, who are the best people for these stories?

Rapper and Actor Common appears in the episode ‘The System.’ Courtesy of America Divided

CLTure: How do you measure whether a documentary series like this is successful?

LR: The goal, originally, was that we want to do an in-depth series that talks about a lot of the most important issues that we’re facing in the country, and work to kind of help people to understand how they’re connected to each other and have it available at a time — specifically, before the presidential election — when it could inform the debate and the conversation. Unfortunately, we ended up having an election that was essentially a non-issue election.

CLTure: Yeah, it was a personality election.

LR: Yeah, it was all personalities. It was all vitriol. It was all partisan rancor. There was actually very little room for any kind of substantive discussion about any of the issues. What’s happening now is that the visual stories have become very valuable for the people who are working to solve the problems that are addressed in the series. As I was saying, we wanted to have an organic connection between the correspondents and the stories; we also really tried to have community organizations, social groups, and influential leaders and problem-solvers in the series, both because that’s the reality in the world, and also to have the series educate, inspire, inform, connect people across the country who are dealing with many of these same issues. That’s largely where are now. We have a robust series of screenings across the country. The demand for screenings is actually picking up all the time. As we move into this next political phase, the demand, the hunger for screenings, at the community level, the city level, the local level is increasing. I think the main impact will be slowly over time, I think in places that aren’t captured by the Nielsen ratings. That, to me, as fun as it is to see my creation on television, really the most gratifying part of it is being in communities and having people say to me, “I thought I knew a lot about this issue, but I learned so much from watching this. I really feel inspired and educated. I’m going to go talk to my neighbor about this issue.”

Co-creator, producer, cinematographer and photographer, Lucian Read.

CLTure: What do you think is the immediate future for social issue documentaries, considering that some people are feeling so bombarded by bad news that they just want movies to help them escape?

LR: I think the responsibility to engage and disseminate the truth about people’s lives, about how they are affected by the decisions that are made by the powerful, I think that responsibility is only greater, and you can’t turn away from that. It’s more necessary than ever. I think it’s incumbent on us filmmakers and storytellers and visual journalists to find ways to make the stories we are telling more accessible. And I mean more accessible on two levels. More accessible in that you don’t have to go to film festivals, you don’t have to go to the art house. We have to bring them to where people are, and increasingly that’s online and in the social media sphere. The other one is to find ways to make the stories attractive to people. That was one of the reasons we did America Divided the way we did, finding celebrity correspondents, because those are figures people are used to turning to for entertainment. And it makes the barrier of entry for people lower, because you’ve already welcomed those people into your homes and your movie theaters, especially with somebody like Zach [Galifianakis]. I was very excited to work with him, first because he was passionate about the subject, but also because I knew working with someone who has that kind of comedic talent would be such a good stand-in for the viewers. You know, you don’t expect people to be watching a documentary about gerrymandering and voter suppression and be laughing all the way through. And so we documentary filmmakers just have to keep innovating and finding ways tell good stories like that.

CLTure: Is there anything else you want people to know about the series?

LR: I guess I would just say that in a time when many of the important issues that affect people’s lives are not fully discussed, in a time when there’s a real premium on truth, when there’s a real premium on really listening to normal, everyday people talk about how big decisions affect their individual lives, I think there’s increasingly a place for the series. And I hope that, as Zach [Galifianakis] says in the series, North Carolina is the place he cares about, but everybody lives in their own North Carolina, and we all really need to look at what we care about and go do something about it. And I hope that’s the big takeaway from the series.

The America Divided series is currently available on Epix, Hulu, and Amazon. “Democracy for Sale” is screening for free across North Carolina this week. Click here to find a screening near you or to request one for your community.

Watch the EPIX Trailer for America Divided.

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