Finding the Gold Within - Reaching Hearts and Minds with the Black Male Story

A Conversation with Filmmaker Karina Epperlein

Why did you decide to produce "Finding the Gold Within"?

I find this is a very hard and very personal question to answer. I wasn't asked to produce the film by anyone. I felt called to do it - in a mystical sort of way. It was a deep inner calling. I'm not a journalist but an artist. Somehow I felt confident I could add to the conversation, not just repeat stories. It spiritually grabbed me, even though I'm not Black, and I knew that the film must be made now.

I did know the situation for Black males in America was bad. In this setting with Alchemy's unique work, I saw it was possible to show young Black men in a completely different light. These guys are educated, deep critical thinkers - not what's normally shown in the media with all the stereotyping. I wanted to explore what's not shown in media. I didn't want a film where people felt sorry for African Americans. Rather, I wanted to show their dignity, complexities, difficulties, and triumphs - to get to the essence of the individuals and to celebrate the Black male.

Why did you not explore Black female story too?

As I said, this story of mentoring young Black men in a unique and deep fashion was a success story and yet at the same time provided me with very intimate access to the protagonists - as I call them - so here I was, curious to go on the journey and to see if I could translate the story into cinema.

Due to the legacy of slavery, Black males have been humiliated over the generations and the spirits of many African American men have been broken, with the criminal justice system systematically removing any dignity or respect from their identities.

You were born in Germany and are not black. How has this affected the way you explore theories of the young Black male?

Being an outsider here, I'm perhaps more sensitive to the issues of race. And I don't come with the same brainwashing, or history.

I grew up in postwar Germany. In the 60's, Germany was challenging and rethinking how society worked. The history of fascism, war and the Holocaust had to be overcome, we were impatient as young people and intellectuals. It was a time of upheaval and deep soul searching for the whole culture. The old structures of authoritarianism and the patterns of thinking, collectively and individually, had to be questioned. The legacy of the Holocaust brought shame and guilt for Germans and we lived under the imperative of "never again."

I've been sensitive all my life when people are not treated justly, fairly. So injustice, whether socially or racially, is something painful and I can't just stand by silently.

What has been the audience reaction to the film?

Audiences have been very moved. Once the screening finishes, no one wants to leave and the Q&As never seem long enough. They are astonished at the level of intimacy in the film with the subjects talking so authentically.

I didn't want a film where people felt sorry for African Americans or left with a sense of shame. Rather, I wanted them to empathize, like walking in their shoes, feeling inspired by their strength and depth.

Pete Crooks of Diablo Magazine reported: "The conversations you recorded with these young men featured some of the most frank discussions about what it means to be Black in America that I have ever heard." How did you achieve such a deep level of intimacy?

I guess it's my knack as a filmmaker. I am most interested in the essence of things, be it a situation or people. I always take time to hang out with the subjects of a film, to build a rapport. I tell them about myself as well, about my vision for the film, what I see as its purpose. Who I am. I'm an intuitive, playful and curious person and see my film's subjects as equals or even as collaborators. It's a journey and adventure we are together on. And I hold a great respect and wide open state of mind. My enthusiasm and belief, along with my German accent, might also help.

Do you think the film changes the way people think?

People have said to me that "Yes, I've had these stereotypes in my head without realizing." At one of the screenings in Oakland, Avon Kirkland (Producer of Ralph Ellison: An American Journey) had a very moving moment where he rose to give a speech but had to stop as he was choking up, short of weeping. He said that he had encountered the very same problems as my subjects in the film 50 year ago. He felt a deep connection with them and was sad that in 50 years, so much and yet so little had changed. He finished up with "We've got more work to do...."

What is your hope?

I want as many people as possible to watch the film. Finally the nation is discussing the issues around young Black men more openly. I want the film to be part of this national discussion. I have very ambitious hopes for the film, to be part of this dialogue between all people, all races, young and old, we need these new conversations about racism.

Is America ready for this conversation?

I am always hoping. I hope the timing is right. We definitely have seen more in the press and news, because of the protests in Ferguson, Cleveland, and all over the nation. Now is the time.

Finding the Gold Within is now screening on Kanopy.