When the film crew of The Big Payback, a documentary on reparations, started shooting the opening scenes in June of 2019 at Juneteenth hearings in Washington D.C., they didn’t yet know the documentary would center on Evanston. 

Robin Rue Simmons in The Big Payback addressing a community town hall in Evanston. Credit: Supplied

It was supposed to be a film similar to Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which uses animation, interviews and B-roll to tell the financial story of reparations, said Whitney Dow, one of the film’s two directors.

“And then, one day one of our producers sent us an email,” Dow said. “There’s this story in Evanston. … It was an article about Robin [Rue Simmons] and Evanston. And it was saying that the city council had passed and earmarked $10 million from a legal marijuana tax to pay reparations.”

Dow learned that the next day, Dec. 11, several hundred people would be gathering at First Church of God in Evanston for the first community town hall reparations meeting, facilitated by the City’s Reparations Subcommittee at the time in collaboration with the National African American Reparations Commission.

The camera crew jumped on a plane, and, once they met Robin Rue Simmons, the former city council member who led the way for Evanston’s reparations, it was decided they would continue filming in Evanston for two years.

Documentary’s premiere week

The Big PayBack, co-directed by Dow and Erika Alexander, premiered at the Tribeca Festival last week and had its first public community screening on Juneteenth at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

On June 20, WTTW-TV television sponsored a talk and showing of the film, including a panel discussion that included Simmons, Founder and Executive Director of FirstRepair, a new not-for-profit organization that informs local reparations nationally; Dino Robinson, Founder of the area’s only community archive for Black history, the Shorefront Legacy Center; Reverend Dr. Michael Nabors of Second Baptist Church; and Dr. Cornell William Brooks, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. It was moderated by Sol Anderson, Evanston Community Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer.

The Tribeca Festival’s online page dedicated to the documentary, The Big Payback. Viewers can stream the documentary at the Tribeca site.

The 88-minute film features multiple perspectives on reparations but largely follows Rue Simmons on her journey to get the measure passed in city council.

In the film, the story of Evanston is told within the greater story of what other municipalities are doing as well as the path of H.R. 40, a national reparations bill originally introduced by the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) at every session of Congress for more than 30 years. (After Conyers’ death, his colleague U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas shepherded the bill and its introduction.)

Simmons and Robinson spent time at the Tribeca film festival this week, staying as viewers after participating as the subjects of a documentary at the festival. The film, and the initial responses to it, were a stark reminder that Evanston is an outlier in the nation as the strongest codified publicly funded municipal reparations program. 

The at-home viewing of The Big Payback became available for streaming June 13. All Tribeca films premiered in theaters scattered around the area – primarily in lower Manhattan.

‘It was electrifying’

Nabors also attended the Tribeca screening and planned to fly out for the Apollo theater screening as well.

“​​It was electrifying,” Nabors told the Roundtable. “Everybody was there. So you have actors there. And you have directors and composers, everybody that you can imagine.”

Nabors said he loved it. “I was overwhelmed by the reality that there I was, just off-Broadway in New York, and looking at a 90-minute feature documentary on Evanston.”

Morris ‘Dino’ Robinson, founder of the Shorefront Legacy Center, is also featured in the film.

The film, which follows how the reparations program was started, funded and challenged locally, had a balanced approach, Nabors said, and a balanced perspective on what the program’s backers were trying to accomplish.

He said he felt the most revealing parts of the documentary expressed what Rue Simmons went through as an individual leading the effort. “So it really did talk about a lot of the animus that was directed toward her, in a personal way,” Nabors said.

One experience that stunned Nabors happened at the end of the screening he attended, when Simmons briefly introduced him as a pastor that has been working with the interfaith community and NAACP. As people filed out of the theater, at least 20 individuals lined up asking for his card because they wanted to share it with their pastors or ministers. 

“They wanted their churches to be involved [in reparations],” Nabors said. “And that was from Harlem to Brooklyn to the Bronx, [including] one church in Manhattan.”

Simmons: ‘My takeaway … is how special Evanston is.’

Dow said people seemed to be interested in where the reparations idea came from and how Rue Simmons attached it to a specific tax. They also seem surprised by how diverse the Black and white perspectives are on reparations locally. 

“I think a lot of us who will think about reparations, they think, ‘Oh, all Black people are for reparations, all white people are against it,” Dow said. “So those were a couple of things that people seem to want to talk about.”

Rev. Dr. Michael C. R. Nabors
Rev. Dr. Michael C. R. Nabors (NAACP Evanston/North Shore Branch photo) Credit: NAACP Evanston/North Shore Branch

Rue Simmons said the documentary showed “many people are involved in really making this possible,” and showed how complex the road is to the first step, of many.  “We may be critiqued and challenged,” Rue Simmons said, “But our city collectively has had the audacity to do this work. And so my takeaway from the documentary is how special Evanston is.”

Many young people have also approached Rue Simmons after each screening asking how their own cities across the nation can participate, or if Evanston representatives could fly there to support the work

The Juneteenth screening at the Apollo screening was to be different than the Tribeca film festival because while festival audiences are more exclusive, Dow said, the Apollo is a local community theater with 700 seats, and the screening will be free.

For that reason, Dow expects the audience to have more diverse backgrounds.

Nabors said he was returning to New York City for the viewing. 

He told the RoundTable he believes the movie is going to end up being a national treasure. 

During the question and answer session at Tribeca, Nabors said, an African American woman spoke. “She shared, ‘I didn’t know what to expect coming to see this documentary. When I sat down, I said to myself, ‘There’s no way that I’m going to sit through a … documentary on public policy.’ ” Nabors said. “And then she said: ‘However, I have to share with you that I was on the edge of my seat for an hour and a half.’ ”

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

One reply on “Documentary on Evanston reparations debuts to national attention”

  1. This is great. But it would be great, as a black person, living in Evanston, to actually receive reparations. Not a film about it.

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