The Big Payback, the documentary that captured Evanstonian Robin Rue Simmons’ efforts for reparative justice will come to the Chicago Film Festival this month. 

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

The film follows Rue Simmons’ journey toward making the city the first in the nation to approve a reparations program for its Black residents.

The story begins in the winter of 2019, during the first of many town halls in Evanston discussing implementing a reparations program. The documentary also shows the hopes for reparations at the federal level.  

It highlights Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) working to convince Congress to pass H.R. 40, a bill that would create the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.

This commission would be responsible for identifying how the U.S. government supported the institution of slavery and created a legacy of discrimination against the Black community from 1619 to the present day, then would create an appropriate system of reparations for the Black community in the U.S.

Initially, The Big Payback was going to focus exclusively on H.R. 40, the documentary’s directors explained. But the story pivoted once they heard about former Fifth Ward Council member Rue Simmons’ remarkable progress toward implementing reparations at the city level.

The Big Payback has been shown to the public only a few times. It played at the New York Tribeca Festival and on Juneteenth at the Harlem’s Apollo Theater for about 500 people. As a result the documentary’s directors, Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow, say they don’t know about the the broader public reaction.

Erika Alexander is co-director of The Big Payback.  Credit: Photo courtesy Erika Alexander

“We really don’t know yet exactly what the response of the film is going to be,” Dow said. “We kind of hope that it will help fuel the debates in different communities that are trying to look at at their own relationship to systemic racism and legacy of slavery.”

The documentary will be shown at 1 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Chicago History Museum. The second screening will be 2 p.m. Oct. 23 at the AMC River East, Screen 20. 

Virtual screenings are also available for $17 from Oct. 13 to 23. Tickets for the in-person screenings are $20. To purchase tickets, visit the Chicago Film Festival website. 

There will be a PBS broadcast of the documentary on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 16, 2023. The co-directors plan to launch a national impact campaign and have discussions with cities throughout the country about reparations.

“This is, as a white person, this is our issue,” Dow said in reference to paying reparations to the Black community. “This is something that we created that we’re responsible for. And I think it’s irresponsible for us to abdicate our participation in it. You have to participate actively in the repair process.”

The 88-minute film shows how the pandemic and resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement impacted the development of the reparations program in Evanston. COVID disproportionately impacted the Black community, and Alexander thought, though unfortunate, COVID and BLM made a great case for why reparations are needed now.

“I think that was the gift that kept giving,” Alexander said. “Because if you want to make the case for reparations, that was the perfect example of finding out who the essential workers in America were and across the world, and what would keep us going, and the types of stress and sacrifice that they gave every day to keep the buildings running.” 

The documentary shows Evanstonian Hecky Powell making plates of sausages in his famous Hecky’s Barbecue restaurant. Powell told stories about his family’s struggle against systemic racism in the city. Powell died of COVID in May 2020 at the age of 71. 

The Tribeca Festival’s online page dedicated to The Big Payback.

Alexander said his death added more urgency to the Black community’s need for reparations. 

“Hecky participated in the ultimate way,” Alexander said. “He lost his life in a pandemic as a condition of the type of atmosphere that he’s in.”

One point the documentary makes is that Black women have historically led the reparations movement.

Callie Guy House (1861-1928) is known as an early leader of the reparations movement for Black people in the U.S. She was born a slave in Nashville, Tenn.

House pioneered the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1898 and advocated for reparations in all former slave states. 

“You’re seeing Black women be exalted and have these positions right now, and you see how threatened people are by them,” Alexander said. “But before then, they were stuck, like most women, doing it in the shadows because no paper would really print their face. They always wanted to focus on the men. But Black women were always there.”

There are a vast number of different opinions about reparations in Evanston. But the documentary makes a point to show that the opinions on reparations don’t just vary by race.

Some Black Evanston residents, like former City Council member Cicely Fleming, didn’t support the city’s reparations program because they felt it didn’t go far enough. Other Black residents saw the city’s reparations program as a first step in the right direction.

The film’s directors said they wished they could have featured more perspectives from white Evanston residents. The documentary features two white people’s perspectives: one who supports reparations and another who doesn’t.

“I really think that it would have been different if it weren’t for COVID,” Dow said. “I think there would have been more complex white voices.”

Once COVID spread, the town halls – that would have been perfect opportunities to hear a multitude of perspectives – all moved to Zoom. 

Covering reparations from 2019 to 2022 made the directors develop an opinion on the subject, too.

Dow has difficulty understanding those who say they support reparations but don’t want reparations in the way the city has presentented it. 

“I feel like all it does is it advances their cause whether they agree with it as it is right now or not, it still is going to advance the cause of national reparations,” Dow said. “I think it’s the only way that national reparations will advance.”

Alexander believes that creating legislation to require reparations is key.

“There should be a law behind having to give reparations and having to get restitution, remuneration, to this community before America can truly say that it is whole and that it is well,” Alexander said. “It is a sick nation.”

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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