The Chicago Film Festival debut of The Big Payback brought Evanston to Chicago Saturday for a screening of the new documentary that captures Evanstonian Robin Rue Simmons’ journey toward making Evanston first in the nation to implement a reparations program for Black residents.

From left: Imama Dykes, Wilma Dykes, Robin Rue Simmons and Mark Dykes pose at the reception of The Big Payback screening on Saturday. “I’m so proud of them for speaking up,” Imama Dykes said in reference to her mother-in-law and husband’s story being featured in the documentary.
Credit: Gina Castro

Held at the Chicago History Museum, the showing was part of the Chicago Film Festival. It was followed by a Q&A session with Rue Simmons and the film’s co-directors and then a reception on the museum’s outdoor patio.

Evanston has drawn national attention for its reparations work. The reparative justice efforts have also increased support for reparations at the federal level, Rue Simmons said, speaking after the movie

For 32 years, H.R. 40, a federal bill to establish a commission to study the impact of the legacy of slavery has been introduced in the House of Representatives. In 2019, there were 65 supporters. But there are now 215 co-sponsors.

On Dec. 1 through Dec. 3, cities throughout the U.S. will be heading to Evanston to discuss their progress toward implementing reparations programs. 

Thanks to The Big Payback, Rue Simmons said, even more people will learn about how Evanston made reparations possible for the Black community.  

“This documentary is a tool that is already being used to have really productive conversations,” Rue Simmons said. “So thank you for investing in us.”

Although the showing was widely supported by the audience, it didn’t go without a hitch.

About 30 minutes or so into the film, the screen began to malfunction and the audio cut out.

Six people stand outside on a patio

During the break co-directors Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow took to the stage to make a few remarks. Dow said he couldn’t help but notice the irony of the film suddenly stopping just before the scene featuring a white Evanston resident who opposes reparations. Dow asked Alexander why she thought the malfunction occurred at that point, to which she responded: “The devil is a lie.” The crowd erupted in laughter.

During this lull, a RoundTable reporter spoke with some audience members.

For many viewers, this screening was the first time they were introduced to the city’s reparations program

Jalen Hamilton and Rajanee Redmond of Chicago learned about Evanston’s reparations program for the first time while watching The Big Payback at the Chicago Film Festival. Credit: Gina Castro

Chicago South Siders Jalen Hamilton and Rajanee Redmond came to the screening despite not knowing anything about reparations in Evanston. 

Hamilton and Redmond agreed it was fascinating to see reparations become a reality. They were eager to see how Chicago might benefit from its neighbor’s work.  

“I think reparations have been discussed as an idea by a lot of people, but I think the actual process of implementing it is what I hope to see and learn,” Redmond said.

Longtime friends Judy Wise, Ruth Levine and Rita McLennon also came to see the movie. Levine, a new resident of Evanston, was excited to learn about the city she now calls home. Wise and McLennon are from the North Side of Chicago. Wise is a major fan of Dow’s films. She appreciated the way the documentary makes a case for reparations.

Judy Wise, Ruth Levine and Rita McLennon spent their afternoon learning about Evanston’s reparations program for the first time. Credit: Gina Castro

“I like the fact that they that they’ve made it clear, it’s not just about slavery, but it’s about all the ways in which Black people have been denied opportunities to make money opportunities for education,” Wise said.

Thankfully, the show was able to go on and all were able to watch the film in its entirety.

One of the audience member’s questions was about the representation of white residents in the film. Only two white perspectives were shown. One in support and one in opposition of reparations.

Dow explained that those were the only white people that were open to interviews at that time, but he blames that issue on the pandemic, which changed a lot of the film’s production plans. “If the pandemic hadn’t hit, we would have had more people.”

But Dow said, referencing the white people in the audience. “I hope you don’t think this is a film about Black people doing things. We [white people] created the situation. It’s our responsibility to deal with it.”

The RoundTable asked audience members these key questions:

Are reparations the responsibility of white people?

A RoundTable reporter caught up with Margaret Burns and Lily Calfee heading from the screening to the reception. Burns helped shoot the film, and Calfee came to support her friend. Calfee said she couldn’t have agreed more with Dow: It’s up to white people to do right by the Black community.

Margaret Burns and Lily Calfee are longtime friends from Chicago. Burns helped shoot the documentary and Calfee came to support her work. Credit: Gina Castro

“That’s something that I know, and I’m just happy to hear people say more vocally,” Calfee said.

“So I am glad that there’s a call out that it’s not just about our Black community’s calling for reparations. It’s about the entire community calling for reparations, so I’m right there with them.”

Representatives from Interfaith Action of Evanston were at the screening, too. Rev. Kat Banakis of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church said she agreed with Dow: “It’s the role and obligation of whites in America to own this and take leadership for the harm done.”

What emotions do you feel after seeing the film?

Tonika Johnson and Amber S. Hendley are Chicago natives. Social justice work is their bread and butter. Johnson is a social justice artist whose many interactive projects include the Folded Map Project, which visually and physically brings together people from Chicago’s North and South sides to explore urban segregation’s impact.

Hendley is a researcher, educator and activist who has focused on wealth inequality and reparations for the last five years.

“I feel affirmed,” Johnson said. “We have partners, and we’re not alone.”

Chicago natives Amber S. Hendley and Tonika Johnson say the documentary empowered them and their work in social justice. Credit: Gina Castro

“I think it left me just more curious,” Hendley said. “I want to know more about where the movement is going.”

Out on the sunny patio, Wilma Dykes sat at a table with her son Mark and his wife Imama. Mark and his mom Wilma Dykes were featured in the documentary as an example of who the city’s reparations program would benefit.

Wilma applied for the reparations housing program, yet, she wasn’t one of the first 16 selected.

This was Wilma’s first time seeing the documentary. What emotions did she have after seeing the documentary? “Happy,’ she said

Mark said it made him hopeful. It reminded him of a book he read in elementary school that still sits on his shelf, Big Dreams and Small Rockets. “I remember as a little kid looking up at space and dreaming,” he said. “What’s going on today is just a big dream. And it’s coming true.”

Are reparations for the Black community a solution?

Cousins Tyler Davis and Curtis Bamberg from Evanston share their thoughts after seeing The Big Payback for the first time. Credit: Gina Castro

Curtis Bamberg grew up in Evanston. As a kid, he was called the N-word so frequently, it became normal for him. He decided to leave the city 10 years ago when he said police issues and the wealth gap made it unbearable for him.

Bamberg said he asked his friends and cousin Tyler Davis, who lives in Chicago, “Why are you guys here in a town that doesn’t like you? Doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Yet, he wasn’t surprised that Evanston is the first city in the U.S. to give reparations to its Black community. “Evanston tries to be so liberal. So yeah, they’ll give you a little bit just so you can go away,” he said. “But I want to see a film in 10 years from now to see what’s changed.”

What’s your major takeaway from the film?

Saturday’s screening felt a lot like a high school reunion of sorts. Current and former members of Evanston’s City Council, Reparations Committee and community leaders mingled at the reception, drinking wine, sharing laughs and celebrating Evanston’s national recognition.

Fifth Ward Council member Bobby Burns and Cradle to Career Community Engagement Director Kimberly Holmes-Ross discuss the movie. Credit: Gina Castro

Fifth Ward Council member and Reparations Committee representative Bobby Burns talked with Evanston’s Cradle to Career Community Engagement Director Kimberly Holmes-Ross. They agreed a major take away was the duality of elected officials like Rue Simmons. The film showed when Rue Simmons closed her laptop at the end of work, she was still a mother and a daughter.

“I learned more about Robin,” Burns said. “I think that’s the biggest thing I’m walking away with … I’m a Robin Rue Simmons fan. So it’s nice seeing somebody that you really admire in a new way.”

Chicago-based filmmakers Brianna Mottey and Julian Bedford Credit: Gina Castro

For two young Chicago-based filmmakers Brianna Mottey and Julian Bedford, the screening was an opportunity to dream. They recently finished their film When I Wake, which follows a young man through the stages of grief after losing a close friend.

Seeing stories about Black people by a Black director come to fruition was inspiring and motivating to them, they said.

Gina Castro

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

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