SFFIF: Elouise Westbrook, Tellin’ It Like It Is


By chance the other day I met Kevin Gordon, the filmmaker behind the 11-minute documentary Tellin’ It Like It Is: The Work of Elouise Westbrook. Mrs. Westbrook has been active on behalf of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood since she moved there in 1949, and it’s clear that even at the age of 92 she remains a force to be reckoned with. She was thrust onto the national stage when, in 1973, city officials failed to get the release of allocated federal funds to tear down the old barracks at Hunter’s Point and build housing there. In response, Mrs. Westbrook took a delegation to Washington, determined not to leave without getting the funding her neighborhood was due. Eventually she succeeded, and the city received its $30 million for the project.

However, Mrs. Westbrook’s greatest ongoing success probably lies in the clinic she helped to found, the South of Market Health Center, which now has three active facilities. A fourth facility is in development, with plans to break ground in the fall: Westbrook Plaza. The Plaza honors Mrs. Westbrook’s vision of affordable healthcare and affordable housing for all, by combining the two in a single development.

The short screens tonight at 9:00 at the Kabuki, and opens for the feature Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. Tickets available at the theater.

Earlier this afternoon I got Mr. Gordon on the phone and we talked a bit about this film and his aims as a filmmaker. Our Q&A starts below and continues after the jump.

So, how did you learn about Mrs. Westbrook in the first place?

Well, I totally lucked out: I was actually approached with the film. Another filmmaker I’d just met called me about how the South of Market Health Center wanted a tribute made for their founder, and that she (the other filmmaker) was too expensive for them, but thought I might do it for a lot cheaper. Of course, that was the case. But when I met Mrs. Westbrook, I knew that I had no choice but to make the movie. She struck me immediately as an amazing person and an amazing subject, but it wasn’t until I was really into the research that I realized how significant she really was. So everything kind of happened backwards to how you’d normally expect it to happen.

Is Mrs. Westbrook still in good health today?

Her health is good; she’s definitely weakened since we did the interview this summer, but she’s still as sharp as ever.

I read on the website for the film that your background is in “social history and human rights.” Are you coming to filmmaking from another career?

I had a prior career in activism, in the nonprofit sector, and I was getting frustrated with the different tools for change that were available, so I started to look towards media as an alternative. At first I just got my feet wet and tiptoed in, but eventually I realized that this was really what I wanted to do. Then I completely jumped into it. I did an apprenticeship with a filmmaker for a few months, and then worked on a few other projects. This is the first film I’ve worked on from start to finish as director.

So, speaking for yourself as a filmmaker: what is your ambition for your films? What do you hope they will do?

You know, this film—obviously it had a different purpose originally: it was originally intended as a tribute to Mrs. Westbrook. So actually, there was kind of an audience of one. We wanted her to see it and really feel like she was finally getting the props that she’s deserved for so long. We got as many voices in it as possible, not just to establish credibility, but also because we really wanted her to hear it. It’s the kind of thing that people usually only hear at a funeral, and by then it’s kind of too late. So, for this film, that was definitely the original goal. And we kind of achieved that at the first viewing. It was commissioned for an event in her honor, and that was the first time that she saw it, and she was in tears—especially that footage from 1971—I don’t know that she’d ever seen that since it first aired on TV that night.

You’re referring to the groundbreaking at Hunter’s Point?

Yeah. But then we thought her story would interest other people as well. For me, it’s about—I feel like our generation is fairly cynical. We’re highly educated on the issues, we really know what’s happening, and we’re concerned about it, but we don’t really take to the streets. It seems that we don’t feel as empowered. Whereas Mrs. Westbrook comes from a generation that has no doubt about their ability to produce change, and have an impact. And they did that. And that’s really the message that I want people to hear.

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