Monday, July 6, 2020

Premier: The (animated) History of White People in America

Industry veteran Ed Bell writes to about his new project, The History of White People in America (not to be confused with the Martin Mull's 1985 program).  Ed tells FLiP what this new project is and what it took to make it to screen.   It premieres TODAY, and FLiP's got it first.

By Ed Bell

Think of The History of White People in America as the School House Rock for the racial history of America.

When the Pilgrims arrived, there was no notion of white, black, or red as we understand race now. In 1950s Georgia, Chinese immigrants were perceived as white or black depending upon what town they lived in. Today, academics say some Latinos and Asian-Americans are “white.” What does that mean and why does it seem so important to our nation’s story?  This series that will tell the story of how whiteness and non-whiteness were invented and continue to evolve, morph and drive the American story.

In 15 animated short films, we will tell American history as it has never been told before. We wanted to at least make the attempt to offer people a platform or an inducement to actually talk about the real problems we face as a country, let alone as an industrialized world.  I won't pretend to know who the target audience is anymore. I won't BS about it: everyone should see and contemplate these shorts.

Pitching it to PBS, we leaned into the educational thing - and there will be an educational component to the project - but school kids have parents and grandparents who don't understand any more than they do. White parents and educators are not teaching about how Jim Crow totally cock-blocked the Black community in Economic terms, shutting down our financial capability, killing our banks and taking our wealth, in order to maintain the power structure of an aristocracy we've long forgotten. No one teaches their kids about Rosewood, or Greenwood, Oklahoma. White kids don't get educated about the systems put into place to hold down parts of their society. When those facts become clear, they are usually as livid and outraged as anyone with a soul would be. We felt like the country needed to have that reckoning, needed to feel the sense of having been gaslit their whole lives about our "virtuous" intentions in forming the nation as we did. The greatest book on the subject had just come out, and we were all reading it: History Of White People In America - by Nell Irvin Painter.  The title began to stick to our project as we got further into it.

My buddy, writer/director Jon Halperin hit me up right after the Election of 2016. I had done some low budget animation for his old documentary company, and we had wanted to collaborate again. He was livid at the current national state of mind and how no one in his circles seemed to have any context for what was happening. Jon wanted to revisit an idea that had been floating in the ether:  whether animation could be a way to describe the social virus that directly led to our current crisis in the industrial world. Social injustice is something we often shy away from in animation, but cartooning has it's roots in social commentary, speaking truth to power. We theorized that animation might be have a way of getting past your natural cognitive biases and open the way for empathy, for a wider perspective of how you and your neighbors relate to one another.

Jon had been working with my old boss from Colossal Pictures days, Drew Takahashi. Drew and I did the animation for Episode 1 ourselves. There was no money, really. We had enough to partner up with an incredible music director and his music team, to get scholarly scripts translated into songs. I could then board out the musical composition, and find the imagery that fit the tone and vibe of the songs. I had to learn some software and get the hang of it in a very brief time. Drew handled the motion graphics and I drew a lot. Later episodes got to be blessed with some Granger Davis animation.

We put together a strong group of Academic Advisors:
-Kathleen Brown, David Bois Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania.
-William ("Sandy") Darity, Founding Director, Cook Center on Social Equity; and Professor of
     Economics and Public Policy, Duke University.
-Darrick Hamilton, Associate Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, The New School
-Alan Taylor, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Chair, University of Virginia
-Dorian Warren, President, Center for Community Change Action; Fellow, The Roosevelt Institute

I personally researched using the Library Of Congress, National Archives and Smithsonian Institute, and for the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings episode, I used Monticello and the University of Virginia.  They all have a great online interface for researchers.  Each of the filmmakers on my team have backgrounds in documentary filmmaking, including Drew and myself.  And our musical director is deeply rooted in the history and oral traditions of Black America.  He is based in South Carolina, and inherits a real legacy of Jazz, Black creative culture and heritage building. Drew is a child of parents caught up in WW2's detention of Japanese people in SF detention camps.

The show is all produced remotely. Our entire crew is working in separate cities. No studio... No studio money.  Nah... Just me, on this old Mac and a cintiq and scanner. And Drew on the graphics side, working out of home on his Macs.  We used After Effects, Toon Boom Harmony and Photoshop heavily.  I had to learn as I went, and rely heavily on stills for impact, rather than movement.  I was able to afford a production manager and one animator only after the pilot was (somehow) done, and won a premiere at the Tribeca 2018 film festival.  That got us 2 episodes of funding.  I still can't believe we are making these scripts.  Wait till you see the rest of them!

You'll find the program at  PBS Voices YouTube channel World, and also on PBS Independent Lens on public television channels. Check local listings for the latter.


  1. Here's a quick link to the playlist of episodes coming up as well:

  2. Very well done and impactful, Ed!