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East St. Louis dancer to debut Black Lives Matter-inspired film at St. Louis festival

“A love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle," directed by Hettie Barnhill, is one of 63 films that will be shown during this month’s Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Hettie Barnhill's, “a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle,” will be shown at the Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. The experimental feature is a commentary on the injustices faced by Black people in this country.

A conversation with Hettie Barnhill is like watching an intense, addictive TV show that you don’t want to end.

Her vibrant energy is delightful, especially when talking about subjects she cares about. But she likely wouldn’t have trouble discussing a new Starbucks flavor with the same vigor as she would when talking about her family. She can make anything sound interesting.

So it makes sense that she’s a choreographer— her mind’s constant movement mimics that of a dancer’s. Barnhill, who grew up in East St. Louis, seamlessly weaves her dance skills with filmmaking and her firm dedication for uplifting the narratives of Black people.

“I’m a dancer first, and that opened doors for me in choreography and directing, so the more I became in the position of being able to create work, a couple of things remain,” Barnhill, 38, said. “Movement was always the base, and I’ve always wanted to talk about things that had a social commentary and things that I deemed important and interesting and that was just stories and truth and people’s stories and Black lives.”

Her new film, “a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle,” is the manifestation of that feat. The documentary is one of 63 films that will be shown during this month’s Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. The showcase, hosted by Cinema St. Louis, highlights directors who have strong ties to the city.

Originally conceived as a live production in 2019, Barnhill’s documentary (co-created by her husband, Robert Gertler) is an experimental feature that blends dance, text, spoken word and other art forms that is a commentary on the injustices faced by Black people in this country.

Love letter to BLM

Barnhill said the concept for the film came about seven years ago after the death of Michael Brown. In 2014, an officer fatally shot Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, prompting protests in St. Louis and beyond. Barnhill, who now lives in Albany, New York, was living in New York City performing in Broadway productions at the time.

“I was worried about my mother at the time because she was staying in St. Louis, and I went home,” Barnhill said. “When I came to St. Louis, we were involved in the protests, and we documented. I got back to New York City and had this footage of protests and it kind of stayed with me.”

She knew she needed to do something. She needed to feel something. She wanted to replace the emptiness she felt inside.

Barnhill started having conversations about race relations with coworkers and felt the urge to continue those conversations. They began with questions, directed at non-Black people, like “Do I have to look like you for you to care about my life?” or “What similarities do we need to have for you to love me?”

"a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle" (OFFICIAL TRAILER)

The responses to those questions should be an affirmative “no” or “none,” but Barnhill said the repetitive, overwhelming racial injustices that Black people endure make the reverse seem true. Barnhill aims to spark more questions and conversations with her film.

The documentary, ‘“a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle,’ was another way for me to say a love letter to BLM (acronym for Black Lives Matter), but at the time we began documenting and recording, every time I mentioned Black Lives Matter, it was considered a terrorist group at the time,” Barnhill said.

“It was at the time when the old president, who I’m not going to name, was just causing a lot of fear in that movement, so I wanted to have a title that did not completely make you feel polarized and pushed away from it (but) to invite you in and see what it was about.”

Described as “a film, a play, an experience, a concert dance, a work of art, a self-reflection, a protest,” the documentary was featured in film festivals like the Montreal International Film Festival, London International Monthly Film Festival and several others. It has also been screened in colleges in New York.

“a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle,” is one of 11 films that are included in the animated and experimental shorts category of the filmmakers showcase.

Chris Clark, artistic director for Cinema St. Louis, said Barnhill’s documentary was moving because of the many mediums she chose as a conduit for the message she wanted to convey.

“She’s really just an interesting person, has roots on both sides of the river, moved to New York and is very successful,” Clark said. “I’ve talked to her over the phone a couple of times, and she is just a whirlwind of energy just like the dances and movements.”

He added: “That film really stood out because it is different and unique and it’s message related. It doesn’t really feel like any one thing. It just sort of morphs from is this documentary? Is this real? And then the dance kind of emotes what the feelings are and tells the story, so it’s just an interesting piece from a different style of filmmaking from a non-traditional filmmaker.”

'Roots on both sides of the river'

Born in St. Louis and raised in East St. Louis, Barnhill grew up dancing at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in the latter. She attended the now-defunct A.M. Jackson School and moved to St. Louis when she was 14, where she attended Central Visual Performing Arts High School.

Her extensive dance training includes places like Broadway Center of Arts, the Pelagie Green Wren Dance Academy, Center of Creative Arts (COCA), and, of course, the Katherine Dunham Center.

She majored in dance at Columbia College of Chicago. Barnhill went on to be a part of Broadway productions like “Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark,” “Leap of Faith,” and the Tony Award-winning “FELA!”.

Barnhill is currently a visiting professor of dance at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Her dancing—with the support of her mom, Priscilla Dixon— has led to a variety of performances at shows and productions across the globe. She’s also the founder of Create a Space NOW, a performing arts platform that furthers conversations on race relations in America.

But she takes Katherine Dunham, who died in 2006, with her wherever she goes. Barnhill said the late dancer, activist and anthropologist leads her in her own work as a multidisciplinary artist.

“Katherine Dunham is in my DNA, so as a teacher, when I’m teaching hip-hop, I have to make sure my students don’t just come in and think this is a Tik Tok semester,” Barnhill said. “I had to let them know that studying hip-hop is sitting down and having discourse on Katherine Dunham. We have days on Katherine Dunham, Nina Simone.”

“Katherine Dunham was huge for me. My whole life changed. With Katherine Dunham being in that company, being surrounded by that kind of Blackness, knowledge of dance, anthropology, history, learning how to move in my body from the African diaspora, from her work in Haiti— what that meant in my pelvis, what that meant in my body gave me more agency that I can ever think of.”

Dunham’s strong example of using various art forms to empower a community inspires Barnhill with her new film. Turning all of her skills into a cohesive art form is an organic process. She prefers it to be that way. It’s how she learns new information.

“I always think music and movement is able to intersect in one’s soul, mind and spirit and help them learn or process better, so it’s always been interdisciplinary for me because I always learned in that way,” Barnhill said. “I wasn’t a linear learner. I had to get to a sort of physicality of exhaustion to absorb other information. Musical theater always connected to me because it got all of my attention. All the senses awaken when you’re able to put multiple things together when you’re able to further the conversation and explain.”

“a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle” is among 63 films that are featured in the 2022 Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase.
Cinema St. Louis
“a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle” is among 63 films that are featured in the 2022 Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase.

Monica Woods is a part of the cast for “a love letter to Brian, Lesley, Michelle.” She said she admired Barnhill’s commitment to empowering Black people and telling their stories. Woods, who is also a dancer, said she’s mainly excited about the conversations that the film will create among audiences.

“It is a conversation-starter film, so I think a lot of the times just the conversation of equal rights or anything related to empowering or uplifting the Black community a lot of times that conversation isn’t had, so I think it’s a platform to start that dialogue,” said Woods, who lives in Belleville. “When I saw it for the first time, for me, it was a reminder of what’s happening in this country. I think it can be a reminder for those (watching) who are aware of the social injustices but also those who aren’t unaware or are just blindly aware, I think it can be an eye-opener for them as well.”

For Barnhill, having viewers feel compelled to continue the conversation about social inequities, regardless of their personal sentiments on Black Lives Matter, is a primary goal of her film.

“The real work needs to happen when things get quiet, when life continues to happen, when the (victim of police brutality) is an old hashtag versus a real story,” Barnhill said. “When other horrible things happen in the world, we have to continue to talk about it because all of it connects. My goal is to have people watch this and just continue on being active. Think about it. Maybe talk about this at their dinner table.”

A screening of “a love letter to Brian, Lesley, Michelle” for the filmmakers showcase will take place on July 22 at 6 p.m. at Washington University’s Brown Hall Auditorium. It’ll be followed by a Q&A session between the creators, cast and audience members. Tickets can be purchased here.

DeAsia Page covers East St. Louis and its surrounding areas for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.