When arts patron Penny Winton approached J.D. Steele after George Floyd's death and suggested he make a documentary about racism, the longtime Minneapolis music man wasn't sure he was a filmmaker.
But Steele decided to give it a try, interviewing three elder Black Minnesota activists about systemic racism. And since he had a film crew, he decided to interview his mother for posterity, too.
"She had such compelling stories. She told me stories that I didn't even know about," Steele said. "This [documentary] was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life and to interview my mom was the highlight of it. It was just incredibly moving."
Sallie Steele Birdsong had so many powerful things to say that she made it into "Listen! Please!" This remarkable 18-minute documentary will stream on YouTube and Facebook, premiering at 6 p.m. Feb. 8.
Also featured are community leaders Josie Johnson, the First Lady of Minnesota Civil Rights and the first Black Regent at the University of Minnesota; Bill English, co-founder of Sabathani Community Center, and Mahmoud El-Kati, professor emeritus of history at Macalester College.
All in their 80s, the four migrated to Minnesota from the South. In the film, they speak of struggles, including encounters with law enforcement that felt like racial profiling.
"We need to respect and listen to our elders more, like some other cultures do. Like they do in India and Japan," Steele, 68, said. "There is so much to learn from our elders because they've lived it."
To hear the pain, to hear the hope in "Listen! Please!" is a profound experience. The message is loud and clear: "We can dialogue about racism but really white people can only solve it," said Steele, echoing the words of English and El-Kati. "White people need to accept our humanity and solve it."
Winton, who is white, gave Steele the title for the film. He conducted five hours of interviews last fall and composed and recorded music for the soundtrack. He edited the four-month project with co-producer Karl Demer.
After premiering the documentary during Black History Month, Steele will reach out to TPT and other media to see about further exposure for "Listen! Please!"
Has this project whetted the singer/choir leader/producer's appetite for filmmaking?
"That film business is a different animal," said Steele, adding that he loved the process once he got into it. "For me as an artist, I don't just want to be a singer/songwriter making music. I want to be part of the solution with what we're going through with race in America and with the politics of America."