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‘Who Am I’: Film review

An ode to Black Seattle artists

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Following the murder of George Floyd, in the wake of tear gas and rubber bullets, Jonathan Salmon and Abdi Ibrahim wanted to create something that would speak volumes — not just for the moment, but for years to come. 

The result was their short film, “Who Am I,” inspired by the Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too.” This film was a visual depiction of Black artists across Seattle coming together to showcase and uplift talent and beauty that often goes unnoticed. 

While the film is relatively short, at slightly under three minutes long, the piece manages to encapsulate a full array of emotions.

Written by Akunna Amaefule, Devonnie Black, and William Dutcher, the script strategically conveys the pride, anger, joy, passion, and beauty that one experiences when being Black in America. The slam poetry–style cadence of the speakers is punctuated, guiding you through the feelings they perfectly orchestrate with their words. 

The scene that feels so beautifully jarring to me is when the music falls away and the narrative switches toward the natural aspects of the Black body. 

“I am the sounds the trees make, on a warm summer day,” the film’s voiceover says. “The strength built over time. The horns and the keys that sparked a revolution. The bass, the strings. I am generations of voices you tried to silence yet the crescendo is building.”

This scene forces you to slow down, thanks to the way the sound is cut and replaced by wind blowing through leaves and empty fields of grass, slowly allowing the music to creep back in. It allows you to stand still, just for a moment, and ground yourself in what they are saying. 

You can almost hear the echoing question: “Who am I?” 

These three words, the driving force of the film, are a remarkably complex question. For the Black, the color of our skin is always the first thing people notice and generally care about. Outsiders often strip away the rest of us, completely wrapped up in this physical trait.

This film forces the audience to reimagine what being Black means for so many Seattleites. They are painters, musicians, writers, chefs, dancers, and so much more. They are multifaceted individuals who have brought so much beauty and strength to their communities. 

Showcasing these talented individuals, in front of and behind the camera, was the starting point of the whole film. Without them, the directors stressed, there would be nothing.   

“The idea was how can we highlight the artists that we look up to that are Black in our area that don't [always] get the recognition that they deserve — how can we do something that is in the moment, but can actually have an impact,” Ibrahim said. 

Beyond the idea of highlighting Black artists, a key part of this film were the varying perspectives and ideas from the massive team of people contributing to the overall project. This film showcases what is possible when collaboration is the ultimate goal. The desire to invest time into supporting everyone's ideas and talents allowed the many turning wheels in the machine to create something cohesive and impactful. 

“I think it was just the continued organic nature of it all,” Salmon said. “None of it was forced. None of the organizations were forced. None of the artists were forced. None of the crew was forced. [No part in] the creation of the film was forced.”

This organic drive and the belief in this film were fostered in the environment that Ibrahim and Salmon created. This was a film about the Black community, produced by the Black community, in order to support the Black community. 

“We wanted to make behind the scenes of who's in charge and [who is] making the film the same community that is going to be [in front of the camera] and benefit from this,” Salmon said. 

The film was not only trying to send a message — it was working to give back. 

The “Who Am I” film partnered with Choose 180 and Creative Justice, two King County grassroots organizations dedicated to helping King County youth have a second chance and avoid the school-to-prison pipeline. 

These organizations provide second chances for so many children, specifically Black children, who are often not treated with the same forgiveness and understanding as their peers. 

Ibrahim mentioned that the inability to make a mistake was a parallel seen throughout all aspects of society, from the corporate film and photography industry to being Black in our justice system. 

In his time on shoots, Ibrahim said, it has been a common scenario that he is one of a few (sometimes the only) Black people on set. There is this feeling of walking on eggshells, knowing that small mistakes will have him off the set much quicker than his white counterparts. 

This film was intended not just to be a space where Black people are allowed a second chance, but also to be an opportunity to help fund programs that give Black youth a second chance. 

The “Who Am I” film is working to raise a total of $25,000 for these organizations; the organizers have currently raised $10,000. 

While this film only took five days to shoot, the whole summer was dedicated to editing and putting together a piece of art that achieved this desired goal of longevity. For Salmon and Ibrahim, this project was a daily reminder of what was going on in the world and the importance of what they were doing. 

“It's not something that we just made and we're just going to drop in like five days and then move on,” Ibrahim said. “It was more like, this is going to continue to be part of our lives and it has to be, and the conversation has to keep going, regardless of whether the film is going to happen or not.”

In some ways, the way this piece was created — with the intention of being relevant regardless of how much time has passed — is an ode to the conversations of this summer. 

The time, effort, and commitment that people have put in these last few months — fighting for systematic change — must continue. The conversations about decolonizing our cities and antiracist efforts need to be a constant and continuous conversation. The work is everlasting and tireless, but it is essential to creating a better society. 

Check out all the artists who were involved here.

Reach Pacific Wave Editor Chamidae Ford at Twitter/Instagram: @chamidaeford

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