Bama Girl follows a young black woman’s quest to become the 2005 Homecoming Queen at the University of Alabama, running against not only 15 other co-eds, but a strictly segregated Greek system, internal black politics, and, most ominously, a secret all-white association called ‘The Machine’ that has been controlling campus politics at the University for most of the past century. This is a film about black and white, about the Old South and the New South, and about an unexpected microcosm of electoral politics that mirrors much of what is happening across our country today.
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Whew. Let me tell you, for a liberal white girl raised in Southern California, Alabama is a strange strange place to spend a lot of time. Making this film was an interesting education for me – a full immersion in the contradictions and quirks that make up the South. Plus, I learned to appreciate really good barbeque.
The University of Alabama is, in many ways, one of the last great relics of the Deep South. A school of profound and passionate tradition, many of the definitional events of the 1960s Civil Rights movement happened here or nearby (the Selma March, the Birmingham riots, Rosa Parks’ bus boycott, the Birmingham church bombing, Governor George Wallace’s stand on the schoolhouse steps). Still, when I first got there, over 45 years after the campus was forcibly desegregated, it seemed like little had changed. Despite a sizable minority student population, the Greek system – a potent social and political force on campus – remains almost entirely segregated. Student government organizations are run overwhelmingly by white students. Black students running for office have been followed, threatened, and assaulted. A cross was burned on the front lawn of the first black sorority to occupy a house on the traditionally white Sorority Row as recently as the early 90s.
Most of this is because of the Machine. An open secret on campus, the Machine wields a power disproportionate to its numbers, controlling most of the elections through block voting and intimidation, and positioning itself as a de-facto prerequisite to a career in Alabama politics after graduation. Several Alabama US senators, as well as countless congressmen, governors, mayors, city councilmen and other elected officials are said to have come from leadership positions in the Machine while at the University. It is equal parts political party and modern day KKK, accused of fraud, beatings, vandalism, wire tapping, and arson.
And yet, as I spent more time there, I discovered a dedicated group of progressive students who would fit right in on a campus in Los Angeles or New York City. Student paper editors, political activists, minority leaders, all struggling to realize what they think the University of Alabama could be today, as opposed to what it has been for decades past. “It’s heritage, not hate” say the traditionalists as they dress up in Confederate uniforms and parade through campus once a year, right past the only black sorority to sit on Sorority Row. “No” say the progressive students, you can’t separate the two when the heritage you refer to is the heritage of slavery, oppression and fear. They are determined to drag the University, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. And they just might do it.
Finding Jessica, who so beautifully encapsulates this struggle, was like a gift from the Documentary Gods. She is smart, passionate, articulate and complicated. She has known she wanted to run for Homecoming Queen for the last four years. Not because she wanted to be a beauty pageant winner (though she has competed in those too) but because she felt like she wanted to do something to stand up for her community and her vision of what the South could be if the vestiges of centuries of prejudice were swept away. She doesn’t hate the Machine (she almost pulled out three days into the filming because she didn’t want to be seen as “the angry black woman fighting against The Man.”), rather she admires its efficiency and rues that her own community is too riven by petty rivalries to marshal a competing organization. And she isn’t scared of anyone. Minutes after meeting her I knew – win or lose Homecoming Queen, this girl is going places.
Like probably every other documentary filmmaker at some point during their film, I thought several times that the real story here was my attempts to get this thing made at all. From overcoming the University’s initial and reasonable reservations to granting me access (I am the only filmmaker ever granted permission to film a feature length documentary on campus), to Hurricane Katrina devastating the South a month before Homecoming, to my “main” white sorority girl character pulling out two weeks before I was supposed start shooting, there were many times I almost gave up. Throw in my Byzantine negotiations with “The Machine” for permission to make this film – anonymous midnight phone calls from frat boys disguising their voices, mysterious comments by random strangers meant to make me understand I was being watched, and you get the idea. And yet, in the end, here I am with a film that both Jessica and I can be proud of. For while the race for Homecoming Queen at the University of Alabama may be, to some, a terribly trivial thing to spend a year of your life documenting, (1 ) it’s still pretty darn fun to watch, and (2) it is also a perfectly scaled miniature snapshot of the politics and divisions facing our country right now.