Spring 2023

The Unblinking Eye

A filmmaking team uses visual narratives to tell stories that allow for understanding and humanity

Youth and Mental Health

  • by Ann Marie Menting
  • 13 minute read

Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster

Each day, social injustices such as poverty, poor access to health care and education, food insecurity, and the violent or preventable deaths of parents and children confront people marginalized by society. Unrelenting exposure to such social traumas frequently inflicts deep psychological harm.

For decades, Joe Brewster, MD ’78, and Michèle Stephenson have been crafting visual narratives that not only expose such harm but work to counter it. They do this by presenting candid narratives of socioeconomic oppression and injustice experienced by people and communities of color. Their clear-eyed, often lyrical storytelling portrays people who live with past and present injustices daily, yet draw upon their personal strength, culture, and community to persevere and challenge assumptions.

Brewster and Stephenson’s work has been praised extensively and earned national and international awards. For instance, their documentary American Promise, a coming-of-age story of two Black boys, one of them their eldest son, during their years at an elite, predominantly white school in New York City, earned them the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The outreach campaign they developed for that film won the 2014 BRITDOC Impact Award for the campaign’s significant achievements, including inspiring a nationwide movement among parents of color to consolidate their voices and work with their local schools to tackle issues of race, class, gender, parenting, and educational opportunity. In 2021, they produced The Changing Same, a magical realist, immersive work addressing racial trauma, which received the Tribeca Film Festival’s Grand Jury Award for Best Immersive Narrative. Earlier this year, the couple gained acclaim for Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, a hybrid documentary celebrating Giovanni’s enduring influence as a poet, artist, and social commentator. It earned the  Grand Jury Prize for U.S. documentary at Sundance.

Brewster, who trained as a social psychiatrist at HMS and Stanford University, and Stephenson, who graduated from Columbia Law School and McGill University, brought their expertise in medicine, law, and storytelling to a conversation with Harvard Medicine magazine. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

HMM: Your film company is named Rada Studios. What does Rada stand for?

Stephenson: Rada goes back to Haitian voodoo roots. I was born in Haiti and when we were forming the company, we wanted to honor our African ancestors.

There are two main constellations of spirits in the vodou religion: petro, the more feisty, revolutionary spirit that comes out of the revolutionary struggle of Haiti; and rada, the wise and creative spirits that link directly to Africa in terms of their inspiration and how they envision life. Sometimes the spirits are in conflict, other times in conversation. Our logo is a take on the crossroads where you meet the spirits and seek their advice and guidance in this process of storytelling.

Brewster: When I met Michèle, she had moved to New York to attend law school. She was very much into her Haitian ancestry, so I learned a lot. I’ve always felt that the rada spirits are also nurturing and family-based. As a company, we are family first. And then it’s about how you create and collaborate in community to do your work.

HMM: What is it about storytelling that is so compelling?

Stephenson: Storytelling is what makes us human. It reflects our common humanity and helps us keep our humanity. Story has power. That’s why there’s so much conflict around whose stories are going to dominate. To allow some stories to dominate strips others of their humanity and lived experiences.

If we don’t have a common understanding of history, of our own history, society, or communities, there cannot be a common understanding of the legacy of that history and how it continues to affect us today. There can’t be a common coexistence. That really starts with a better mutual understanding of history that is not only truthful but that everybody believes in. It’s about reexamining history, building a new narrative, a true narrative, that allows for humanity and reimagines how we relate to each other systemically and individually.

Brewster: I think there’s a war of narratives going on right now. People don’t understand what that means for our health. Trying to determine whose history is most important is one thing, but the stories that help determine how good you feel about yourself are influenced by the gaze of the historian, and unfortunately, that gaze is often from the perspective of those with power.

As filmmakers, we know that gaze has an outsized effect on our health and well-being. There are parallels between writers and therapists that are important. The unconscious emotions of a therapist, called countertransference, can influence a patient. Likewise, writers have a similar power and must be aware of its influence. Once we see ourselves better, we are able to draw characters who bring a different level of understanding of our world to audiences.

HMM: Was there a pivotal moment when you realized you could use film to heal?

Brewster: During my residency, I wanted to learn about therapy from the vantage point of a patient. So I contracted with a psychoanalyst in Brookline, Massachusetts. I remember he lived in a castle. It was a beautiful home.

One day, I’d left his home office and was waiting in his driveway for my girlfriend. As I waited, I noticed a police car, then another, then another until I realized I was surrounded by six police cars. They wanted to know what I was doing in that neighborhood. I was so incensed I refused to speak to them. I felt my head was about to explode.

My therapist, who was white, came out and used his authority — his skin color — to vouch for me. I left in pain. The incident affected me for weeks, and yet my therapist was not able to discuss with me the power dynamics of what happened. He was one of the better-trained analysts in Boston, and yet he could not unpack the issues with me to help me heal.

Too often these difficult conversations are not had. My experience working with other psychiatrists is that we are blinded to the importance of the work that we do. I found film provided a conscious acknowledgement of my dilemma and lived experience. And it could provide hope to others that a conscious expression of our lived experiences and needs can be shared as a step toward healing. Our films begin by doing the same work that I’m accusing my colleagues in psychiatry of not doing: looking at race and class and addressing the systemic struggles of the characters and communities of color we represent.

HMM: What are some of the ways you work to counter portrayals that might be harmful to people of color?

Brewster: Let me count the ways. We did a twenty-episode online series for the World Channel and PBS where we examined mental health issues and how communities of color were going back to their roots to reclaim methods for healing themselves and dealing with generational trauma. We looked at Indigenous communities in Montana and South Dakota and Asian communities in Southern California. That experience was a revelation for us. We had a sense of what trauma we would find but not the degree to which it remained significant. It went back generations and people were aware of it.

Stephenson: That series is titled Decolonizing Mental Health and features individuals who have been affected by mental health issues and/or are themselves trained in psychotherapy or psychology or mental health support and are working within their communities. We highlighted their stories as a way of engaging and validating different, non-Eurocentric, ways of approaching mental health, approaches based on community and culture.

HMM: Your 2013 documentary, American Promise, told a story that moved audiences. Could you talk a little about what happened following the release of the film?

Brewster: That film had an unimaginable effect on people nationwide. It follows our son and his friend through their education at an elite school in New York City and candidly shows the struggles that they — smart, confident, and loved children — went through just by being Black boys within a predominantly white school. We intentionally called it American Promise because we wanted to make the bold statement that our kids are an integral part of this country’s fabric.

People were inspired by the film. There were thousands of folks who basically changed their lives based on that film. They formed parent groups that focused on achieving greater equity and more agency for people of color at schools, both public and private. All I can say is that the film was as important as psychiatry for many: individual and group sessions were born and supported by the film.

But the radical statement that the film made was that we have been here a long time and are a part of the fabric of this country — we elevated the agency of families of color.

Stephenson: Well, it may show that the Black experience has been here since the beginning, but there has been a long and continued history of all types of migrations to this country as well as the violence of slavery and settler colonialism. Once we fall into the “I’ve been here this long, and you haven’t” position, we’re leaving out other narratives and complicated historical relationships to this country that transcend current borders.

I think there’s another outcome of the film that needs to be mentioned. The film flipped the script on Black male achievement and helped expose the effect of institutional racism on our children. The Dalton School, the New York City school that our sons attended and that we filmed, has by no means fixed its issues of power and its treatment of students of color. But there’s a definite difference between what’s happening there today and what was happening when our son was there.

The film is a thirteen-year narrative portraying strong characters who we root for as we watch them face obstacles. The story completely engages whatever community watches it. Yet the other reality is that it’s a story about two Black middle-class families, all first-generation college-educated. This was a story many Black families, who were similarly situated, had not seen. It forced a certain conversation that would not have happened without the film. And that conversation happened across the board, across many schools. It illustrates the level of engagement that can happen from storytelling.

HMM: And you followed it with the book Promises Kept.

Brewster: During the making of the film, Michèle and I visited Alvin Poussaint, who was the founding director of the Office of Recruitment and Multicultural Affairs at HMS. We talked with him about the reaction the documentary was already receiving before its release: Black parents from all over the country were calling us to find out when the film would be coming out. He suggested we write a book because what we described for our son in American Promise was also being experienced by Black professors at Harvard. Promises Kept was published in 2014.

HMM: Since we’ve touched on HMS, did you have mentors while you were a student here?

Brewster: I was encouraged by many people. The first day I walked into McLean Hospital as a resident, I told them I was interested in social psychiatry. I was warned that was not an area they explored, but Shervert Frazier, the hospital’s chief of service, said he wanted me to have a mentor who looked like me. He asked me to see Chester Pierce, a Black psychiatrist.

I met with Pierce weekly; I had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to work the meetings into my schedule, but I did it. Pierce inspired me to move forward with my interests in social psychiatry.

HMM: Before we end, I wondered whether you worry about the effects of images of violence perpetrated on people of color, captured on body cams or smartphones, and shared widely. Are these visuals — so different from the films you produce — adding to the conversation or doing more damage?

Stephenson: Visual storytelling can influence people to take action in certain ways. I would say that narratives, violent or otherwise, open a window into a lived experience. But it’s up to us, as people, to engage with that story and decide how to move with it.

Brewster: There is certainly the possibility that trauma will set back the viewer. But the bigger, more damaging trauma is the continuation of systemic injustice. We can’t look at just one point in time but need to address the systemic injustices in the country.

For example, we’ve been engaged to do a film about the death of a young Black man while in the custody of the police in Baltimore. We asked ourselves how we should tell that story and not fall into common narrative tropes of a “true crime” genre. We decided to focus on the systemic story and how media narratives are used to villainize the victim and his community despite eyewitness accounts of what happened. We have turned to our own complicity as a society in this killing.

But what does it mean to reexperience the trauma at the hands of the police? It might be that if you watch this narrative, you’re going to be harmed. Yet in reality we will never remove ourselves from this societal predicament unless there’s an understanding of how systemic oppression works.

We could compare it with therapy and the process of self-understanding. You can’t do it in a day, but gradually you understand that we have traumatic experiences and we can process them. I say that instead of looking at what it does today, look at how we can develop a three-dimensional understanding of trauma and process it so that over time we can eventually be whole.

Stephenson: I think Joe hits the nail when he says the greater harm and trauma is the continued systemic violence that is committed against communities of color. Anything that sheds light on that is needed.  

Ann Marie Menting is the editor of Harvard Medicine magazine.

Image: Bob Handleman