Social Sciences on the Big Screen

April 25, 2023 (last updated on August 25, 2023)

Alumni-in-Residence event spotlights the intersection of social sciences and filmmaking

By Audrey Weckwerth 

The Alumni-in-Residence program has been a crucial resource offered by UChicago’s Division of the Social Sciences since its inception in Winter 2019, providing opportunities for SSD alumni to connect with students, postdocs, and faculty to share their unique expertise in conversation across disciplines.

On Friday, February 3, the Alumni-in-Residence (AiR) program hosted “Filmmaking for Social Scientists,” bringing together two trailblazing panelists with a community of students to discuss their work in the intersection of social science and filmmaking. Moderated by Kristen Schilt, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Dr. Isabella Alexander-Nathani and Dr. Raymond A. Winbush shared their paths in the field.

Dr. Alexander-Nathani is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, educator, and human rights activist. Her latest book, Burning at Europe’s Borders, and documentary film, The Burning, uncover the human sides of the global refugee crisis.

Dr. Winbush is the Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. Alongside numerous written articles and four published books, he was the primary researcher for the Academy Award–winning film Judas and the Black Messiah. Dr. Winbush has lectured across the globe on the contributions of Africans to world culture.

Schilt’s questions began broadly by noting that social science doesn’t typically intersect with film, and asking how each panelist stepped into this career. Alexander-Nathani, who is trained as a cultural anthropologist, began her career as a journalist, primarily photo, video, and print journalism. She was intrigued by the ability to tell the same story in different formats, reach wider audiences, and motivate people, especially when it comes to human rights abuses.

“Film has an ability to reach a much broader audience and pull new audiences in,” Alexander-Nathani explained. “To connect on an emotional level, you need to learn the story of one individual and see yourself in their footsteps.”

Winbush answered the question a bit differently: “I don’t feel like I’m in film!” he remarked. He made his way to film later in his career, after teaching Charles King, who is now the second largest Black producer in Hollywood, during his time at Vanderbilt. One night, Winbush received a call from Ryan Coogler. “The only Ryan Coogler I know is the one who produced Black Panther,” he said, and the reply: “Yes, that’s me.” Coogler asked Winbush about 1969 Chicago and the assassination of Fred Hampton; Winbush was familiar with the case and knew people who drove Fred Hampton around, so he agreed to Coogler’s request and became the primary researcher for the project.

Schilt then asked what skills from social science training help build success in film. Alexander-Nathani explained that though the two fields seem distinct, there is a lot of overlap in the necessary skill sets.

“With film students, I continue to see that those with a social science background are immediately more sensitive to building relationships with their subjects, representing stories in communities they aren’t part of, and tackling sticky ethics questions. These are things that social sciences have thought extensively about and are crucial in filmmaking.”

Schilt then turned to the event attendees for questions; the first asked how to approach research differently depending on the final project - whether it’s for an article or for a film. In answering, Winbush noted that compared to academic articles, films have a massive audience. This causes production changes; for example, though Fred Hampton lived and died in Chicago, Judas and the Black Messiah was filmed in Cleveland due to filming permissions. Another impact of a broader audience is the scale of praise and criticism received after release, and the repercussions of those reactions.

Alexander-Nathani added a note about trimming research content to fit in a feature-length film; she filmed her documentary for over six years across twelve countries. At the end of filming, she had amassed 500 hours of footage. “Cutting that down was a lot of decision-making… which individuals had a complete enough story to center on? How can we accurately represent a wide variety of refugee experiences?”

The final question to the panelists centered on how to bring filmmaking back into the social sciences. Alexander-Nathani broke her answer into two parts: first, the relationships involved in the process. “Practicing community filmmaking, with everyone involved every step of the way, helps me convey meaning in my writing.” Second: “I am much more interested in the story. Creating emotional impact in my audience is much more important to me than carrying forth a theoretical canon,” she remarked. “I want people to connect with the story, and I want them to feel something.”

Winbush focused on how he imparts his filmmaking experience onto his students. “I tell [my students] that the social sciences have to be practical,” he explained. “But this stuff is real. I have my students see films as extra credit, because I want to allow them to feel that what they are doing is very serious. Because it is.” Winbush was influenced by what he learned as a result of researching for a film, and emphasizes the importance of that experience. “Film makes life more real, and I try to give that to my students.”

Upcoming AiR events include “Careers in the IMF and World Bank” on May 15. Learn more about the AiR program and how to get involved here!