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On September 4, 1992, a woman in a small upstate New York town reported a crime to the local police. In response, officers contacted officials at SUNY Oneonta, a nearby college, where school administrators responded by handing over a list of names and home addresses of 125 black male students. For the next several days, those students were tracked down and interrogated by various police departments under a presumption of guilty until proven innocent. World premiering at DIFF 2014, director Sean Gallagher’s THE BROTHERS OF THE BLACK LIST is a gripping cautionary tale of equal rights gone wrong.

In BROTHERS OF THE BLACK LIST director Sean Gallagher tracks this story of racism that became the longest continually-litigated civil rights case in American history. The now grown students and their school counselor, Edward “Bo” Whaley, recount the disturbing events that the college and police department tried sweeping under the rug for many years thereafter. An emotional story of social justice, this unsettling documentary is also a cautionary tale of equal rights gone wrong that is relevant today more than ever.

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DIFF: BROTHERS OF THE BLACK LIST is your first feature length documentary. How was the process of making the film?

Sean Gallagher: It’s been a long yet overwhelmingly satisfying experience. The first interview with Bo Whaley, the main subject of the film, was done in 2007 while I was still a student at SUNY Oneonta, but it took a couple of years afterwards for me to really dedicate my time to the story. It was absolutely a learning process throughout, as the film was entirely shot and edited by myself, which was a challenge being so isolated in a creative project.

DIFF: Had you heard the story of the blacklist while going to the school? How was story regarded by faculty and the student body at SUNY Oneonta during your time there?

SG: I didn’t hear about the story until my senior year at the college. Keep in mind, I considered myself a rather informed student on campus – so it was really shocking to realize that the town and the school had swept the Black List under the rug.

DIFF: What else were you surprised to learn while researching and filming the project?

SG: I was really surprised by the positive outlook most of the former students have. Despite the injustices they had to face and the subsequent lack of support from their school, the students came together and non-violently addressed their concerns. Twenty years later, I was pleasantly surprised to meet so many men and women who weren’t filled with anger but rather inspiration for how they reacted to such adversity.

DIFF: An argument made in the film (and consistently during civil rights violations) is that “if you have nothing to hide, don’t worry about it.” What’s your response to this?

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 10.52.17 PMSG: That statement often comes from a place of privilege. Even deeper, it comes from a place of ignorance to assume the experiences in your life are the same for everyone else. One of my favorite statements in the film is an archival news clip of one of the students pointing out that sure, they weren’t violently accosted but it’s the idea of what they did that was scary. The incident really foreshadowed stop-and-frisk and other police tactics that are in place to this day in America. In fact, the rulings of the Black List court case could be used to defend future cases of racial profiling.

DIFF: What was the most challenging part of making this film? Gaining the trust of the Brothers of the Black List was a challenge as a few of them were reluctant at first to share their story and put themselves back in the spotlight. The courts and the school had made the students feel that their anger was invalid causing them to put the whole incident in the back of their mind. Although this was a challenge, it’s been an absolutely humbling experience having so many people trust me with telling their story.

DIFF: What do you think the legacy of this event will be? What do you hope people will take away from your film?

I hope it will serve as a reminder of the need for schools to protect their students and also for the event to be a case study in futile police work.

More importantly, the film has sparked some much needed conversation on campus and in the community. The mayor and the police chief have both viewed the film and embraced what can be learned from the mistakes of others. From what I hear, the film has inspired the Mayor and the City of Oneonta to work with the NAACP and they’re planning a summit on diversity in fall 2014. If this film can serve as a safeguard to the Oneonta community, then I feel that I’ve done my job.


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