CPP Professor’s award-winning documentary tackles systemic racism

By Lann Nguyen and Katie Priest, Feb. 7, 2023

Cal Poly Pomona Philosophy Professor Thomas Keith is leaving his mark on the independent film industry with his fifth film, “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?, released in 2021. This award-winning documentary directed, produced and co-written by Keith along with philosophy Professor, J.W. Wiley, explores the social injustice that Black people face. 

“How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?” was inspired by the question asked by sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. The film focuses on the past and present history of systemic racism in the United States through a series of interviews full of harrowing and magnetic testimonies. A six-year journey to completion, the film was a culmination of years of work between both Keith and Wiley. 

The film was originally supposed to be based on Wiley’s first book, “The N- – – – – in You: Challenging Dysfunctional Language, Engaging Leadership Moments.” A book that, like the film, focuses on the struggle of otherness that many marginalized communities experience. Wiley admits that to make the entire book into a film it would “have to be a 12-hour miniseries.” The two writers eventually settled on focusing on a singular chapter rather than the entirety of the book because they felt they could create a focused discussion around these themes specifically. 

Despite this, narrowing down the scope of the film was still a challenge for Keith.  

“Initially we thought about making a film where we talked about lots of different groups and the intersections between them and that really became a logistical impossibility,” said Keith. “It was just too much to try to put into a 90-minute time frame.”  

The film was formed around the accounts of the interviewees and the perspectives they brought to the film. Highlighting an important aspect of the filmmaking process change. 

“Your film is going to evolve a little bit,” said Keith. “It might take change, and ours certainly did a few times, thanks to some terrific people who just made me think in directions I hadn’t before.” 

The film features accounts from notable activists and celebrities, including Danny Glover from the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, Ed Asner from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, Hawk Newsome the co-founder of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York and Henry Rollins from “Sons of Anarchy”. Keith says, “Working with them was a dream because people like that are in front of the camera a lot, so they’re wonderful interviews.” 

The film has won two awards in the best documentary category and one best director award, but Keith is not focused on accolades. “It’s an honor but, I don’t really take any of it very seriously. It’s the message that matters because change is what’s needed.”  

While the stories framed the overall structure of the film, it was the message that was the driving force behind the documentary. Both Keith and Wiley want the film to inspire viewers to enact change and especially young people have the power to make an impact through their actions. 

Courtesy of Thomas Keith

“We have to quit pretending it’s not real,” Keith says. 

Keith wants viewers to come away from the film acknowledging the problems that systemic racism and policing present.  

Wiley’s perspective is inspired by the actions of John Brown, a civil war abolitionist leader. Wiley wants viewers to become their own version of Brown advocating for others outside of their own community. It really hit home for Wiley being inspired by Brown’s ultimate sacrifice in caring so much about another culture, outside of his own, that he gave his life for Black people in solidarity. 

“We cannot accomplish the goals we have of changing the world by ourselves,” Wiley said. “No community can do that by themselves.” 

Alex Madva, a professor of philosophy at Cal Poly Pomona and director of the California Center for Ethics and Policy, “ has high hopes for the student impact of this film.”  

Madvas’ background studying social justice and implicit bias ties into the film’s vital role in inspiring people to be activists. There are many ways to get involved in overcoming implicit bias by getting in touch with groups on campus that are active in outreach. 

“Tom Keith is a good leader,” said Madva, “it’s really cool for students to realize their instructor is making movies and see that they have an opportunity to make content like a social justice dance craze.” 

Madva has written pieces like, “(What) Are Stereotyping and Discrimination? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?” and “An Introduction to Implicit Bias: Knowledge, Justice, and the Social Mind.”  

“How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? is now available on Apple TV and Prime Video. There will be a live screening of the film in the campus theater this March. 

Students who are inspired by this film can learn more about making an impact on social injustice by taking CPP classes like Black Lives Matter, Black Non-Fiction and Feature Writing and Race and Racism.

Feature image courtesy of Thomas Keith

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