The Filmmaker We Need Now: Frederick DeShon Murphy

Claudia Stack

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Frederick DeShon Murphy, picture courtesy of Mr. Murphy/History Before Us LLC

Growing up in rural Tennessee, Frederick DeShon Murphy was a child who gravitated to his elders. Starting at age 11, he would interview older family members and write their stories down. All the while, his mother was working two or three jobs as a CNA to support the family.

As he matured, Murphy was impressed by how appreciative his mother’s patients were. A twin passion for helping people and for storytelling was born. When he learned how few African Americans were in the field of mental health, he resolved to become a counselor.

Earning his BA in Psychology at Tennessee State University in 2003, Murphy continues to work as a counselor. Then his career took a new direction when he picked up a film camera in 2016. He has combined his understanding of mental health with his talent for storytelling to create films and presentations that foster understanding. Murphy also holds two Master’s degrees: An MA in Professional Counseling, and an MS in Transformative Leadership in 2015.

Initially, his quest was to document more voices from the Civil Rights era than the heroes whose names are commonly hailed. Of course, he says, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are critically important-- but he wanted to hear from some of the other many thousands of activists.

Murphy met and filmed Civil Rights activists who are not well known, but whose compelling stories made up his first documentary, The American South As We Know It. He was honored to have the film screen at the North Carolina State Capitol in 2018, as well as many other venues. He is grateful to Hannah Brodie, a graphic designer, who contributed artwork to the film. The American South As We Know It garnered multiple best documentary awards in the film festivals where it has screened.

Murphy recalls a moment of personal realization when he visited Mound Bayou, MS, a town established by formerly enslaved people. The town founders would post armed guards all around the town, and smuggle residents to the North if they were threatened by local European Americans. He realized that, despite hundreds of years of oppression and violence, African Americans have not been passive during their history.

Murphy says his counseling background allows him to ask questions that prompt his film subjects to think in new ways about their experiences. Feeling that he is “driven by the ancestors,” Murphy was soon working on a second film, The Other Side of the Coin: Race, Generations & Reconciliation. This film was just recently made available on Vimeo, and has been well received at film festivals. It features individual commentators, as well as dialogues between people that reveal the complexity of race relations in the United States.

In one moving segment of the film two older men of different races, but with the same last name, sit down to talk. George Sizemore’ ancestors were enslaved by Bill Sizemore’s ancestors, and yet they have come to an accord. We learn that Bill is donating money for scholarships to George’s family, and they have found a way to talk about their shared history.

“The piece is so important because it provides us hope” Murphy says “it’s people who aren’t supposed to have the agency to get along, giving permission to others to get along.” Murphy thinks the government should make economic reparations to those who are descended from enslaved people. But, he adds, “individuals who have knowledge that their ancestors enslaved people should strive to acknowledge and right the wrongs with the descendants of those enslaved.” This would naturally take different forms, he notes. For example, he says that if plantation sites continue to host weddings, they should donate a portion of the proceeds to the local African American community.

Murphy’s current project is called Duality: A Collection of Afro Indigeneous Perspectives. His third great-grandmother was an enslaved Native American woman who was born in 1841. Her enslaver moved her from North Carolina to Tennessee, leading Murphy to feel an affinity with both states. Part of his motivation for the Duality documentary is to identify connections with his own Native American ancestry. This film is a collaborative effort with the organization Cherokees for Black Indian History Preservation.

Going forward, Murphy plans to use his History Before Us LLC to continue to encourage dialogue, and to help people to understand historical trauma. The oral history interviews he does can be very therapeutic, he says. He likes that oral history is a way of relating in which, unlike traditional counseling, he is allowed to express his own emotional reactions.

Murphy feels that traditional counseling modalities aren’t always a good fit with African American culture. At the same time, he feels “we need more than just prayer to heal from the historical and current trauma of racism.” Murphy says that storytelling can help to bridge the gap. He continues to work in one-on-one settings using traditional counseling practices, but he also hopes to reach more people through his films and presentations.

Murphy has shared his presentation “Utilizing Film to Better Understand Historical Trauma in the African American Community” at dozens of venues including universities, libraries, community centers and schools. The objectives of this presentation are:

  1. Attendees will acquire a theoretical, historical, conceptual and critical understanding of individuals who lived during the Jim Crow era
  2. Attendees will develop a clear and concise understanding of historical trauma
  3. Attendees will identify how historical trauma impacts today’s society
  4. Attendees will develop interventions centered on the healing of historical trauma

The presentation helps people in the audience who have experienced race-based trauma to realize that they are not alone. It also helps others who have not experienced it to begin to understand the toll that racism takes.

Although both his personal experience and the documentary work that Murphy has done have shown him that racial prejudice is deeply embedded in our society, he remains hopeful. Consistent with his training in mental health, he never suggests that people should somehow just try to forget traumatic racist experiences. Instead, he hopes that by helping people to recognize and process these experiences, it will help them find common ground. “We all bleed the same” he observes “ and we’re a lot more alike than different.”

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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