“Brothers of the Black List,” a film documenting Oneonta’s controversial Black List incident in 1992, will premiere next week at the director’s alma mater, SUNY Oneonta.
Sean Gallagher said his 72-minute documentary, which began as a 20-minute class project his senior year, will have its first public screening Monday at 7 p.m. in SUNY Oneonta’s lecture hall, IRC 1.
Gallagher, a mass communications major who graduated from SUNY Oneonta in 2008, said the documentary features 15 interviews of six or seven former students, faculty and community members affected by the list of 78 black male students given to state police by a SUNY Oneonta administrator to investigate an alleged burglary. This action and the resulting investigation triggered years of controversy and resulted in litigation.
The documentary, which features a great deal of archival footage and photos, took approximately three years to make, Gallagher said. It all started with the class project in 2007, he said, which led to a “packed” viewing of the short film at the Red Dragon Theater on campus.
Looking back, Gallagher said, he realized his short film contained many inaccuracies and left out important details of the case. He said the idea for a full-length documentary was born when Kathleen O’Mara, professor of African and Latino studies at SUNY Oneonta, called him the day before he graduated and said she had a giant box of archives from 1992 he could use if he ever wanted to expand on the class project.
Gallagher delved into the documentary which, he said, was a one-man production. He said he simultaneously conducted interviews and videotaped, which eliminated the possibility of a question-and-answer format for his film. Because of this, Gallagher said, the interviews were more of a “therapy session” for the individuals who experienced the Black List first-hand. He said he spent years poring over archives and even posted a timeline of the events on his wall.
“I am most proud of the accuracy of the documentary,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher said many misconceptions and controversies surrounding the Black List still remain, 21 years later. For instance, he said, the debate regarding whether the police had the right to search the hands of every young black male in town.
On the morning of Sept. 4, 1992, a 77-year-old woman visiting a family just outside the city of Oneonta told police she was attacked as she slept and struggled with her knife-wielding assailant before he fled. Based on a glimpse of the attacker’s hand and his voice, she concluded he was black, and blood at the scene indicated he had been cut on the hand, police said.
“But this never brings into account that years later it was learned that Troop C manipulated evidence,” Gallagher said. “The elderly woman who was attacked never said the suspect had a cut on his hand, and the police K9’s trail actually headed downtown, away from the SUNY Oneonta campus. With these details put into light, it’s impossible to defend the tactic of inspecting the hands of every college aged black male in town. In my opinion, it no longer becomes a debate of whether the students’ rights were violated. Rather, it becomes a case study in futile police work.”
Gallagher said those who defend the actions of the police say the controversy overshadows the real crime, an attempted rape. But, he said, the woman who was attacked has stated that she believes the students’ rights were violated during the investigation.
And for those criticizing the police, Gallagher said, a widely reported anecdote that is frequently referred to is one of a student being dragged from the shower and questioned. However, he said, specific statements from students show that this claim was exaggerated. Gallagher said the truth is that the student’s resident adviser told him to come downstairs and speak with police regarding the incident after he showered.
Gallagher said he hopes his documentary helps to set the record straight.
After he showed the finished documentary to his interviewees a few months ago, Gallagher said, some became emotional. He said Edward “Bo” Whaley, a former SUNY Oneonta Educational Opportunities Program counselor whose story is central to the documentary, left eight minutes into the film because it was too difficult for him to watch.
Gallagher said he is hoping for a packed house at the screening, but is most excited for the discussion that will follow. He said when he heard about the Black List his senior year, he was fascinated and perplexed that he had spent three years in the city without ever having heard about what happened on campus in 1992.
“It’s a film to learn from,” Gallagher said, “focusing on what happened rather than where it happened ... because this could have happened anywhere. But a college campus is the perfect place for the film to be shown. I believe the topic is more relevant than ever.”
O’Mara said she worked at the college in 1992 and was directly involved in the struggle to get the truth out. There were several groups formed at that time with similar goals, she said, including a student group, the film’s namesake, “Brothers of the Black List.”
O’Mara said she believes Gallagher’s documentary is extremely informative, and will give some people a chance to revisit and rethink their initial convictions surrounding the case.
“His hard work shows,” O’Mara said. “The film brings up a lot of really important points regarding racial profiling. If we don’t acknowledge history, we won’t be vigilant in preventing similar occurrences in our community and around the world.”
Gallagher said his documentary cost him approximately $10,000 to make. He said he plans to take the documentary to college campuses across the nation to, he hopes, spark a much-needed dialogue. Gallagher said he will speak in several communication arts classes at SUNY Oneonta before the screening.
The documentary has been entered into 30 film festivals, Gallagher said, and he is waiting to hear back. He was a recipient of the 2008 Merit for “Artistic Contribution to Social Justice” by the SUNY Oneonta Department of Africana & Latino studies, which is co-sponsoring the event along with the Communication Arts Department. The film was selected for the 2014 Africa World Documentary Film Festival.
Hal Legg, director of communications at SUNY Oneonta, said the screening presents a wonderful opportunity to revisit an important chapter in the college’s history. He said it is particularly special for current students because the filmmaker is a graduate of the school.
“I know that Sean Gallagher has taken great care to tell this story well, as perhaps only an alumnus could,” Legg said. “The college looks forward to welcoming him next week, and we wish him every success in gaining exposure for his movie at film festivals during the coming months.”