Mural documentary depicts a rich Durham Civil Rights history

After the documentary premiere, Rodrigo Dorfman, far left, leads panelists involved in the creation of the mural in a question-and-answer session with the audience. (Staff photo by Alexis Allston)

More than a year after its completion, the Durham Civil Rights Mural at 120 Morris St. lives on through Rodrigo Dorfman’s artful documentary about the designing and painting of the mural.

Brenda Miller Holmes looks up at the Durham Civil Rights Mural as it was in the process of being painted. The mural can be found next to the Durham Arts Council building. (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Dorfman)

Brenda Miller Holmes looks up at the Durham Civil Rights Mural as it was in the process of being painted. The mural can be found next to the Durham Arts Council building. (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Dorfman)

The documentary premiered on Saturday, Feb. 11 at the Hayti Heritage Center at 804 Old Fayetteville St., and is now available for free online. Dorfman said the documentary is a product of filming for three years.

“I’m always interested as a filmmaker in community projects, because I like to experience a diversity of voices,” Dorfman said. “I believe that community-centered projects elevate the work to a level that individual projects cannot.”

Dorfman has lived in Durham since 1985 and sees the Bull City as “his town.” He’s always interested in learning more about Durham.

Dorfman said his art is centered on social justice, telling stories of people’s struggles and of people who have dignity in the face of adversity. His interest in social justice drew him to document the process of creating the Durham Civil Rights Mural.

“The civil rights movement and the stories that come from it are very dramatic,” Dorfman said. “They have a lot of lessons in them, and they’re also living stories, so they’re not just in the past. That’s the whole point of making the mural and making its film, is to see how the past is living in the present.”

Dorfman said what excited and inspired him in his filmmaking was the explosion of modern civil rights movements, such as Black Lives Matters, that were happening in the U.S. and in Durham while the Durham Civil Rights Mural was being painted.

“The documentary touches upon the creation of the mural, the stories of some of the people in the mural, and it touches a little upon what was happening in Durham at that time – which was the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Dorfman said.

Dorfman and Brenda Miller Holmes, the director of the mural project, worked together to both fund and photograph the project, which depicts prominent leaders and visionaries in Durham during the Civil Rights Movement.

Holmes recently moved to Durham from San Francisco. While attending Durham Technical Community College, she began to learn more about local history and said she was amazed at Durham’s story. She said she wanted to find a way to share this history that people might not otherwise be aware of.

“This story in particular was not mine to tell, so I had to find a way to get the community together to tell their own story,” Holmes said.

Holmes rounded up 30 core participants to collaborate in the initial design of the mural. Holmes said the participants were balanced between youth and adults, with an age range of 13 to 65.

One participant, Jhordan Perry, 28, has lived in Durham for eight years and was an integral part of the design process of the mural.

Perry said he is a self-taught artist who started out with street art. He saw working on the mural as an opportunity to take his talent to a professional level and make art more than just his hobby.

“It was awesome, it was a life-changing experience,” Perry said. “It transformed me from a person who did art to an artist.”

Perry said his mentorship under Dorfman and Holmes turned him into the person and the artist he is today.

“I loved being able to work with legitimate artists who did not sell themselves short in order to achieve the things that they wanted and are still following their dreams,” Perry said.

He said he learned a great deal from working with so many different types of people on the mural, from young to old and black to white. He said the diversity created a blending of perspectives in both the artistic style and the message within the mural.

“I think art has a responsibility to be more than beautiful and bring across a message,” Perry said. “It doesn’t have to be a profound message, but it has to be saying something. I don’t believe in the idea of art for the sake of art.”

Perry said the concept of the heads in blue in the sky at the top of the mural came from him. Holmes said these people represent early economic leaders that laid important groundwork for Black Wall Street in Durham.

Holmes said the process of deciding what would go in the mural was entirely democratic among the group of 30 people. She said there were many hard decisions on what stories to include in the mural and what imagery could engage people while still telling the truth.

“We live in a culture of white supremacy, so a physical representation of African-American history in a public space is hugely important,” Holmes said.

She said one of the controversial elements was whether Duke Chapel should go in the mural or not. There were some people that felt strongly that it shouldn’t, while others wanted to acknowledge Duke’s participation in the movement.

“People didn’t want Duke Chapel because Duke historically has had a really contentious relationship with the community,” Holmes said. “The nickname for Duke was ‘The Plantation’ as far as how employees were treated on campus and how it wasn’t integrated until really late.”

She said the group was able to compromise by depicting Julian Abele with Duke Chapel. Abele was the African-American architect who designed Duke Chapel but was never given credit until later in the 20th century.

“My passion is really about collaborating with other people, because getting people together to share ideas is much more powerful than doing stuff on your own,” Holmes said. “Especially where public art is concerned, it’s not appropriate to create things without public input.”

She said one of the most prominent inspirational figures she painted in the mural was Louis Austin, founder of The Carolina Times newspaper. Holmes said he was an interesting and controversial change-maker and someone who she admires.

Ann Atwater, the late prominent civil rights icon from Durham, is featured in both the documentary and the mural. Atwater fought within her community for better housing and voting rights. In the mural, she’s depicted with former local KKK leader, the late C.P. Ellis, with whom she had to work to integrate the Durham Public School System.

“They argued and fought, things almost got violent between them, but they ended up becoming lifelong friends, and he renounced his membership in the KKK,” Holmes said. “He actually, because of that, lost his business and most of his friends and was just disowned by his community because of the way he realized his thinking was wrong.”

The mural also includes a depiction of a secret basketball game that took place between North Carolina Central and Duke in the 1940s when it was completely illegal for them to play. NCCU won the game.

“I’m very proud of Durham, the film and the people that are in it,” Dorfman said. “I hope that it’s a beautiful mirror of what Durham was, is and can be. If we all work together and are not afraid, we can do amazing things.” 

Edited by Paige Connelly and Elise Clouser

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