Grand Stand Pictures brings Grand Rapids Black freedom struggle to the screen

Published in 2012, the book “A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan”, by Todd Robinson, examines how Grand Rapids’ Black residents have struggled for equality within the larger context of the U.S. civil rights movement. Robinson popularized the term “managerial racism” to describe how white city leaders and power brokers filtered racial issues to “bog down” the dismantling of systemic and institutional racism. Grand Stand Pictures, a new, Black-owned Grand Rapids film company, has begun the adventure of translating this book to film.

“This is an important story to the Black community. This is an important story to Grand Rapids as a whole. It’s Grand Rapids history,” says Victor Williams, CEO of Grand Stand Pictures. “Everyone needs to understand the past, understand how our great city came to be, and about the many people who have made incredible contributions to this place and … the ways that racial disparities have been promulgated throughout the Grand Rapids area.”

Grand Rapids Media Initiative & Film Incubator (GR-MiFi) is collaborating on the film. GR-MiFi has also collaborated with the Grand Rapids HipHop Coalition, GRassrootsUp InitiativeMichigan Black Expo, Inc.Grand Rapids African American Community Task Force, Reaching Beyond Bias, and Mixed Reviews GR.

“Vic and I are Black, indigenous to Grand Rapids, from the neighborhood — we have been influenced and impacted by many of the individuals and certainly by the stories in the book,” says Rodney Brown, GR-MiFi president and CEO. “There's no better [film] company, Black or white, to tell the story.”

The pair share that many of the people referenced in the book were their own mentors, family members, friends — community legends whom they have known their entire lives.

“It’s important that the story is told properly. And that it's done with care and passion … by someone who had those relationships and that kind of passion and connection to the story,” Williams says.

As seems fitting, Grand Stand Pictures has leased office and film production space with the Community Media Center at the Wealthy Theatre Annex building, 1110 Wealthy St., adjacent to the historic Wealthy Theatre auditorium. A few decades ago, the busy corridor, businesses and surrounding neighborhood were predominantly Black. Development has since turned Wealthy Street into a thriving, predominantly white business district, awash with upscale restaurants, bars and shops.

“Relationships between Black and white people in the city, they're kind enough,” Brown says. “But when it comes to Black culture and opportunities for the Black community and wealth creation, at almost every data point that you can imagine, the disparity is so stark between Black and white in this community.”

While systemic racism has historically denied Grand Rapids’ Black residents material wealth, Williams sees the stories told in “City Within a City” as being even more valuable than money in the bank.

“We need to make sure that we're passing our stories now, especially to our youth — these are our riches,” Williams says. “That's something that we are attempting to do with Grand Stand Pictures, to make sure that we are sharing, collecting and recording those riches, the riches of our community and sharing those with all generations.”

An open house at the space will take place 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. Williams and Brown invite the community to stop in, take a look and discuss opportunities for involvement and apprenticeships with both organizations.

“Unpacking the systemic ways that racial disparities are perpetuated is important for any city in America,” Brown concludes. “Our film will help other communities in finding solutions by better identifying the systemic problems of how institutional racism actually works. When we think in that way, our story, our film, will have a tremendously positive impact on other secondary cities.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy Grand Stand Pictures and Hold Still Photographee

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