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Abe Lincoln No Malice Awards Celebrate Young Filmmakers At Shakespeare Theater

Photo credit: Chuck Osgood.

"The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion...Think anew, and act anew..."—Abraham Lincoln

"There is no darkness, but ignorance."—William Shakespeare


L-R, top: Kenya Apongule, Michael Proctor, Anna Lee Ackermann; L-R, bottom: Niko Pecori-Robinson, Azalee Irving, Zaknafein Luken.

IT WAS SUCH A JOY for me to host the No Malice Film Celebration this past Sunday, September 19th, at Navy Pier's The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. 

The event honored the work of ten remarkable filmmakers, ages 11-21, who are the winners of The No Malice Film Contest, presented by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation (ALPLF), The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. These young artists created outstanding short films as part of Healing Illinois, a racial healing initiative of the Illinois Department of Human Services in partnership with The Chicago Community Trust. 

(L-R:) Jeff Williams, Barbara Gaines, Kevin Dwyer and Hannah Kennedy. Photo credit: Chuck Osgood.

Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address sought to heal the nation's racial wounds after the Civil War "with malice toward none, with charity for all." Illinois schools will use the films, and supplemental curriculum created by educators, to talk about race and the harmful impact of bias and injustice.

Barbara Gaines, the visionary founder and Artistic Director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater welcomed us warmly with her enthusiasm for showcasing the work of our talented young filmmakers. We were so grateful to be able to present the awards to our filmmakers from that stage. It emphasized both the joy and the gravitas of the occasion since the films presented were all about how to unite and heal the various factions in our society.  

Above: Barbara Gaines; Below: Erin Carlson Mast. Photos by Chuck Osgood.

Ms. Gaines was followed by Lincoln scholar,  Erin Carlson Mast, the President and CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation who noted President Lincoln's appreciation of the arts and his particular fondness for the works of William Shakespeare. "Lincoln was known to critique the performances of actors he felt had missed the deeper meanings and historical contexts of Shakespeare's plays," she said. "Lincoln enjoyed Shakespeare, yes, but it wasn't just enjoyment. He appreciated the truths that Shakespeare's works revealed about the human condition."

In my introductory remarks, I noted how seriously the filmmakers took the notion that because everything on earth is connected to everything else, it truly matters how we treat one another. Just as the COVID-19 virus caused the entire world to shut down long enough for people to realize that one thing can affect us all, my hope is that these films will cause viewers to pause and open their hearts to the messages of hope and unity artfully conveyed by these young people. As their films show, acts of empathy, compassion and kindness can change the narrative in our everyday lives. 

Photo credit: Chuck Osgood.

The premiere screenings of the films that followed were divided into three parts, beginning with the 3rd place winners in each category, who each received a $500 cash prize and joined me onstage for a Q&A afterward. Handing out the awards was the invaluable Angela Staron, Senior Director of Advancement at ALPLF. Ms. Staron helped to conceive the contest and worked tirelessly to execute it and see it to this day of awards.  

Angela Staron.

In the ages 11-14 category, Jessica Wong (who was not present at the ceremony) won for her harrowing film, "Racial Justice," which edited together news clips of police brutality and the subsequent protests against it. In her director’s statement, Miss Wong wrote, “As a person of color, I could not stand here and watch as the US nation fails to provide equity, so as a result, I spent months collecting clips and photos of the BLM (Black Lives Matter) and Protect Asian Lives movements. After constant reviewing and hours of editing, I finally put my video together and was ready to present it to everyone and help raise awareness of racism.”

Miss Wong tied for 3rd place with Abigail Eldridge, whose film "We the People" details the lives of various civil rights heroes. In voice-over, Eldridge reads Amanda Gorman's poem, "The Hill We Climb." “In my life, I’ve met people from many different cultures and of many different races,” said Miss Eldrige. “I’ve known some people who have been called names just because of who they are, how they’re born. They can’t help that, no one can. I just want them to feel like they’re wanted, because they are. It doesn’t matter what their skin color or their heritage is. It just matters that they’re here and they’re being who they want to be.”

Abigail Eldridge holding her award. Photo credit: Chuck Osgood.

The winner of 3rd place in the ages 15-18 category, Azalee Irving, used her film, "Interracial Relationships," to chronicle her experience of living in a biracial family in Homewood, and how it differed from the experience of growing up on the South Side. “I want to let everybody know that we are all one,” said Miss Irving. “We have all come from something. I hope my film brings people together and inspires them to end their racist ways while continuing to move forward. I would love if everyone continues to raise the youth of our future to be diverse and include everyone, because you never know the impact another person could make on your life.” 

Zaknafein Luken, the 3rd place winner in the ages 19-21 category, said he opted for simplicity with his film, "Hate is Not Welcome Here." “The film itself is based off of a billboard in my hometown of Lincoln, Illinois, that said, ‘Hate is not welcome here,’” said Luken. “It is black and white, just real simple, and I thought that would be a great way to just get the message across—something simple and to the point. I hope that this film, with its simple narrative, can drive home the fact that we shouldn’t be judging others by how they look or talk, but who they are as a person.”

L-R: Jessica Wong, London Shields, Sean Emmanuel Atienza.

Next, we screened the work of the 2nd place winners, who each earned a $1,000 cash prize. The winner in the ages 11-14 category, London Shields, powerfully used archival footage in her film, "Racial Healing in Oppressed Communities," to illustrate the systemic inequality that has been prevalent throughout American history. “I wanted to make this film to show people that racism is still very relevant today,” said Miss Shields. “My goal for the film was mainly to raise awareness, inspire compassion and get us to a place of understanding where we can meet in the middle.” 

Sean Emmanuel Atienza, who won 2nd place in the ages 15-18, was not present at the ceremony, yet his film "Puzzle" nevertheless wowed the audience with its eye-popping effect that makes a Rubik's Cube appear to solve itself. With calmness, Atienza explains in his film how seemingly insurmountable problems can be solved once we begin to appreciate, rather than fear, our diversity. “I wanted to convey my ideas about how each and every person, no matter their background, still can be better and contribute to stopping hate and violence through listening to and understanding other people's stories,” wrote Atienza in his director’s statement.

L-R Zaknafein Luken, Michael Proctor, Anna Lee Ackerman. Photo credit: Chuck Osgood.

When asked what motivated him to make "A Call to Fight Lies: Practical Steps to Fight Injustice," his 2nd place winning film in the ages 19-21 category, Michael Proctor was refreshingly honest, admitting that it was the cash prize that first caught his attention. Yet it was through the process of making the film that he found himself learning so much. 

“My goal with this film is in three parts, said Proctor. “I hope that people are moved to vulnerability, empathy and then love. It was really uncomfortable, at first, for me to have these conversations with people, but I forced myself to do it because I really wanted to bring this film to fruition, and after I did it enough, it became easier and easier to have these hard conversations. It gave me more of a language to speak with because I talked with people who are already in it, and I hope that this film produces a space that causes other people to start talking about these issues. Hopefully they can be vulnerable in that and become comfortable in that. By sharing their biases—which we all have—hopefully from that comes empathy and an understanding of one another. With empathy, we can feel and know what each other are thinking. Maybe a lot of us who don’t suffer from these problems nearly as much can empathize with those who do. This is where compassion and love are bred, and wherever there is compassion and love, I believe there is healing.”

Audience shot of filmmakers and guests assembling before show begins. Photo credit: Chuck Osgood.

Finally, we screened the 1st place winners, who each earned a cash prize of $2,000. In the ages 11-14 category, Niko Pecori-Robinson won for his extraordinary stop-motion animated film, "Be the GOOD," which portrays the bullying endured by a student until he is defended by his peers. “I’ve always wanted my films to be seen by a very large audience, so I thought this would be the perfect chance to do that,” said Pecori-Robinson, who likely has a future at Pixar. “I hope this film will inspire people to treat others equally.” 

Anna Lee Ackermann originally made her winning film in the ages 19-21 category, "As We Are Planted," for her Capstone project at Columbia College Chicago, where she recently graduated. Her documentary, which is guaranteed to impress the team at Kartemquin Films, focuses on the agricultural center, Just Roots Chicago, where the filmmaker had originally volunteered to work. “I thought it was incredible because I had no idea that urban farms were a thing, and so they graciously let me document their story and share their impact on the community,” said Miss Ackermann. “I really hope that the documentary will bring awareness to this issue of food deserts, or more correctly known as food apartheid, as it a very holistic issue. If you don’t have access to healthy and sustainable food options, that leads to unhealthy outcomes. I just want to bring awareness to this issue of the lack of nutritious food options that is happening around the corner from us and we might not even know it.” 

L-R Niko Pecori-Robinson, Kenya Apongule, Anna Lee Ackerman getting stage directions from Kevin Dwyer. Photo credit: Chuck Osgood.

Kenya Apongule, the 1st place winner in the ages 15-18 for her film, "Hush," which powerfully blends visuals and dance with her arresting spoken word poetry, said that she felt she wasn’t getting the full knowledge that she needed about her own history at school. After high school, she enrolled at the country's top Historically Black College/University (HBCU), Spelman College in Atlanta, and has found it to be a very empowering experience. 

“I took a course called African Diaspora, which is required for all the students, and it taught me so much more about my history, about the things I never knew before,” said Apongule. “I included some of it in my film, such as Sally Hemings, who Thomas Jefferson had a ‘relationship’ with when she was 14 years old—I wouldn’t call it a relationship—but through that, she had kids who are descendants of Thomas Jefferson. I was also inspired by the struggle and the exhaustion of being a Black woman in this country, even in my own experience at 19 years old. So this is a really personal subject for me, and I felt I could talk about it and put my own experiences with it into this film through words. I wanted to have my own family in it, and the last person in the film is actually my niece, so I could end it by focusing on the future. We can change things now. We need to have those conversations so that history doesn’t repeat itself—because 400 years is way too long to keep repeating these same habits, the same racism, the same bigotry.”

(Middle:) Angela Staron with No Malice team and Judges Niani Scott and Omer M. Mozaffar. Photo by Chuck Osgood.

After listening to the inspirational words of these young people, I invited the Seminar Instructors: Shawn Taylor and Liliane Calfee and the Jury Members: Sarah Knight Adamson, Sue-Ellen Chitunya, Veronique Hester, Omer M. Mozaffar and Niani Scott to join me onstage to take a bow. Although health and safety protocols prevented them from giving speeches, previously I was able to convey to the filmmakers the comments of the Judges about their films ranging from "a beautifully written heartfelt message;" "takes a common narrative structure and gives it a better, more profound purpose;" "extraordinary creativity;" to, "it moved me to tears;" "mixing dramatization, news footage, and interviews, this documentary, which incorporated a striking framing device (the victims of a familiar, racially-based act of violence looking for answers from the hereafter), is assembled with notable skill. The interview subjects are insightful, and there is a real sense of hope by the end."  

It was the perfect end to a profoundly moving and joyous event.

Seminar Instructors L-R, top: Troy Osborne Pryor, Rita Coburn, Steve James; L-R, bottom: Pamela Sherrod Anderson, T. Shawn Taylor, Liliane Calfee.

To read the full bios and director's statements of each winning filmmaker, click here. To see the names of the full Panel of Judges, click here. To see the article about the Seminar Instructors, click here

You can view the complete No Malice Film Celebration with clips edited by Scott Dummler in the livestream video embedded below (it begins at the seven-minute mark, preceded by introductory clips of the filmmakers and quotes from President Lincoln and William Shakespeare).

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 22nd year.

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