The groundbreaking docuseries And She Could Be Next moves from a post-2016 election idea to reality next week with its PBS premiere. Showing over two nights, Monday, June 29 and Tuesday, June 30, And She Could Be Next follows the journeys of U.S. Reps. Lucy McBath, Rashida Tlaib, and Veronica Escobar; voting rights advocate and 2018 Georgia Democratic nominee for governor Stacey Abrams; California state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo; and Bushra Amiwala, a 2018 candidate for the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Amiwala was only 19 years old during the filming of the docuseries and is now one of the youngest Muslim elected officials in the U.S. after winning a seat on the school board in Skokie, Illinois. Amiwala’s story, like all of the women profiled, is a part of the magic of this documentary in showing how people must move beyond traditional notions of what is possible to define for themselves what will be.
Recognizing the power and importance of grassroots organizers to the 2018 political moment, the docuseries looks at the deep engagement and infrastructure building led by organizers such as Nse Ufot, chief executive officer of the New Georgia Project.
Given the pandemic, directors Marjan Safinia and Grace Lee and the rest of their team had to adjust premiere plans. While the in-person events are on hold, Safinia and Lee have stepped into opportunities to participate in virtual film festivals such as CAAM Fest: Heritage Home.
Ahead of Monday’s premiere, Safinia and Lee talked with Prism about stepping into their power and bringing their vision to life. The conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Anoa Changa: I know this isn’t the way you envisioned the rollout happening, so kudos to both of you and everyone else who’s been working with you that have still managed to make this come to life. Can you share more about the visioning process of this idea as women of color stepping into this space to tell this story?
Marjan Safinia: So, what has the process been, Grace Lee? It’s been long.
Grace Lee: I mean, it’s constantly evolving. As I’ve said from the beginning, it feels like we’ve been working on a political campaign—trying to get this project off the ground, made, and now seen. It’s the same story for women of color. People don’t really understand the perspective or where you’re coming from and you have to convince people all the time why this is a vital story. Like, why this angle?
I think right now we’re in this reckoning moment in this country where it actually feels like people are really understanding. Not so the case leading up to 2018. People were like, “Why not just all women?” So it’s been an interesting evolution. But for me, it’s always just been the story I wanted to tell. Growing up in Missouri and then now living in Los Angeles in a majority-Asian and Latino neighborhood, the experiences of people around me and who I see is just not what is reflected back in any aspect of government, media, [or] business industry. That’s why I’m a filmmaker. It’s constantly been this constant correction of whose stories [we] are retelling. Everything that is important to me both personally and politically in this moment is wrapped up in this project and it feels very vital on many different levels.
Safinia: Another thing that occurs to me, having spent time around you and other organizers, is the way that you can keep going when [there is] so much against you. [But] you’re in community with a bunch of other people who have a similar vision for the world and so there are obstacles that are made more joyous and surmountable by being in a community of people who are all fighting a fight.
It’s very easy to be defeated by a system where you’re swimming against the current, but being together we sort of found this, like, swagger. And we walked with power because we could. It’s actually kind of an amazing process when you walk with people and say, ‘All right, that was powerful.’ Being able to bring your experience in the world into your work because the people that you’re working alongside totally share and understand is a great fortune and privilege.
Changa: After months of filming, I’m sure you had great footage of rich moments in organizing and storytelling. How was it tapping into and narrowing down the core storyline that you wanted to tell across the two nights?
Safinia: We had a really great editor, Juli Vizza, who we couldn’t have done this without. But I think that it was about being centered on our core tenets. So we were always centering race and gender and the power of women of color. So yes, we show the microaggressions and the bullshit, but also how we respond [to them]. I think about that moment when they came after Stacey [Abrams] for her taxes as a classic way to discredit this Black woman. And the way that she flipped back to take back the power was such a brilliant move and an authentic way to connect [with voters].
Lee: Being able to weave in all of these different stories, ages, [and] experiences that are a part of this New American Majority was really important to us to explore. It was really important to bring this multiracial multigenerational connection to the whole thing.
Safinia: I think another thing that was really clarifying, and it happened to us early in filming, [is that] candidates are interesting but campaigns not so much. So a real turn that we made was when we wanted to center organizers with the same power, and importance in the story, as a candidate. That was phenomenal because it opened up a whole new world of stories and people to us. And also we don’t see it enough. Most people don’t know what [organizing] looks like.
Lee: We always say these aren’t women who woke up after Trump got elected and suddenly decided they needed to get involved in something. They all were already active in their communities and this running for office is just an extension of what they were already doing. None of this stuff happens in a vacuum.
Changa: Can you talk a little more about the power of focusing on a collective of women of color, and women of color organizers, and how crucial that is for how we continue to tap into the organizer in all of us going forward?
Safinia: We often talk about this as an epic American political tale told exclusively from the point of view of women of color, which is not a story we’ve seen. We too are the New American Majority, so we couldn’t have told the story this way if it wasn’t us telling the story.
Changa: There’s something really significant from a cultural standpoint about this type of documentary centering voices in an authentic way and directly shifting conventional narratives.
Lee: I have a story. In 2013, I was assigned to work on a six-part series [focusing on] women in [different fields]. You know, women in Hollywood, women in the military, etc. It was kind of the typical historical documentary. And for women in politics, we had to interview the people that you’ve heard of, like Nancy Pelosi, and then people you haven’t heard of. My goal was trying to find the local state rep or local elected official and I found Rashida [Tlaib]. That’s how I first met her. And I only met Rashida because I had been working on this other documentary about Gracie Boggs in Detroit. So these people are like, ‘You need to meet Rashida.’ Rashida is the first time I actually met a politician that I thought, ‘Wow, this is somebody who I want to represent me.’ I remember thinking, ‘Here’s somebody I can relate to. She’s a daughter of immigrants. She’s from the Midwest like me. She’s like the mom of young children like me.’ And that’s what I wanted to focus on. But I couldn’t do it. It was like, just put her at the end and she’s like the next generation. So holding onto that, I wanted to see real, authentic people being themselves. It was very intentional to make them engaging because they are engaging, they’re real people.
Changa: I love it. So what are the main things that you want people to walk away with from watching the two episodes?
Safinia: The two ideas that we’re trying to kind of propagate are: There’s an organizer in all of us and we have to step into our power. We want people to become reengaged with living a civic life and to fully embrace the importance of living a civic life. Not because it’s good for you though, but because that is your power. I think this last month that we’ve been in and seeing the uprising in the power of the New American Majority, that is who we are seeing in the streets. It is a multiethnic, multiracial coalition. It is old folk and young folk. It is a community of us who believe in a different vision for what America should be. In the short term we want people to vote, and we want people to understand how to make sure they are able to vote. But what we really want is for people to breathe in and absorb this idea of their power and their agency.
Lee: I remember when we were following Rashida’s brother going door to door in that golf cart, and all those people were like, ‘Nobody ever comes to our door.’ We hear this all the time. Nobody comes to our door because they’re not putting money into these communities.
Safinia: This [documentary] opens the realm of what is possible. We’ve been told for so long what a politician looks like, and it looks like some dude in a suit. But now it doesn’t. Now it looks like Stacey, a woman with natural hair and a gap in her teeth. It looks like Rashida. It looks like Bushra with her hijab and full face of makeup. It looks like you. All of us have had that experience of not seeing people on our screens, who [represent] whole aspects of all the things we could be. People are going to feel seen, and they’re gonna just widen their field of what they think could be possible for their life.
Executive produced by Ava Duvernay, And She Could be Next is the first broadcast miniseries by PBS’s POV. The first episode airs on PBS’s POV program June 29 at 9PM ET. It can also be streamed online.