When asked about the impetus behind her documentary “The Fight for Black Lives,” Micere Keels lamented the limited power of statistics, saying, “We’ve known these numbers for a hundred years, but numbers don’t prompt action [or] policy … It’s the story that translates.”

This idea of story-telling as activism drives “The Fight for Black Lives,” which premiered at the 39th Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Feb. 11 and 13. The project centers on health disparities faced by Black Americans, underscoring the experiences of Black mothers and newborns.

During a post-screening Q&A with the film’s producers and other contributors, Keels explained that “The Fight for Black Lives” is her attempt to merge academia and film. As a professor at the University of Chicago, Keels is incredibly well-versed in the language of data and research. However, she emphasized that her goal is not to present the audience with new information but rather to express tired facts through a new narrative form. 

Keels explained the value that lies in connecting these two seemingly discordant forms of communication, stating, “One thing that I will say for any filmmakers out here is [to] partner with us, researchers in academia. We have a lot of information, [but] we’re not trained how to tell and share that information in a way that engages people.”

And she has done just that. Far from being flattened by academic jargon and an abundance of statistics, “The Fight for Black Lives” is an emotionally-charged piece of art that masterfully elicits strong feelings of outrage, grief, empathy and, of course, hope. 

The inclusion of personal anecdotes, which are woven throughout the film, is especially powerful in communicating the sheer range of inhumane healthcare mistreatment that is endured by Black women. One woman is forced to undergo an excruciating 48 hours of labor before any doctor orders a C-section. Another must beg for her partner to be allowed to stay in the delivery room while she is giving birth. Yet another is dismissed by various doctors and nurses as she describes pain and spotting, ultimately losing the baby because nobody had deemed the situation to be serious.

Their words provoke an almost visceral response amongst viewers and, countless times, the room audibly gasped at the testimonies. 

The intensity of these stories is heightened by the graphic art that overlays the narration. Keels noted during the Q&A that the inclusion of graphic art was a conscious decision, an effort to further imbue the stories with feeling. While simple, the illustrations convey horror and isolation: a barren exam room, a faceless doctor and a gleaming syringe. 

It is terrifying, even for the viewers, who are removed from the scene. 

Beyond chronicling personal experiences, “The Fight for Black Lives” offers a damning critique of the systemic problems that fail Black Americans and Black women more specifically. The documentary shines a spotlight on the discriminatory nature of health insurance in the U.S., the shortage of Black physicians, the ubiquity of stereotypes that fuel cruelty and neglect, amongst other injustices that plague the very structure of American society.

Despite tackling a number of topics, “The Fight for Black Lives” constantly reminds viewers that not much has changed when it comes to racial disparity. The film repeatedly draws parallels between “then,” when racism was more blatant, and now. Presenting information this way suggests that, although exactly how people are oppressed has evolved, the bare bones of inequality has been preserved.

For example, “The Fight for Black Lives” makes use of quotes to demonstrate that shifting language has disguised the prevalence of racial discrimination. The documentary presents numerous quotes from the slavery and Jim Crow eras but with a few words changed. And by just swapping out a handful of words, the quote can be applied with eerie accuracy to the modern day. Perhaps the most notable was a sign from decades ago that read “Waiting room for whites only.” The quote is then slightly modified to read “Waiting room for insured only,” an editing choice that both captures the nonsensical unfairness of healthcare coverage in the U.S. and the racial connotations of that inequality.

By making this bold claim — that our country has not progressed nearly as far as we would like to believe that it has — the film segues to conclusion: a massive call to action. Black women are encouraged to share their stories, just like those women featured in the film, and we are expected to amplify their voices. Valuable services are publicized such as midwives and doulas; these are professionals who guide and champion women while pregnant, during labor and even after childbirth. We are all urged to speak up when we notice injustice and to demand change. Everybody must assume the role of an advocate, no matter what form that takes.

This lighter conclusion was important to Keels, who made it a point to balance heaviness and hope. Keels said during the Q&A that she wanted to avoid “Black trauma porn,” or the tendency for the media to hyperfixate on the violence faced by Black people. She argued that this trope is destructive, as it normalizes that violence which is one of the first steps in the dehumanization of Black people.

“Unfortunately, we are in a space where we see Black death all too frequently, which then makes it seem like a matter-of-fact aspect of life and is part of the dehumanization [process]. We wanted to ensure that nobody walks away from this [documentary] thinking, ‘that’s just how it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.’”

Keels preferred to end on a note of power. She closed the Q&A by asserting that​​ “The Fight for Black Lives” is “mournful but not sorrowful. It is a tragedy, but we are not weeping. We are not broken.” This quote is the cherry on top of an enormously profound and rousing project, one that is sure to send shockwaves through American audiences. According to the “The Fight for Black Lives” website, which includes the trailer and other information, the documentary is still in post-production. “The Fight for Black Lives” will be screened at more film festivals during the next few months and hopefully will be wrapped and available to the public soon.