- What is Liberty?
That's quite a question.
That I suppose almost nobody really asks themselves that question.
Well, I can always quote the Declaration.
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.
And the moment I do that, I'm in trouble again, because, Obviously I'm not included in that, in that pronouncement, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
(sighs) What is Liberty?
- That's the great writer, James Baldwin speaking to me for one of my earliest films, which I made on the Statue of Liberty.
That question, "What is liberty?"
was my very first question for him.
And that interview, which we did in a classroom at Hampshire College.
Was one of the most memorable conversations, I've ever been a part of.
It taught me an indelible lesson.
Our monuments, even those as revered as the Statue of Liberty.
Are representations of myth, not fact.
And as we consider what role monuments play in our culture, it's the history, not the mythology that we must remember.
(upbeat music) The Statue of Liberty was hand-built by French laborers in Paris.
Italian immigrants built the pedestal in New York.
And ordinary people, French and American, donated money to complete the construction.
The colossal figure was to be the tallest structure in the Western hemisphere.
The vision of one stubborn Frenchman, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi.
Inspired by the recent abolition of slavery, in the United States.
And fearful of the tyrannical rule of Napoleon III in France.
The idea was to create an enormous work of art to celebrate democracy and use America as an example, to restore liberty in France.
On July 4th, 1884 after nearly a decade of work, the completed statue was finally presented to the minister of the United States.
That same year in New Orleans, Louisiana, a large crowd gathered in Tivoli Circle on George Washington's birthday, to dedicate a new statue, a 60-foot marble column, in the center of the city, with a 16-foot tall bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
During the 10 years in which the Statue of Liberty was constructed.
20 Confederate monuments were erected across the United States in places as large as New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina.
As small as towns like Quitman, GA, and Marianna, FL.
And since then, hundreds more have been built.
The most recent in 2015.
These monuments were efforts to reimpose white supremacy and rewrite history.
They are racism memorialized in our public spaces.
When we look at the Statue of Liberty and think about the ideals it's meant to represent, we cannot forget the larger context in the country at the time.
The Jim Crow era in the South, was just beginning.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, a piece of legislation explicitly barring any Chinese laborers from entering the country, was in full swing.
And more than half the American population couldn't vote.
And all of this leads back to my interview with James Baldwin.
Just as the interview was ending, Baldwin took a long, thoughtful pause, looked back up into the camera and said this.
- Liberty is, the individual passion or will to be free.
But this passion, this will is always, contradicted by the necessities of the state everywhere.
For as long as we've heard of mankind, as long as we've heard of states.
I don't know if it'll be like that forever.
It, for a Black American, for Black inhabitant of this country, the Statue of Liberty is simply a very bitter joke.
Meaning nothing to us.
- Earlier in the film, many people explain how to them the Statue of Liberty is a beacon of hope, a reflection of our highest American ideals.
And yet here, Baldwin's words form a searing counterbalance, that even our most venerated monuments, represent a mythology.
While we may hope the Statue represents our highest aspirations, for what America can and should be.
It can also be a reminder of where and how far we fall short.