Our Climate, My Legacy - urbanworld

My father, Stacy Spikes, founded the Urbanworld Film Festival 25 years ago; it’s nearly twice as old as I am. 

Since then, ‘The Filmmaker’s Festival,’ or ‘People’s Festival,’ as it’s widely acclaimed as, has grown to be the largest multicultural festival in the US, and an Academy/BAFTA Award qualifying festival. 

I’ve always appreciated my father’s vision for the festival – and what the festival became: a home of love and support for filmmakers and talent of color. Urbanworld prioritizes films by, and/or, that feature, people of color (POC) in its casting or storyline. With Urbanworld’s story and mission in mind, the idea of a new environmentally-focused film category came to mind. Back in May of 2021, I raised the idea of creating this timely category, especially to mark the festival’s 25th year: the start of new beginnings and better heights! He said “yes,” agreeing that it could be done and that I would/could have the privilege of developing this special category – from start to finish. And I got to work.

The idea of an environmental film category didn’t just pop into my head one day… No, it’s been a long time coming. My family is vegetarian, and nearly all plant-based. I was raised to be conscientious of where my food came from (innocent animals who were abused and mistreated) and to appreciate everything from the food on my plate, the shelter over my head to the education I had and the democracy I lived in. As I grew older, my comprehension of environmental issues that I’d been exposed to since an early age, expanded. I watched marine biologist Sylvia Earl’s film Mission Blue, where I first learned about the impact of unsustainable fishing, climate change, and pollution on our marine life. This film was a wake-up call prompting me to focus even more on similarly themed issues. As time went on, films, particularly documentaries, were my gateway to comprehending the ever-expanding issues under the categories of “climate change” and “nature.”

My father has always spoken of film as a medium inspiring social change; that is, after all, why he started Urbanworld to begin with – to give POC filmmakers and stories a voice and platform. So simurally, I believed that environmental and climate-focused stories deserved to be told just as much as any others. After all, the climate crisis is considered by many to be humanity’s greatest challenge. 

Since the start of the industrial revolution in 1880, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (from human-related activities, like burning coal, oil, and gas for energy) have been on an exponential upward trend, warming the planet by 1.1˚C or 40˚F. That’s a lot. We already see the follow consequences:

  1. Fossil fuel air pollution is the 4th leading cause of death, globally killing an estimated 7 million people annually
  2. Climate change is behind 37% of heat-related deaths
  3. The U.S. health costs of Climate (premature death, health complications, etc.) exceed $820 billion annually)
  4. The UN found that globally 1+ billion children (half of all children) live in areas at “extremely high risk” of climate impact.
  5. The situation is so urgent that President Biden recently opened the Federal Office of Climate Change and Health Equity 

Just this August, the IPCC (a special climate-focused United Nations agency) released a harrowing report – a “code red for humanity.” It warned that some consequences of climate change are already irreversible, but – and it’s an important caveat – there is still a short window to prevent worst-case catastrophic scenarios, only if we steeply cut our dependency on fossil fuels.  Climate change is a “threat multiplier.” It takes existing issues, like health inequality, racial injustice, food scarcity and exacerbates the,

As with most issues, BIPOC communities are hit hardest – this is what really makes me mad when it comes to climate & environmental injustice. Climate is not only a huge wealth and power disparity (JUST 100 companies are responsible for 70% of ALL global emissions, while the poorest 50% – over 3.5 billion people – are responsible for just 10%), it’s also one of the largest racial injustices. 

68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. POC in the US are also exposed to up to 63% more pollution than they produce – while White Americans are exposed to 17% less. BIPOC communities are more likely to have pollution-linked chronic illnesses and underlying conditions. That’s partly why, among other factors, African-Americans made up 34% of COVID-19 deaths, despite being just 12% of the US population. Due to historical redlining, POC is also more likely to live near polluting facilities that harm their health on a daily basis and spews the emissions fueling the climate crisis. Just look at Louisiana’s “Cancer Ally” or NY’s South Bronx “Asthmah Ally” for prime examples. 

That’s why this film category is so important. 

To build this category, I first solicited short and long films, animation and documentary, that had the climate & environmental messages I wanted to showcase. Then, from the 14 films I solicited, I chose 3 that I think were the strongest and most relevant to screen in the festival. I chose the following films: Youth V Gov; On The Fenceline: A Fight for Clean Air ; Once Upon A Time in Venezuela

While all very different in subject, and location, each film has a valuable message. Youth V. Gov communicates youth power and the influence law can have; On The Fenceline: shows the historical injustices that have shadowed communities of color – but it is also a portrait of resiliency and grassroots movements; Once Upon A Time in Venezuela vividly captures the impacts of pollution, political unrest and power imbalances – a message for us all. Each film is unique, yet the combined messages of each are needed at this moment. 

Seeing the recent impacts of Hurricane Ida on the hardest-hit minority communities in Louisiana and the storm’s remnants unleashing catastrophic and unprecedented damage on my home state of NY and NJ, it’s a harrowing reminder of how serious the consequences of climate change are – and will become with each day. 

Another major reason I was motivated to start this category was the lack of climate representation in popular film and general discussion. Most climate-oriented films tend to be documentaries. While this is all well and good, and this year Urbanworld’s Environmental category features only documentaries, they aren’t everyone’s favorite genre. In fact, documentaries are ranked #7 in favorite movie genres among US adults and minorities. The top 4 favorite genres are Comedy, Adventure, Action, and Drama, and specifically, African Americans prefer Action films over other categories. So what if climate films weren’t just reduced to the Documentary category but were featured in every category? Climate-messaged films would reach a much wider audience this way and morph into popular culture. Now that’s how we inspire discussion!

In addition, those majority-documentary climate films tend to lean into “doom-and-gloom” or very science-oriented messages. But, again, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea! Also, many of these films fail to capture the human-side – the human stories – of climate impact, particularly when it comes to minority communities. If climate-themed films spanned multiple categories, particularly the U.S.’s top 4 favorite genres, they would surely be more widely accepted and reflect more diverse pictures of “our changing climate.” We need as many, specifically as many diverse perspectives, as possible when it comes to climate storytelling.

While this is only the first year of Urbanworld’s Environmental Social Impact category, I hope it will grow.  I want people to see that we need storytelling mediums – especially film – if we ever hope to achieve lasting climate justice. We don’t see enough BIPOC storytellers sounding the alarms on climate change – or sharing their communities’ vital historical perspectives regarding humanity’s relationship to nature, our use of natural resources, or respect for our environment. And we nee their perspectives! Artist Toni Cabe Bambara once said that “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” This is so true. 

With climate, the role of a filmmaker – or an artist – is to make a case for climate action (for human rights, human health, indigenous sovereignty, and children’s futures’) irresistible. I truly believe that with the full power of creatives and culture brought to bear, there is no way we won’t achieve climate justice! 

This Environmental festival category is my small but meaningful contribution to the world and my call for this “revolution” is another step to further the legacy my father started.

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