Oregon as ‘Whitelandia’
Film examines the state’s racial dealings past and present
Donovan M. Smith | 2/12/2014, 11:03 a.m.
Oregon’s history with race relations even leading up to present-day dealings would perhaps be best described in a word as tumultuous; but two local filmmakers have created a whole other term for it, “Whitelandia.”
Seasoned filmmakers Matt Zodrow and Tracy MacDonald of Portland recently set out to capture the layered, unique, and often unattractive relationship black Americans have had in Oregon since the state’s inception.
Though Zodrow said he was familiar with some of the state’s back story around being a hotbed for Ku Klux Klan membership, racist redlining laws, and the more recent talking point of gentrification, he says neither he nor MacDonald had been clued into how deep these roots ran until they began pre-production for Whitelandia.
“We knew what we were getting into as a couple of white people telling the story,” Zodrow says, “We wanted to make it clear that we had the technical skills and know-how to put a film together, [but] it wouldn’t be our voice.”
To help ensure the story is truly being given authentic voicing from the community, Zodrow and MacDonald have linked with the Oregon Association for Black Affairs as the film’s official advisory board. The partnership with the social justice group, whose leader Dr. Cal Henry, first suggested to the two filmmakers that the documentary be made, ensures that all research, interviews, and content gets the okay from OABA members.
They’ve also partnered with the Oregon Black History Museum in Salem as reference checkers, along with local activist, artist, author, and teacher of Black Studies at Portland State University, Walidah Imarisha as an individual advisor.
As part of the documentation for the movie, Imarisha is interviewed about Oregon’s black history, along with such other community stalwarts such as Will Bennett of GroundWork Portland, and photographer Intisar Abioto, whose blog “The Black Portlanders” documents black life in the metropolitan area.
The NW Film Center has also partnered with Whitelandia as a non-profit organization, ensuring all grants and loans to the film are tax deductible, but yielding no say in the creative process, Zodrow says.
As the Whitelandia documentary moves into full production soon, the filmmakers are hoping they will be able to answer a key question in the film: Did Oregon’s founders successfully create a “white homeland?” If so, what does this mean for the nearly two percent of blacks that inhabit the state today?
One focal point of the film is Vanport City, the first and largest housing project in the nation for war workers. This construction was responsible for the biggest influx of blacks (and poor whites) to the state in its history, more specifically the Portland area as many came in search of shipyard jobs during World War II.
“The film really takes a turn there,” Zodrow says, “We kind of consider that the jumping off point for contemporary black history in Oregon.
Vanport, infamously flooded in May, 1948 destroying that project, and leaving its residents, many of them black, without a place to live in a city that did not want them inside its borders.
Some of the subjects interviewed for the film are the sons and daughters of those who survived the flood, as many of the original Vanport residents have since passed on.
“Those families are really important to us, the ones that are here, still here in the [Albina] neighborhood,” Zodrow says, as he and his partners continue to search for possible interviewees of that era.
As the filmmakers piece together their scenes for the documentary, Zodrow is becoming more sure that the answer to the question of whether the state has indeed become a “white homeland” is yes, and has the even more sobering revelation that it has “always been state funded”.
“They’re getting very close to that, and it’s always been state funded, and always state sanctioned from day one and continues to be today. So it’s a hard story to tell, but we’re trying for sure,” Zodrow says.
To contact the filmmakers with possible research for Whitelandia or to appear in the film, contact Matt Zodrow at Mzodrow@uncolafilms.com . Also be sure to “like” the film on Facebook for continued information on its progressions.
--Donovan M. Smith