‘More Than Past Due’: Erika Alexander on Reparations and ‘The Big Payback’

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a Black woman smiles at a film festival red carpet against a white backdrop
Erika Alexander attends 'The Big Payback' premiere during the 2022 Tribeca Festival at Village East Cinema in New York City.  (John Lamparski/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival)

California may be the first state to study reparations for Black people, but at the municipal level, Evanston, Ill., leads the country. In 2019, the city became the first in the United States to approve a program to redress the harms of segregation and housing discrimination endured by Black people since emancipation.

Evanston’s $10 million package, funded through a tax on recreational cannabis sales, will be dispersed for reparations initiatives over the span of 10 years to residents who qualify. In January of this year, 16 recipients, who were selected through a lottery, received $25,000 housing grants.

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Evanston’s success and the ongoing fight for reparations in Congress both get a closer look in The Big Payback, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Festival earlier this year; it debuts on PBS/KQED 9 on Jan. 19, 2023. It’s co-directed by filmmaker Whitney Dow and actor and activist Erika Alexander, best known for bringing the beloved character Maxine Shaw (Attorney at Law!) to life on the ’90s sitcom Living Single.

KQED talked with Alexander about the film, her activism and how her character Maxine Shaw inspired many Black women to pursue law and politics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KQED: What sparked the idea for The Big Payback?

Erika Alexander: I’ve been doing work within advocacy and activism for quite a while. I was Hillary Clinton’s most traveled surrogate for 2007 and 2016. I met Ben Arnon, who was a Barack Obama delegate, in 2008, and we started a company called Color Farm Media. Our goal was to represent underestimated, marginalized voices.

Our first film was the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble. After that, we wanted to do something about reparations. Whitney Dow — my white, male co-director — and I started at the Congressional reparations hearing in 2019, with Sheila Jackson Lee [and the bill] HR 40. While we were filming, we got a message from our producer, Zane Parker, who told us about Evanston and Robin Rue Simmons, the woman who passed the first tax-funded reparations bill in America. So we went to Evanston, and decided to change our entire P.O.V.

What stood out to you about Robin Rue Simmons, who was a local alderwoman at the time you filmed her?

She’s an amazing young woman who I don’t think really knew much about the reparations arena, but she had been inspired by a trip that she took to Africa. And so she proposed the idea of a reparations bill. And one of her councilwomen said, well, there’s a new tax on cannabis — and that gave them the necessary ammunition and the actual funding.

They passed it with a mostly white council. From there was the tough job of how to implement it, and to whom, and she hadn’t really thought of those things. But I think because she didn’t know much about it, and she just knew she had the energy and they had these new funds, they got it done. She’s pretty phenomenal. She was just determined.

a scene from a film shows a Black man and a Black woman discussing legislation at a table
Former Evanston, Ill. Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons in ‘The Big Payback.’ (Courtesy of Color Farm Media)

The vice chair of California’s Task Force, longtime civil rights leader Amos Brown, has spoken about three “A’s” — admitting the problems of the past; atoning for them with reparations; and then acting in a unified way that ensures the plans get carried out. Especially at the federal level, it seems like we’re still working on the first step.

When I started this journey, I mistook the reparations movement for a personal admission and an apology, or payment toward the moral debt, toward me as an African American and my fellow African Americans. But now I’m convinced because of the work, and I’ve been educated by experts on the issue, that that’s a very limited point of view. This debt resides within the fabric of America. So racism, all the residual evils that reside within the DNA — redlining, terrorism, all sorts of horrible, ugly things — are not an individual obligation to pay. It is for the government to admit, apologize and then make reparations.

So however we’re talking about this, we all need to educate ourselves, because it’s going to be a lengthy process if we don’t come to the point where this is not about charity — as a woman so wonderfully puts it in the movie — it’s about justice. We are owed. We are more than past due.

What roadblocks did Rue Simmons and her allies have to navigate?

The biggest roadblock is money. Funding. The other big roadblock is the natural pushback that people feel — that “this is in the past and we shouldn’t have to address it,” or “they should have addressed it back then.” And they tried with the First Reconstruction. But we know that after Abraham Lincoln died, and Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 was rescinded and we got Andrew Johnson, that Black people had no more power and they were pushed out of the power they had. And then it was just decades of them really suffering a different type of slavery and being unyolked from the system.

To ask people who had no power “Why didn’t they get [reparations] then?” is absurd. But there were people who did [fight for reparations]. Callie House and Queen Mother Moore and all sorts of figures came in. Marcus Garvey trying to get reparations and restitutions and repairs. It’s a long history.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas is also a key figure in the documentary. Can you talk about her work on a federal level?

She took up a bill, HR 40, that was introduced into Congress by John Conyers from Detroit, simply trying to study reparations. [If the resolution had passed] they would have had the power to go into all sorts of institutions, backlogs and libraries and see the case for reparations. And they did not get that through at all.

In 2020, she made progress, but then it stalled again, because she didn’t have the votes to move it forward. Now, an executive decision from Biden could bypass all of that. And we were all hoping that would happen. But because reparations is such a controversial subject … there’s a lot of people who would have to own up to [the history]. There’s been a lot of pushback.

So that’s what she’s been doing, and that’s what she’ll continue to do, and hopefully get the political will. Mostly, this president should sign an executive decision to get on to what’s right. Because I really believe that unless we do that, America is doomed. I think it’s doomed by its moral debt and also the karmic death wish of not paying restitution in repair to its most oppressed citizens.

a press conference on Capitol Hill; a Black man stands next to a Black woman speaking at a podium
Rep. Danny K. Davis listens as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee speaks at a press conference on HR 40, which would create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans, on Nov. 16, 2021. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Rue Simmons was an alderwoman, a local government official, at the time you filmed her. Can you talk about the significance of her holding local office during that fight?

They say everything is about “the local weather.” And it’s true. You’re always looking at the national political willpower or what’s on the [national] ballot because it’s sexy. But everything happens at a local level first. And we’re starting to understand that, if you look at the race in Georgia with Stacey Abrams and [Brian] Kemp, and with [Raphael] Warnock and Herschel Walker, they’re seeing how very directly they’ll either progress or regress, depending on what they choose.

One of the things I’ll never forget [is] Hillary Clinton warning that they would turn back Roe v. Wade. And at the time, I thought ‘That’s a little bit too much, don’t you think?’ But everything she said was right. They did turn back Roe v. Wade. So here we are locally trying to, state by state, protect women’s right to choose. And people can now see that nothing is sacrosanct. I think that we’re all getting a really good lesson about participating in local elections.

You played a fictional alderwoman and attorney as Maxine Shaw in the ’90s hit Living Single — my favorite show of all time. And that character has been influential to real-life political figures: Stacey Abrams, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and the state attorney in Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, have all said they were inspired by that character. Were you also inspired by getting to play a local official?

You know what’s funny? There are no alderwomen in Brooklyn [where Living Single took place]! Only Chicago and other places. I didn’t know that then. And I don’t think Yvette Lee Bowser, who created the show, did either. I did like doing that. And [that character] was definitely somebody who was bold.

But I’m more inspired by people like you, and Ayanna Pressley, Stacey Abrams, and some of the really fantastic young Black women I meet that are so sure of their mission and their commitment to life. I got a chance to campaign with [activist and media strategist] Jehmu Greene, who taught me all that I know about local politics and how to speak to people. I got a chance to campaign with Sheila Jackson Lee and with Ayanna and Stacey and John Lewis. And each time I do, I learn something. I’m like a sponge. I’m meant to be a mimic and then go and put it somewhere else.

I was just watching a movie I did when I was 19, called Common Ground, about the Boston bussing. It was as horrible and stressful to look at as anything you might see down South — I think they wanted to make the point that the South wasn’t the only place that pushed back [on integration]. I remember getting so sick and stressed on set and breaking out, not being able to stand for long periods. And I didn’t think then that it was the role or the subject. But now I’ve been realizing that I’ve been doing my work inside of racial and social justice issues for my entire career.

I look at The Long Walk Home. There I was, Selma, getting on the bus. I learned from each one of these people. But it’s also because of the people I worked with previously, [like] Phylicia Rashad. I worked with the great Cicely Tyson, Lorraine Toussaint, Gloria Foster. They were killers, and they taught me how to be — not only to be a woman, but to be a strong person. That’s what you see in these roles.

a white man and a Black woman smile in a portrait on a staircase
Color Farm Media co-founders Ben Arnon and Erika Alexander. (Courtesy of Color Farm Media)

Now you’ve added director to your roles. Can you share more about your goals with Color Farm Media?

We call ourselves “the Motown of film, television and tech.” We want to create collaborative projects with talented people. And it’s been a tough road. No one wants to fund a media company, let alone one that’s focused on so-called “marginalized groups.” But we believe that we are in the avant-garde. So I’m going to do more of that.

I want to do not only shows that look like The Woman King and Black Panther, but also more documentaries and tech-forward platforms, anything that can mix it up and create a global conversation about what it is to be human. I am fueled by storytelling. I can’t stop thinking about stories. And everywhere I go, I see and hear and talk about stories.

I think about how I was discovered when I was 14, in a Merchant Ivory film, to play a foster child in a group home. I think about the story of my life, where I was raised by two orphans and got a chance to go from the mountains of Arizona to Philadelphia, to get a chance to audition and get my Screen Actors Guild card and become part of the union, and go around the world with Royal Shakespeare Theater. All these things I got to do because somebody thought that this face and this person would be good at storytelling. So I still do those things. And I guess that’s my ticket to ride nowadays.

Erika Alexander, Whitney Dow and Robin Rue Simmons appear in a live public panel discussion at KQED hosted by Ariana Proehl on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. ‘The Big Payback’ airs Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, on KQED Channel 9 at 10 p.m. 

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