The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid Black Lives Matter protests, D.C. filmmakers seek to up heat on the Redskins

Washington Redskins helmets. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

As issues of racial injustice dominate the news, several D.C. cultural figures are teaming for a new project they hope will put pressure on the Washington Redskins to finally change their name.

The nonfiction filmmaker Aviva Kempner and Ben West, whose father, Richard West, is the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, are co-directing “Imagining the Indian,” a new documentary that casts a critical eye on Native American sports iconography with a particular focus on the Redskins.

Their goal is to kick-start a movement that has stalled in recent years but will, they hope, gain new momentum in the wake of the surge in Black Lives Matter activism.

“We think we’re finally ready for this change,” said Kempner, the D.C.-based filmmaker known for “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” about anti-Semitism faced by the Jewish baseball star, said in an interview.

The pair are currently working on the film and have a 17-minute compressed version they will soon begin showing activists, as well as a trailer. (The trailer can be seen here.)

The full movie should be finished by 2021, Kempner said.

It’s been 20 years since Daniel Snyder bought the Redskins. Here’s a season-by-season look.

Dozens of activist groups and civil rights leaders have for years called on the Redskins to drop their name, which they say demeans Native Americans. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has declined to make the change.

Supporters of the name say it has its own currency and isn’t meant as a slur; they point to a 2017 Washington Post poll in which the majority of Native American respondents said the club’s name did not offend them. A team spokesman did not reply to a request for comment on the film.

The project was conceived and is being produced by longtime sports journalist Kevin Blackistone and Sam Bardley, producer of the ESPN 30 for 30 film “Without Bias.”

“The goal here is an either-or — we want to make a direct appeal to ownership but we also want to appeal to the public to bring pressure to bear on the team,” Blackistone said. “I think it’s a message the public is a lot more ready to hear now.” (Blackistone is a contributor to The Washington Post, among other outlets; this project is not affiliated with The Post.)

The movie is being funded by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a federally recognized tribe in Yolo County, Calif. West said he hopes to involve other tribes as well. No distributor has yet been chosen.

The trailer shows Native Americans describing feeling marginalized, while experts and elected officials describe the harmful role sports stereotypes play in this phenomenon. Among the figures filmmakers interviewed are the activist Suzan Shown Harjo, National Museum of the American Indian director Kevin Gover and many members of Congress, including Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic delegate from the District.

West, who lives in Los Angeles but grew up a Redskins fan in the District, says the film could serve a key educational role.

“Plenty of people out there are sympathetic to changing the name,” he said. “But we want to go beyond and show why the name is offensive — to talk about how in the 19th-century [during westward expansion] the government put advertisements in newspapers offering a ‘bounty for a redskin sent to purgatory.’ I don’t know if everyone in the general public knows that.”

Coronavirus has been devastating to the Navajo Nation

The filmmaking team also hopes to call attention to larger abuses, including alleged neglect that has led to the Navajo Nation and other Native American communities being ravaged by the coronavirus. “I think they’re connected,” West said. “When you see Native Americans as stereotypes, you don’t see them as human beings with problems that need to be addressed.

Kempner said she thinks Snyder could be induced to change for business reasons. The owner faces hurdles building a stadium in the District because several members of the D.C. Council and some members of Congress object to the name.

Where will Redskins build new stadium? Early signs point to current FedEx site.

The filmmakers have some traction on Capitol Hill, too: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) weighed in on the issue this week. After the Redskins’ official Twitter page tweeted a black box in honor of Blackout Tuesday, the freshman congresswoman replied to The Post with a call to action.

“Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. Her post received more than 700,000 likes.

“Imagining the Indian” comes on the backs of several recent documentaries that forced companies and organizations to reform their ways. The 2017 Netflix film “Icarus,” about allegations of Russian doping, prompted international athletic institutions to conduct investigations and sanction Russian athletes, while the 2013 SeaWorld expose “Blackfish” caused the company to lose millions of dollars and led to the passage of legislation aimed at stopping its practices.

Still, some experts remain unconvinced of any imminent change, pointing to how previous developments such as former president Barack Obama’s criticism and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceling the team’s trademark registration didn’t result in a new name.

“I can see maybe the pressure becoming a little bit greater in this moment but I’m still skeptical,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “Daniel Snyder and the Redskins franchise have withstood legal challenges and social pressure for a long time."

Kempner, for her part, said she saw the issue as larger than just one name, part of a widespread pattern of Western behavior.

“It’s not a coincidence that all of us working on this film are minorities with genocide or slavery in our pasts,” said Kempner, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “It’s all connected.”