Edythe Boone and the Intersection of Art and Community

In A New Color, Mo Morris chronicles how the Berkeley artist and activist transforms lives.


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Art work by Berkeley artist-activist Edythe Boone

Photo courtesy of A New Color

You’d have to watch a lot of documentaries before you encounter a directorial debut as confident and dynamic as Marlene “Mo” Morris’ A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone.

Currently riding a national wave of festival and community screenings after its October premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, A New Color is more kinetic and less rarified than your standard artist profile. Instead of a chronological, by-the-numbers portrait, the filmmaker accompanied the tireless Berkeley painter, teacher, and activist on her East Bay rounds. From a West Oakland middle school to a Richmond senior center, Boone demystified the creative process by imparting techniques and encouraging unselfconscious participation.

Then current events tragically intervened.

When Boone’s nephew, Eric Garner, died in the custody of police officers on the streets of New York in 2014, Morris faced a tough decision.

“I felt that it was essential to include it because Edy was directly impacted,” Morris said. “It was a challenging decision to go back and rework the film to include those events, because the film had already been edited. Edy was not eager to deal with it on camera, or have it be part of the film. That was not her first choice.”

The septuagenarian artist was all about moving forward. Yet the first-time filmmaker wasn’t a kid figuring it out on the fly, but an adult who swapped careers to get behind the camera.

Ultimately, A New Color came to represent a collaboration of sorts between two strong women.

“Like many things, it had to be a dialogue between us, and a give and take, because that’s the kind of filmmaker I am,” Morris said. “There’s a traditional idea that a documentarian is completely objective and observational and has no interaction with the subject as to the way the story’s told; the director has total control. I did not subscribe to that approach.”

Morris had practiced law before segueing to mediation. Then, after she had her second child, she started taking filmmaking classes at Berkeley City College.

“I like different perspectives and vantage points on the same problem, or process,” she said. “Looking back, I can see the thread: working with people and telling their stories and helping them understand each other through story. As an immigration attorney, I was an advocate. I helped them make the case for improving their life. I facilitated a process where the other [person] could understand them. As a filmmaker, I’m kind of the observer, and I’m helping people tell their story as best they can, staying out of the way. But I don’t know that I saw any of that at the time.”

Boone is no mere purveyor of arts and crafts as a benign diversion or activity. She made a decision long ago to combine art, social commentary, and activism. A New Color begins with the 2012 restoration of the MaestraPeace mural on the Women’s Building in San Francisco’s Mission district, and Boone revisiting the public artwork she created with six other artists in 1994.

The artist sees artmaking as the intersection of personal expression and public interest. Whether it’s a mural with an environmental health theme created by children, or a large-scale painting by adults infused with black history, Boone emanates the attitude that art is a reflection of a community.

A New Color underscores that Boone’s art and philosophy derive directly from her experiences. The film ultimately suggests that it’s essentially impossible for a black female American artist, particularly one who came of age in Brooklyn and Harlem in the 1940s and ’50s, to be unaffected by what she witnessed every day.

“Certainly no one could have anticipated the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Morris said. “The conditions that gave rise to it have been well-documented, that black people contend with these issues of police violence and community violence disproportionately. But that was not my focus going into the film.”

Plainly, Morris’s instincts served her well.

“Edy has an extraordinary life story to celebrate,” she said. “As a humanist and as an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. I see her as a person whose story helps us to reflect on our lives.”

To find or schedule a screening of A New Color, or to support its community outreach, visit www.ANewColorDocumentary.com. It will screen at the Oakland International Film Festival at 5 p.m. April 6 at Holy Names University theater in Oakland.

 

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