About a quarter of the way into A New Color, muralist and community activist Edythe Boone is brainstorming with West Oakland middle schoolers about which personal heroes to include in their mural. One student suggests Rosa Parks. Another, Cesar Chavez. Then, a 12-year-old girl suggests adding her mom.
“I love that. Why your mom?” Boone, 78, asks, as the girl explains. “Maybe we can put your mom in the mural. Bring her picture.”
If you live in Berkeley and you haven’t met Boone yet, you’ve definitely seen her work. Splashed across walls all over the Bay Area, her murals often include beloved community members alongside public figures and icons. Her work includes “Music on Our Minds,” on Ellis Street in Berkeley and the “Those We Love, We Remember” AIDS mural in San Francisco’s Balmy Alley. She was also one of the original seven artists of the “MaestraPeace” mural on the Women’s Building in the Mission District.
Directed by filmmaker Marlene “Mo” Morris, A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone follows Boone’s lifelong work as an artist who uses the power of community-led art to advocate for social and racial equality. Long before the Black Lives Matter movement forced police brutality into the national spotlight, Boone has guided people in creating murals that tackle issues of racism, poverty, and violence against young people of color. And though the beginnings of the BLM movement unfold in the backdrop of the film, it hits Boone and her family on a personal level when she learns that her nephew, Eric Garner, has been killed by police on Staten Island.
Since the film premiered in 2015, it has been shown across the country from Boston to Chicago to Sarasota, Florida. Now, it’s coming home to Berkeley, and will be screened on Aug. 4 as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. A Q&A with Morris, Boone, and Berkeley Councilmember Max Anderson will follow the screening and aim to focus on local solutions to some of the issues presented in the film.
“Edy walks the talk and paints the art,” said Morris, a former immigration lawyer, of what drew her to filming Boone.
In addition to leading the creation of murals, for nearly 40 years Boone has been an arts educator, teaching hundreds of kids at several Berkeley and Oakland schools. She taught Morris’ daughters, which is how they first met in 2001. Nine years later, when the city of Berkeley recognized July 13 as Edythe Boone Day, Morris asked if she could make a film about her life.
Much of the film follows the ups-and-downs of West Oakland middle schoolers painting their mural while, at the same time, coping with the shooting of a 13-year-old classmate which paralyzed him. But Morris also weaves together footage of seniors creating their own Richmond Library mural, a good dose of East Bay history, and deeply personal interviews with Boone.
The first time Boone got involved with political art was in East Harlem, where she organized with public housing tenants to paint murals after she felt the housing conditions were deteriorating. As she describes in the film, she left New York and moved to Berkeley in 1978, in part for its historically progressive values.
What drew her to visit Berkeley for the first time, though, was seeing a news segment about Joseph Charles, who stood on the corner of Ashby and Martin Luther King for 30 years, telling passerby to, “Have a Good Day!” (Affectionately known as Mr. Charles by residents, he is also immortalized in a mural called “South Berkeley Shines” on Ashby Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, painted by local artists and community groups in 2003.)
Since moving to Berkeley, Boone has painted numerous murals and has shown her personal artwork in galleries. But her commitment to social justice extends far beyond the realm of her art. In the film, and in person, she’s open to talking about her own personal experiences facing discrimination and prejudice, and how she helps young people tell their own stories through art.
Morris and her production team had already shot and edited the film when police killed Garner, whose last words, “I Can’t Breathe,” spurred nationwide protests against police brutality. But Morris felt his death was essential to include.
“We felt it would be a crime not to include it, since it affected Edy so deeply, and this whole story was about her journey through life, fighting for justice,” Morris said.
And though Boone said Garner’s death and aftermath is painful for her to watch, and a difficult decision to include in the film, she said she focused on how her story could make an impact.
“The process for me was looking ahead — what would this do for others?” Boone said. “Not for African-American people, we knew this could happen — we’ve been experiencing this. But how can I help bring about change?”
Morris and Boone are now using the film itself as a vehicle to discuss inequality and racial justice. In addition the Aug. 4 Q&A honing in on community solutions, Morris is also continuing to grow partnerships with several community groups including the African American Art and Culture Complex, Showing Up for Racial Justice and the Equal Justice Society to screen film to more audiences and empower people to do more.
“What bothers me is that people are not enraged enough,” Boone said. “Every time our sons go out into the world we always tell them, ‘Be careful. Watch out.’”
Though Boone has committed her entire life to social justice and art, she said ongoing violence against African-American people, including her nephew, has angered her even more so in recent years. But her advice for young artists who, in a time of political turmoil, want to focus their work on social justice?
“Do your research, and do it thoroughly,” she said. “Be humble, listen well. Reach out to people you wouldn’t think to — beyond your own family and community. And put the truth on the wall.”
‘A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone’ will be screened as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with Edythe Boone, director Marlene “Mo” Morris, Berkeley Councilman Max Anderson, and Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, who will together address police brutality. The screening is scheduled for 1:50 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4, at the Berkeley Repertory’s Roda Theatre.
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