Q & A | Black, deaf, and Jewish filmmaker Eli Steele is challenging how we view race
Eli Steele’s great-grandfather on his father’s side was born into American slavery. His grandmother on his mother’s side escaped the Nazis, then went back and rescued her entire family. His father is Shelby Steele, the famous Black conservative and author of “The Content of our Character,” a book that got him cancelled back in the 1990s.
So when Eli Steele, who is deaf in addition to being Black and Jewish, wanted to become a filmmaker, he was joining a long line of people who refused to accept what society told them about themselves.
Steele’s third film, “What Killed Michael Brown,” stars his father, who is now a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. In it, Steele and Steele go to Ferguson, Missouri, again and again, trying to figure out how an 18-year-old Black man ended up fatally shot by a white police officer, and why despite the fact that the Department of Justice concluded that Brown was shot in self-defense, a narrative prevails in which he was killed out of racism while his hands were in the air.
In trying to answer this question, father and son paint a damning portrait of American liberalism, in which “white guilt became Black power.” “Of course there was a catch,” Shelby Steele says in the film. “To milk white guilt, we had to always be the victims of white racism.”
It’s a scathing critique of liberalism that undermines the central claims of Critical Race Theory, an academic worldview that sees social and cultural dynamics in terms of power and race, and casts America as a perpetual white supremacy. “America’s original sin is not slavery,” Shelby Steele says in the film. “It is simply the use of race as a means to power.”
Amazon, which hosts Steele’s other films, initially de-platformed this one. In an Oct. 14 email, a representative informed Steele that “What Killed Michael Brown” did not meet the company’s “content quality expectations” and was “not eligible for publishing on the service.” Eight days later, the platform relented, saying the letter had been sent in error. The film has collected more than 400 five-star ratings in its first two weeks of streaming.
Eli Steele is 46 and lives in Los Angeles with his two children. He has cochlear implants and reads lips, and we talked over Zoom. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You have what might be called in some circles an intersectional identity. How would you respond to that?
I think it’s a false way to give me power.
How do you get from oppression to power?
Why are you putting labels on people? What purpose is that serving? When you feel the need to label somebody, you’re doing it for a reason. I was just reading today that they’re taking Cubans in Florida and moving them over to the white category. Who has the power to do that?
Or when they take Jews — like my mother, who was the daughter of Holocaust survivors — and move her into the white category, when she would scream and say, “No! Do you understand what my life was like?” When her parents who survived the Holocaust came to New York, there was antisemitism everywhere. Now all of a sudden, you’re white.
That tells you there’s a shift in the culture. And that shift had to do with power. If there was no power behind it, we wouldn’t do it.
The most cynical way of looking at it is they just brand you by the number of grievances you have. It’s a tragedy, in a way. Growing up, Black meant power — in a good way. We were oppressed people but we were overcoming. It was all about triumph! My uncles — not related, but my Black uncles — they were doctors, they were filmmakers… even the Holocaust survivors I grew up with had that aspiration. Now it’s different, it’s more about grievances, about victimization.
So who has the power to make that shift?
It’s the people behind “identity politics.” We forget we’re only 60 years away from the civil rights movement. My father had me when he was 28 years old. He did not eat in a restaurant until he was 20.
I remember my parents would drive to a fancy hotel in the Bay Area, where I grew up, and I never understood why. They would go to a hotel where Blacks and Jews had not been allowed to eat. So they were going to go where they couldn’t go, take advantage of that.
After the civil rights movement, America said, “Ok, we were wrong.” But what do you do? How do you fix it? How do you build back a society after segregation?
We used race.
My grandparents and my parents marched to get rid of the race box under segregation. And in the early 70s, they brought back the race box, in order to prove discrimination. It was very reasonable, but that good intention got corrupted, and so now we use these race boxes to achieve what we believe to be equity, where we have the same number of people as the number of races.
When do you first remember noticing the shift from power to grievance, and why do you think it happened?
I think when I was applying to college — affirmative action. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, surrounded by basically white trash. Rednecks. And now you want to give me affirmative action. Why? Not even for my deafness. My deafness didn’t even matter. It was a huge obstacle that I had overcome, and it was completely irrelevant. They wanted me to check that race box.
It exposed the corruption in a way: I was a replacement. They didn’t want to do the hard work of going into the poor neighborhoods and developing those children. They wanted me to replace those children. They wanted a stand in. One school offered a $25,000 Martin Luther King scholarship. Back in 1992, that was a lot of money. I turned that down because it was not the right thing to do.
Wow. I would not have had the morals or the guts to turn something like that down.
It’s difficult! I was tempted! You make jokes about it, “Take that money!” But once you do that, there’s a price you pay in a way. Psychologically. But also you become beholden to the party line. Once you make a bargain, you become beholden to that power. You’re no longer able to speak freely.
Can you explain what you mean by power?
There’s a difference between racism and oppression. Oppression is government sanction. Racism on an everyday level happens all the time. I’ve experienced racism. My father got called a n****r just walking down Monterey two years ago. Racism will never go away. But oppression is very different.
When there’s oppression, you cannot fight it. You have no recourse against it. When they told my father, “Maybe you should be a janitor,” they were being realistic. He was a bright guy — maybe he should be a janitor! He never thought in 10 years the world would flip and all those doors would open.
But this is where Critical Race Theory gets into trouble. Whether they understand it or not, they are picking up the very same tools that white supremacists use. Can you imagine Jews taking on the thought process of Nazis?
These people for some reason believe that using race is a way to make things more equitable. So they use these tools where they say, “We are not diverse enough, so therefore we are racist, so we need to get more Black people.” I have been in meetings and I said, “Well, I’m actually Black,” and they’re all, “Oh my God, we got one!”
They have no idea what they’re doing. They’re just so happy they can claim one.
I want to make very clear that the oppression we have today, while it’s getting worse, is not the level of oppression under segregation. But racially engineering things — that’s a tremendous amount of power.
In today’s society, it’s in the academic world, the corporate world. But you have to remember that you are reducing people to bodies. You’re reducing people to their names. You’re reducing people to their skin color. Why are we doing this to society?
And if you’re not part of it, you’re a racist. You’re not on the right side of morality. So I’m not on the right side of morality. In my lifetime I’ve gone from being called a n****r as a kid to being called a white supremacist. Just three weeks ago, I was called a pro-racist. I don’t even know what that means, a pro-racist.
There’s a line in the beginning of “What Killed Michael Brown” where your father says, “America’s original sin is not slavery. It’s the use of race for power.”
Absolutely. Why are we keeping the one-drop rule alive to this day? That’s why I don’t check the race box on the census.
I never check the “white” box. I check “Other” and write in Jewish. Although I do think that I have white privilege. The police are not going to pull me over, for example, or harass me. How do you respond to something like that? Or for example red-lining?
Red-lining, block-busting, all of that created a lot of problems. But the big missing piece is liberalism. What we show in the film is how when you take Black people, take away their equity and put them into housing projects — nobody can survive that.
So you’re not erasing the impact of red-lining and all these other things. You’re saying there’s a psychological component that’s been provided that underscores all of this?
Absolutely. When you factor in the government taking away your agency, you put them into a kind of a trap.
What’s interesting about it is that we’re further away from segregation and slavery than ever before. Racism on almost every metric is lower. However, Blacks and a lot of minorities are on the bottom of almost every socioeconomic measure. It might be racism. In some cases yes, maybe. But Critical Race Theory makes everything about race. That’s where the power-grab comes in.
I’ve faced a lot of discrimination. It’s not a perfect world. You will run up against idiots. You have to focus on your own power. I tell my daughter and my son, you have to develop yourself so you have all that power inside of yourself, so when someone comes and slams that door in your face, you have the resilience to move forward.
In eighth grade, I asked 15 girls to the eighth-grade dance. Every one of them said no. But I still went to that dance — and I danced with a lot of them! I didn’t give up! I didn’t cry. I went to that dance.
I know probably they didn’t want to be with the deaf guy. It was the late 80s, there was a whole stigma. Everybody wanted to be blond with blue eyes. They wanted to be surfers. But the point was, you’re not going to deny me my eighth-grade dance. So you should find your own way. Make your own position.
Do you feel that Critical Race Theory represents where the Black community is at in America?
No. The whole idea of white privilege is foreign. You never put your fate into the hands of white people. You never waited for white people to do something for you. You do it. That’s the lesson we lost. The idea that we have to wait for white people to change? “Good luck with that.”
I’m deaf. Since I’ve been doing the P.R. for this film, I had four interviews canceled because they found out that I’m deaf, and they didn’t want to take a chance on that. People might go, “Oh my God, that’s discrimination, that’s all of that.”
Well, it is, but I see it as an opportunity to say, “Hey, you shouldn’t have done that. I understand, but you should have given me that chance.” And then hopefully that makes them better.
That’s my role in life. I know that I’m the first person like me that a lot of people meet. And I can take a very negative view. I can say, that’s a microaggression, that’s discrimination. Or I can just take the more positive view, which gives me more power, which is, this is who I am. What you did was wrong. But next time, here are some possible solutions to overcome the language barrier or the communication barrier. That’s going to be my life.
We were multiracial children in a mostly white neighborhood. Whether we realized it or not, we were integrating that neighborhood. We were teaching the other white children. We get emails to this day: “I’m so glad I knew you, because I had racist parents. And I would talk to you.” That’s the progress I believe in. It’s more humane.
Another thing that seems to come up in today’s race discourse is a kind of weirdness when it comes to Jews. Have you experienced that?
I hate to use this word, but it’s almost sociopathic. We’re in an age where you look past someone’s humanity to their literal color, where you’re ignoring the humanity — that’s why I call it sociopathic. Why are you doing that? Why are you ignoring that? Why do we have the need to put Jews into the white box?
If the race box was making our society better, I would be all for it. But it’s just not. Race is the most absurd thing. When you take race as your power, you’re going to have to deal with the most ridiculous things.
Think about white supremacists. My Black elders as a kid would talk about how they felt sorry for white people. And I’d be like, “Why would you feel sorry for white people? Under segregation, they had all the power. They had all the wealth. Why would you feel sorry for them?”
It took me a long time to understand that what they were saying was, these white people have allowed themselves to believe in their whiteness. They’ve allowed themselves to believe in the power that comes from race. That makes them smaller people.
Black people before the Black Power movement did not think of themselves as Black. They saw themselves as their humanity. So they were more humane than their oppressors. That’s a lesson I’ve always taken.
When you reduce Jews to white people, you’re putting them in the same box as Germans. Why do you have a system that does that? Why are you walking around with all the power?
It’s very scary talking to you because the stakes of being convinced by these arguments are incredibly high. It essentially means you can no longer be in the mainstream of American intellectual life.
I come from a family where we don’t follow. But don’t you want a complete picture of the whole situation? Don’t you want to understand that the history is more complex? Or do you just want to cherry pick what fits your narrative?
You know, when that thing happened with Amazon, I was just shocked. The film quotes actual witnesses — it’s not me! And I’m canceled. There’s a profound lack of introspection on the part of people who believe in white supremacy.
How did you decide to make a film about Michael Brown?
It was 2017, and I had just finished “How Jack Became Black” and was looking for a new subject. And Michael Brown was definitely the one.
I always wanted to do something with my father. I was with him in 2014 and we started hearing the narrative coming out. And it was like, “My God, how horrible, he just shot him, and they left him for four and a half hours.” And all of a sudden, a few weeks later we started hearing, “On no, no, the shots were in the front.”
So what was really interesting for us was the response of America. Why did America need to believe in this other version? Why was everything else completely swept aside?
The civil rights movement was about protesting racism. But in Ferguson, whether they knew it or not, they were keeping racism alive. They kept saying it was racism. But the protesters already had the evidence that showed that wasn’t the case. They already had it. But they chose not to listen to it.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward. Her email is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @bungarsargon.