I was profoundly moved making MILWAUKEE 53206 like no project before. To witness how massive incarceration has completely ravished the entire Milwaukee ZIP code of 53206 is mindboggling. This past spring, a New York Times article attempted to uncover the enormity of the crisis by giving a glimpse with a staggering number: 1.5 million black men between the ages 25-54 are missing from daily life due to early death or incarceration. With so many black men gone the black family is devastatingly disrupted, once again perpetrating the cycle of poverty, disenfranchisement, young deaths and incarceration. We have lived with this for far too long; this is a tsunami that must end.
Research and reports offer institutional statistics but do nothing to humanize the people whose lives are affected. How many of us really know what 1.5 million missing black men actually look like? It lands a powerful punch, but carries little to no emotional connection to the issue. For me, the number was indigestible. This is why I was moved to make MILWAUKEE 53206.
For those who live, work or are born into communities like 53206, the number of black men – husbands and boyfriends, fathers and sons, brothers and nephews, uncles and grandfathers, classmates and friends – that are missing from their lives is astounding, especially when approximately 600,000 of these missing men are behind bars, nearly half serving time for nonviolent drug crimes.
MILWAUKEE 53206, an one hour documentary that follows stories in the ZIP code with the highest rates of incarceration in the nation, sets out to humanize community and families that live with the effects of this crisis every day. The documentary brings real life stories to those white paper statistics so that viewers can witness the emotional impact of how it feels when an imprisoned loved one is absent from the dinner table, or their daughter’s 20th birthday party or in raising two young boys who desperately need their father’s attention. The film gives audiences a lens into how the cycle of incarceration devastates the black family – too often generationally – and how those on the frontlines fight everyday to make change.
These intimate portraits, particularly of black families, are too often missing from the conversation about criminal justice reform. It is my hope that the stories of Beverly Walker, Dennis Walton and Chad Wilson offer insight and create a relatable path into the crisis of mass incarceration, so that audiences will seek deeper understanding of the issues, take action and lend their voice for change.
MILWAUKEE 53206 is not designed to be an investigative report. There simply is not enough time in one hour to tell a story of this magnitude. Because the crisis of massive incarceration is deeply rooted in our nation’s DNA, the subjects of segregation, racism, the War On Drugs, mental illness, addiction, policing practices, poverty, the school-to-prison pipeline, unemployment, childhood and adult trauma, rehabilitation in prison, the stigma of the felon and our fundamental values as a nation all have to be examined and addressed to tell a comprehensive story. MILWAUKEE 53206 is about why we currently have 1.5 million black American men missing from our communities.
The tireless work by grassroots organizations in Milwaukee – Project Return, WISDOM, Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, The Benedict Center, Table of Saints, Clean Slate Milwaukee, I Will Not Die Young Campaign and We Got This – are making tremendous strides. These unsung heroes champion every day for dramatic change and are saving lives and families. Their goal is to prevent those at risk from entering the criminal justice system and to curb the alarming statistics of incarceration. I witnessed their incredible work and remain deeply inspired.
My biggest hope is that this film motivates others to share their own stories about massive incarceration. We need to keep this issue at the forefront of our national dialogue. That is the only way we will see dramatic reform in our legislature, our courts, our prisons, our communities and families.
1.5 million missing black men is a true call to action. It challenges the very values we hold as a nation and as a people. It is the cry of 1.5 million mothers, a number that’s emotionally hardening millions of sons and daughters, and a number that destroys millions of families. 1.5 million missing black men is a battle cry for change.