Artist Edythe Boone struggled for many years as a single mother in East Harlem, New York, before finding her calling: painting political murals to transform communities, and then teaching thousands of people to find within themselves the creativity to transform their own worlds.
“You can’t change your beginnings, but you sure can put a nice beautiful ending on the story,” Boone, 78, told an audience at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where a documentary about her life screened on July 29 at the Castro Theatre.
The Berkeley resident known for her iconic murals — the MaestraPeace mural on the Women’s Building in San Francisco, the “We Remember” AIDS mural in Balmy Alley, the “Music on Our Minds” mural made with underserved teens in Berkeley, among others — is still painting.
Boone’s style of community activism was highlighted at “Take Action Day,” a festival event that focused on social justice by showing six documentaries followed by panel discussions with the filmmakers, other experts and audience members. The intent of the daylong program, according to festival director Lexi Leban, was to move audiences “out of our seats and into the streets,” in the spirit of the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or healing the world.
“A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone” is the first film by Berkeley director Marlene “Mo” Morris, a former immigration lawyer who met Boone years ago when the artist taught Morris’ daughters. Boone, an African American who was born to a teenage mother and raised until age 7 by a Jewish foster family in New York, came to art by way of activism when she used mural painting to bring together the residents of the public housing project where she lived in the early 1970s. The documentary portrays her growth as an artist.
One thing everyone can do, Boone told the Castro audience, is to “make an effort to meet a person of another culture and befriend them.”
“I feel so inspired by the clarity, focus and purpose in your work that I’m moved to tears,” one audience member told the artist in the discussion after the screening. “To witness you gives me so much inspiration …You saw a problem and brought people together to find a solution. I know now that I will, too.”
Allison Elgart, legal director of the Oakland-based Equal Justice Society who joined Boone and Morris on the panel, pointed to a growing awareness within organizations working on social issues that there needs to be more “grand alliance work.”
“We can’t be silos. Everyone is affected by what’s happening to everyone else,” Elgart said.
“Intersectionality,” or the interconnected nature of critical social issues, was a concept raised again and again at “Take Action Day,” whether the films focused on race, class or gender issues.
“The Arc of Justice,” by Bay Area filmmakers Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman, traces the story of an African American community in Georgia that built, then lost, the nation’s first community land trust, before finally winning the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history.
Communities of color are often the hardest hit by economic injustices, which serve to further entrench social bias, Cohen said. One reason he and Cohen made this film, Lipman said, “is to support the work of the community land trust movement and all efforts to create affordable housing.” The community partner for this world premiere was the Oakland Land Trust.
The day’s centerpiece panel followed “The Freedom to Marry,” a rousing account of attorney Evan Wolfson’s 30-year advocacy for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Though the film documents a story with a well-known positive outcome, it serves as a roadmap for related struggles and legal activism on other fronts, director Eddie Rosenstein said.
Ruth McFarlane of the National Center for Gay and Lesbian Rights and Andrea Shorter from the workplace equality organization Out and Equal were on the post-film panel discussing the future of the LGBTQ movement after last year’s Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.
“Marriage was a threshold we had to cross, the first hurdle we had to clear,” McFarlane said. “Once that was done, we saw in the clearing a lot of people with other issues, such as athletes wanting to compete or use whatever bathroom they felt comfortable using; old folks seeking to age with dignity; children needing access to quality food and education. Economic justice now rises very much to the fore as we deal with issues of poverty, race and equality.”
In response to a question by moderator Susan Stern about where advocates in the different movements should focus their efforts going forward, Shorter declared:
“We need to get everyone to vote in November for candidates who are working on issues of inclusion for LGBTQ people. And we need to continue building a sense of community. There is a lot of fear and anxiety right now that none of us would like to see tear our society apart. We may have to deal more with issues of poverty and racial justice and seek all the cross-sections and intersections of opportunities to work together.”
She added: “And I can’t imagine any civil rights or social struggle without Jewish people involved.”
The other films screened were “Class Divide,” an HBO documentary directed by Mark Levin; “Audrie and Daisy,” about sexual assault and shaming in American high schools, by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk; and the Netflix-produced “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” by Tracy Droz Tragos.
Audience members were provided with handouts compiled by the filmmakers and local activists with details about the organizations working on different issues and ways people can get involved. That information is on the festival website at sfjff36.jfi.org/attend/press.