Marco Williams' Bone-Deep Sense of Fairness

ArticleBryan GiemzaComment

A prolific filmmaker who teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Marco Williams has produced or directed more than a dozen documentaries. His fictional work has screened on Showtime, and Williams received a primetime Emmy Award for Freedom Summer (2006), his chapter of the PBS series Ten Days that Unexpectedly Changed America. His films have garnered many awards, including prizes from the Miami International and Full Frame Documentary Film Festivals. Two Towns of Jasper (2003) helped bring national attention to the murder of James Byrd, Jr., and it brought Williams to Nightline and The Oprah Winfrey Show. He is a regular on film festival juries, including at Sundance, and his work has brought the story of race in America to screens around the globe. But it’s his latest documentary film, The Undocumented, which aired on PBS in May, that makes him this month’s Ultimate Latin Lover. 

From under long dreadlocks, Marco Williams speaks with the quiet but carefully chosen words of a seasoned interviewer and teacher. In his deliberateness—even in the way that he seems carefully contained within his stature—is a focused energy for speaking truth. In the latest chapter of a career devoted to pursuing justice, Williams has chosen to train that energy on U.S. border policy and its human cost. 

“The Sonoran desert is beautiful after the rainy season. All the cacti bloom. It’s lush green. There are yellows and purples.” Williams recalls time spent along the U.S. Mexico border, behind a camera. “Then I realize I am out with a border patrol agent, looking to apprehend someone who is undocumented.” This is ground zero of American immigration policy, and a territory Williams enters willingly. Screened nationally on PBS and to recent acclaim at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, The Undocumented offers an unflinching account of the hundreds of undocumented migrants who die annually in the Arizona desert crossing into the United States. Williams interviewed people caught up in the messy actualities of immigration policy on all sides: coroners; government officials; border patrol agents; citizen groups; family members; and, of course, the migrants themselves.

The civil rights dimensions of the immigration debacle speak to the arc of Williams’s documentary work and his own family history. During the Great Migration, when over six million African Americans fled the southern states, his grandmother and three of her sisters moved from Georgia to Philadelphia, where they subsisted on day work, piece work and housekeeping. “Something I retain a great pride in,” says Williams, “is that these four sisters lived together, ultimately raising families in this one house, and effectively purchased a home together over the years.” Williams was born in Philadelphia, but raised in New York, in a Lower East Side neighborhood Williams recalls as “multiracial and multiethnic,” with a heavy Puerto Rican presence. “From the earliest age I wanted to learn Spanish,” he remembers, “because that kind of infiltrated my daily life. So I think that, if there was some kind of proclivity or desire to be sensitive to the Latino culture, that’s probably where it started.” 

As work on The Undocumented unfolded, analogies between the African American and Latino experience emerged. “Moving from one place to another, working to be assimilated, how do you fit in. The lightbulb went off,” Williams observed, “and I realized that Latino immigration in this regard is not unlike the Great Migration.” For viewers of the film, this analogy is crystallized in the moment when a migrant without papers is run to the ground in the desert and handcuffed. “There was a familiarity,” Williams admits. “In some sense, I might be able to say to someone, Look, while I don’t know your experience explicitly of crossing the US-Mexico border, I do have some sensibility about migrating from one place to another and trying to integrate or make a life in a different place.”

Williams held his ground and insisted that the film faithfully document images of the dead, and eventually broadcasters relented. In his experience, “People will say it is at times difficult to watch, but they don’t think of it as being gratuitous. They understand the decision and feel it’s critical. If I were to obscure their faces, and if I were not to present the dead how they are”—here he broke off and continued with channeled intensity—“how else is an audience to have the empathy, the deeper insight and understanding, recognition that these are human beings, and how else can I as a filmmaker say, I refuse for these people to be anonymous?”

Williams points to the marked change in American attitudes toward the Vietnam war, once the press started releasing images of body bags coming home. His decision to film the unclaimed bodies of the undocumented may cost him a place at some film festivals, but Williams takes it as an article of faith that, “It’s not the artist’s responsibility to censor him or herself. I tell my students, Don’t censor yourself. Let other people censor you.”

One of the most poignant stories in The Undocumented was unanticipated: the case study of Marcos Hernandez, a Mexican migrant in search of his father, who vanished crossing into the U.S. Here again, Williams acknowledges an art-to-life connection. An earlier documentary, In Search of Our Fathers, chronicled Williams’s seven-year search for his own father, whom he never met. “Often enough,” Williams admits, “for a documentary filmmaker, the people who get transformed are not the people in the film.” 

Asked about his relationship with the Latino community, Williams speaks about continuing to be a bridge-builder, “an emissary across a black-brown border.” Even while making The Undocumented, which had him filming human remains returned to a Mexican village, for instance, even in the midst of wrenching circumstances, Williams forged connections. “Every Mexican I met gave to me. They gave to me at the high point of grief. They gave to a total stranger. Clearly they had their own personal motivations, but nonetheless it was very generous. I was taken in by families, food was made. You know, things that are, just, transcendent. Great gifts of humanity.” It is an experience that will resonate with many who have crossed the Mexican frontier. 

Photo by J.R. Sheetz.