Charlottesville resident and UVa student Zyahna Bryant was featured along with Civil Rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis in a documentary called “Truth Tellers,” as it made its Virginia premiere Sunday as part of the Virginia Film Festival.
“Truth Tellers” is a documentary following the work of Robert Shetterly, a Maine-based artist, and his portrait series “Americans Who Tell The Truth.” Shetterly’s series honors over 250 American activists, including Bryant, who as a teenager petitioned City Council to remove the city’s Confederate statues. Bryant, now a student at the University of Virginia, was featured prominently in the film.
Shetterly’s series features portraits of activists, or as he calls them, “the truth tellers.” His work highlights leaders and pioneers of a wide range of social justice movements, including climate change, racial equity and Native American justice. The subjects span a full range of ages and includes living activists as well as those who have passed on. Each portrait is accompanied by a quote from the subject. Subjects range from well-known figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis to younger, rising leaders like climate activist Kelsey Juliana and civil rights activist Bree Newsome Bass.
In the film, Shetterly walks and talks with Bryant in Market Street Park, where the statue of Robert E. Lee was still standing at the time of filming. The film included video footage of the Lee statue being removed in July, 2021, as well as footage of the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017.
Shetterly asked Bryant about the quote he used for her portrait: “In the spring of 2016, I did something that scared me, but something that I knew needed to be done. I wrote the petition, a letter to the editor and city council, calling for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue and the renaming of the park, formerly known as Robert E. Lee Park. I was 15.”
“It was scary because I didn’t realize how big an issue this was … I didn’t know this was going to become a national conversation,” Bryant said. “It’s really a conversation about agency and who has the power to tell our story.”
The film also follows the unveiling of Bryant’s portrait at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in the city in 2020. A collection of Shetterly’s portraits were displayed at the Jefferson School, Monticello and other venues throughout Charlottesville in early 2020, but some exhibits were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shetterly’s portrait of Bryant was featured on display in the lobby of the Paramount Theater before and after the screening.
Andrea Douglas of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center moderated a discussion featuring Shetterly and director Richard Kane following the film.
Shetterly spoke about his passion for uplifting the stories of inspiring activists while acknowledging their human flaws.
“Every one of these people, I’m sure there are lots of things I don’t know about all their lives … they’re all human beings like I am and you are, and they have flaws. And that’s the really good news, you know, that we can all be flawed human beings and still stand up for things, still inspire people to action,” he said.
Douglas asked what the truth means to Shetterly in his work. Shetterly often presents his work at schools, and said he looks to tell stories that will appeal to and inspire people of all ages.
Shetterly referenced the ongoing nationwide debates over critical race theory in schools, and how it is important to broadcast the true history of America and the people who fought for equal rights and justice. He said this is one of the goals of his work, along with broadcasting the consequences of the climate crisis.
“What [people] are talking about is ‘it’s un-American to teach the real history of this country, you know, who paid the price for this, who did the work, who was exploited, what environments are exploited.’ And there are lots of lies and the perpetuation of the lies goes on and on,” Shetterly said.
“For every one of these lies, there are millions of victims … and we ignore those truths now at our own peril … And now it’s existential. These are truths. There’s no doubt that if we keep on living the way we’re living, human life will become unsustainable on this planet. That’s the truth And I don’t think there’s a way to think about that except to face it and then realize our responsibility in the face,” he said.
The entirety of Shetterly’s series of portraits, along with information about each subject, is available on his website www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/portrait-galleries. More information about the film is available at www.truthtellersfilm.com.