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Hettie Barnhill’s, “a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle,” will be shown at the Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. The experimental feature is a commentary on the injustices faced by Black people in this country. BY DERIK HOLTMANN
A conversation with Hettie Barnhill is like watching an intense, addictive TV show that you don’t want to end. Her vibrant energy is delightful, especially when talking about subjects she cares about. But she likely wouldn’t have trouble discussing a new Starbucks flavor with the same vigor as she would when talking about her family. She can make anything sound interesting. So it makes sense that she’s a choreographer— her mind’s constant movement mimics that of a dancer’s. Barnhill, who grew up in East St. Louis, seamlessly weaves her dance skills with filmmaking and her firm dedication for uplifting the narratives of Black people.
“I’m a dancer first, and that opened doors for me in choreography and directing, so the more I became in the position of being able to create work, a couple of things remain,” Barnhill, 38, said. “Movement was always the base, and I’ve always wanted to talk about things that had a social commentary and things that I deemed important and interesting and that was just stories and truth and people’s stories and Black lives.” Her new film, “a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle,” is the manifestation of that feat. The documentary is one of 63 films that will be shown during this month’s Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. The showcase, hosted by Cinema St. Louis, highlights directors who have strong ties to the city.
Originally conceived as a live production in 2019, Barnhill’s documentary (co-created by her husband, Robert Gertler) is an experimental feature that blends dance, text, spoken word and other art forms that is a commentary on the injustices faced by Black people in this country. LOVE LETTER TO BLM Barnhill said the concept for the film came about seven years ago after the death of Michael Brown. In 2014, an officer fatally shot Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, prompting protests in St. Louis and beyond. Barnhill, who now lives in Albany, New York, was living in New York City performing in Broadway productions at the time. “I was worried about my mother at the time because she was staying in St. Louis, and I went home,” Barnhill said. “When I came to St. Louis, we were involved in the protests, and we documented. I got back to New York City and had this footage of protests and it kind of stayed with me.”