Q&A: Bavand Karim on Hate Crimes in the Heartland

by Shelby Grebbin / Beacon Staff • February 18, 2016

Hate Crimes in the Heartland, a historical documentary released in 2014, depicts two hate crimes in Tulsa, Oklahoma—the 1921 race riots and the 2012 Good Friday shootings—and their impact on American society. Bavand Karim, an assistant professor in the visual and media arts department, was the cinematographer, associate producer, and co-writer of the award-winning project. This month, the movie was added to Netflix. 

Last week, the Beacon sat down with Karim to discuss the message behind Hate Crimes in the Heartland


Berkeley Beacon: How are the two hate crimes depicted in the documentary a reflection of race relations in the United States today?


Bavand Karim: The crimes were very different themselves, but it’s more about the connection between the two events. Nowadays when you turn on the news or open your laptop in the morning, it’s no longer your local news on your screen—it’s more like America’s front page. More often than not, the story that is on America’s front page involves racial violence. We wanted to look at these events that are currently taking place as reflection of what has taken place in the past. We found that there is a connection between the past in Tulsa that nobody speaks about. 


BB:  What went into the process of putting the project together?


BK: The process of making the documentary really started with our awareness of the events that occurred in Tulsa, the 2012 Good Friday shootings. They provoked my co-producer Rachel and I to explore the issue a little more because we are very interested in social justice and civil rights. We did a little more research and found out more about the Race Riots in 1921 and the fact that they weren’t in history books. Then we went to Tulsa and we started talking to people and kind of investigating the racial atmosphere there. Simultaneously, a lot of other things in our country began to happen—with the violence surrounding Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and a lot of other white on black crimes. When we released our movie there was kind of this snowball effect with the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement and we were caught in that avalanche. It has not been the movie itself but the events that have continued to be at the forefront of our country that have allowed the documentary to remain relevant. 

BB: Why is this topic important to you?


BK: I come from a bi-cultural background. I grew up playing basketball and was exposed to a lot of different people who came together under the umbrella of basketball. I’d ask my black friends what they thought my race was and they would say that I was white, because I can pass for white. I would ask my white friends and they would say that I was Iranian, or a person of color, or the “other.” I have always been interested in what creates the perspective of race in America and that has been a focal point of my work. 


BB: How do you think the recent addition of the documentary to Netflix reflects the importance of the issues depicted in Hate Crimes in the Heartland


BK: I think the fact that Netflix recently picked up the documentary really speaks to what is important in America right now. People don’t always consume the media that’s the most important, instead we consume a lot of sports and pop culture and things that are not necessarily meaningful. However, I’ve found that social justice films are on the rise, as is the funding for social justice films.


BB: Why do you think it’s important for students at Emerson to see this documentary? 


BK: It’s really easy to become complacent when you live in a wonderful city like Boston and are a part of a community that emphasizes diversity and inclusion like Emerson does. On the news it’s no longer just the story of what’s outside our doors but a much broader picture. I think to a certain degree college students lead a sheltered life that is buffered from the outside world. It’s important to examine these issues and all of the ways they challenge us.


BB: What will you be working on next?


BK: Right now I am in pre-production for my next documentary, which will be an analysis of race in the media, with a specific focus on stereotypes of African-Americans across a spectrum of visual culture, including movies, television, video games, music, and fashion. I am putting together a short proof of concept to raise funds for a feature-length project.