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Local Filmmakers Explore Oregon's Racially Exclusive History In 'Whitelandia'

OPB | May 14, 2014 midnight | Updated: May 14, 2014 11:10 a.m.

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The Lewis and Clark expedition and the journey along the Oregon Trail are often seen as key moments in Oregon’s history and journey to statehood. But interwoven with these well-known stories are complicated and complex threads of racism and discrimination which sew together Oregon’s past and present. Today a Portland filmmaking team aims to explore these issues in a new documentary project currently in production.

“There are a lot of things about Oregon and its history which are problematic, and I don’t think most Oregonians are even aware of them,” says Portland filmmaker Tracy MacDonald, co-producer and co-director, along with filmmaker and husband Matt Zodrow, of the film Whitelandia.

Tracy MacDonald, co-director/producer of Whitelandia

Tracy MacDonald, co-director/producer of Whitelandia

Ariane Kunze / OPB

In their film, MacDonald and Zodrow specifically set out to examine the exclusionary laws and language that discriminated against many ethnic minorities and that has contributed to Oregon’s current social and economic landscape.

According to census data, the state of Oregon is home to just under 4 million Oregonians. Of those 4 million, nearly 3.5 million (88.3 percent) are white and just under 2 percent are black. By comparison, national demographic data places the percentage of white Americans at 77.9 percent and black Americans at 13.1 percent.

Why is it that Oregon is so far above the national average when it comes to its population of white citizens? What are the factors that contribute to the state’s homogeneity? MacDonald and Zodrow plan to explore possible answers to these and other questions in their film.

Matt Zodrow, co-director/producer of Whitelandia

Matt Zodrow, co-director/producer of Whitelandia

Ariane Kunze / OPB

Whitelandia is the story of black Americans in the state of Oregon through the lens of the state’s sanctioned discrimination of the black American communities, starting with the exclusionary language in the 1857 constitution,” explains Zodrow.

The duo has chosen to explore discrimination against African-Americans in particular because they feel that their presence in Portland has been more directly affected by the laws.

“It’s easier to see the impact that comes from a specific set of policies and actions,” says Zodrow.

MacDonald and Zodrow, who are both white, have been Oregonians since the early 80s. They have teamed on the production of several award-winning television and feature documentaries through their company, Uncola Films.

“We live in Northeast Portland. We see what is happening to the [African-American] community,” explains MacDonald, referring to a section of Portland which is rapidly losing its black population to gentrification.

The two filmmakers say they are fully prepared to ask difficult questions, even if it means implicating themselves and their actions.

A postcard from the Coon Chicken Inn, a chain of restaurants founded by Maxon Graham and Adelaide Bert in 1925 that remained in business until the 1950s. The chain consisted of three restaurants: one in Salt Lake City, UT, another outside of Seattle, WA and this one on Sandy Blvd in N.E. Portland.

A postcard from the Coon Chicken Inn, a chain of restaurants founded by Maxon Graham and Adelaide Bert in 1925 that remained in business until the 1950s. The chain consisted of three restaurants: one in Salt Lake City, UT, another outside of Seattle, WA and this one on Sandy Blvd in N.E. Portland.

Courtesy: Uncola Films

“We’ve witnessed firsthand the continued disenfranchisement of black Americans in this city. And we’re sort of, unwittingly, a part of that gentrification process,” says MacDonald. “There’s that piece of it for us in terms of personal history as filmmakers. That’s why it speaks to me.”

MacDonald has also been inspired by Intisar Abioto, a local photographer who chronicles the existence of African-Americans in Portland on her Black Portlanders blog.

“Her work really spoke to me and called attention to the resilience of the black community,” says MacDonald.

The two filmmakers are working with artists like Abioto to help shape the narrative and construction of the film, and have also reached out to the African-American community to ensure that the film accurately represents the facts and feelings of the story.

“We also have an advisory board for the film, comprised of community members and community residents, who are playing a crucial role in this process. We can’t do this alone,” Zodrow says.

Zodrow and MacDonald also see the importance of including the voices of white Oregonians in the film, saying that they are a part of the story that includes the state’s history of white supremacy.

A Ku Klux Klan march in Ashland, OR in 1920

A Ku Klux Klan march in Ashland, OR in 1920

Courtesy: Uncola Films

Zodrow explains that “there will be a variety of white voices in the film. Obviously. From ex-governors to average citizens. We’ll be talking to ex-skinheads and people within the white power movement that is now re-emerging,”

Zodrow says that the white-supremacist ideology ran so deeply in the state’s population, that ideas and perspectives are likely to linger just below the surface of today’s Oregon.

“One thing that was pointed out to us as we’ve been doing research is that, if you say you are from Oregon — that your family is from Oregon, and say there was a very strong chance that your family was affiliated in some way with the Ku Klux Klan.”

Zodrow went on to explain that at its height, Klan membership among Oregonians reached 25 percent.

“It’s a statement that needs to be explored and presents questions that need to be answered.”

MacDonald and Zodrow recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of Whitelandia. The film is slated for release in 2015.

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