It’s time for the Capital City Black Film Festival, showing a yearly crop of intriguing selections that otherwise might not be seen in the Austin film mecca. The festival shrinks a blind spot covering movies that get real about Black cultures.
Chief among those in 2016 is Walk with Me, a documentary about a Detroit judge who’s decided major civil rights cases. His colleagues once included Martin Luther King, Jr.; Jesse Jackson; John F. Kennedy; and Rosa Parks. At age 94 and still hearing cases for the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Damon J. Keith is a national treasure at the intersection of our past and present.
The film will show during Capital City on Saturday, Aug. 27 at 9 a.m.
Judge Keith attended the documentary’s world premiere last month at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival in Detroit, where both public showings sold out.
“We had an audience many of whom had no idea who Judge Keith was, but were interested enough by the blurb in the festival book to come and see the film,” says Director Jesse Nesser.
The Judge also attended Walk with Me’s private screening for the U.S. Judicial Committee in Washington, D.C. President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland, attended both the screening and a reception that followed.
Judge Keith was born in segregated Detroit on the Fourth of July in 1922. He worked as a janitor at the Detroit Free-Press while studying for the Michigan bar exam. A longtime friend of the Judge is Mitch Albom, who writes for the newspaper and wrote the bestselling inspirational book Tuesdays with Morrie.
Albom is Walk with Me’s executive producer. At a joint launch for both his latest book and for Judge Keith’s autobiography, Albom introduced the Judge to Nesser, who helped promote Albom’s book.
Nesser previously directed The Ranch for Kids, featuring parents whose children adopted from overseas have severe mental and behavior problems, as well as Tanzania which documents local children who changed the lives of Americans who traveled to work with them. “The subjects that I research a lot about and think a lot about and plan to do aren’t the ones that I end up doing,” says Nesser. “The subjects choose me.”
Within two minutes of their introduction, Judge Keith’s humility, charisma, and animated facial expressions convinced Nesser that he’d met his next film subject.
“The Judge drew five cases in his first five years that would make any lawyer’s career. We tried to make this movie accessible to a general audience. We tried to make it not too law-heavy, as any one of these cases could be a documentary,” says Nesser, adding that the Judge’s decisions in these early cases impact current national discussions about race.
According to the film’s promotions, Judge Keith’s guiding principles shaped what would become historic rulings about segregation, workers’ rights, access to education, public housing and urban renewal, and issues of privacy, including wire-tapping.