Until a couple of years ago, Jordan Rome saw herself only in front of the camera, not behind it. The actor, a 2014 DePaul University graduate originally from metro Detroit, is part of the local theater and film scene. She was always interested in social justice and women's issues. But a couple of years ago, when stories about police brutality started to take over the news, Rome felt she needed to do more to challenge the systems of power and authority that afflict black and brown communities.
Her new video series, 365 Ways to Kill an American, is an effort to bring attention to what she calls "this very American issue." She hopes the series will not only generate outrage and empathy among white people but also inspire them to consider how they can help dismantle the socially constructed systems that oppress people of color.
"A lot of what inspired me is this overarching theme of oneness," says Rome, who's black. "At the end of the day, we are all human beings, but we can't connect on that level unless we come to terms with these lower vibrational energetic forces, which [are] white supremacy, patriarchy, and these socially constructed norms that put people in boxes." People can't truly connect, she believes, until they're willing to address the historical and cultural forces that keep them apart.
365 Ways to Kill An American is a series of reenactments of infamous recent police brutality cases. The first video focuses on Sandra Bland, a black woman who was pulled over for a traffic violation on July 10, 2015, in Prairie View, Texas, near Houston. After she refused to put out her cigarette, the police officer, Brian Encinia, a Latino, told her she was under arrest and physically forced her from her car. Bland was found dead in her cell in the Waller County Jail three days later; an autopsy determined she had committed suicide. Her family was later awarded $1.9 million in a wrongful death suit.
The video is a verbatim reenactment of the arrest except that Rome cast a white actress as Bland and a black actor as Encinia. She wanted to give the scene a new perspective so that nonblack people could better empathize. "It's a certain feeling when you are constantly watching people who look like you, your mother, your best friend getting killed in cold blood on the street and nothing is being done with it," she says.
The project is a work in progress, with no set number of videos yet. Rome released the Bland video on April 15 on Vimeo, and a second video is in postproduction. It's about the 2016 killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, but told from the perspective of the little girl who was in the car when Castile was shot by a cop while reaching for his driver's license. A third, about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot by a security officer in Sanford, Florida, in 2012, is still being developed.
The nonprofit video production company Soft Cage Films came on board to produce the series after its cinematographer, Spence Warren, who's on the company's board, brought it to the attention of cofounder David Holcombe. Holcombe started the Soft Cage ten years ago to produce experimental, socially relevant films. So 365 Ways to Kill an American was a perfect pairing. Mainstream media coverage, he says, fails to address how police brutality shapes the worldview and development of the victims' families, friends, and communities. He wants to help rectify this. "That's where film comes in and can really explore these psychologies and how one event can have all of these ancillary effects that ripple through a community," Holcombe says.
Cassandra Snyder, the actress who plays Bland, applauds Rome's vision and willingness to create a space of discomfort and anger in which to discuss police brutality. She remembers acting out the altercation with actor Djvon Simpson, who played Encinia as intense, both physically and emotionally. She had bruises the next day.
"It's gut-wrenching to think that we were re-creating something that actually happened," Snyder says. "I don't understand how one person can't watch that once and then be outraged to the level that the community of people of color were. I'm hoping this film will inspire white people to empathize more. If that's what it takes—someone with the same skin color as them being treated this way—for them to care about the issue, then I am happy to help make that happen."
More people need to open their eyes to that view and remember we're more similar than different, adds Simpson, an artist and native south-sider. His side gig as a Lyft driver has given him a new perspective on other communities—just as Rome's video series aims to do.
Rome feels grateful to be supported by a diverse cast and crew. "[They're] about implementing changes and doing the work_and not in a way of overstepping boundaries," she says. In a time when everyone is checking their privilege and "safe spaces" has become a buzz phrase, this project aims to increase that awareness. She's currently planning a public screening of the completed videos. v