Somber music and an extremely tight close-up of a commemorative plaque greets the viewer at the start of the documentary, “While I Breathe, I Hope.” It’s footage taken during the ceremony marking the fiftieth anniversary of the February 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, which ended with three people killed by the police. Archival photos of the officers coolly hovering in a circle over the Black men’s bodies flash across the screen. Bakari Sellers’ father, Cleveland Sellers, a lifelong civil rights activist and one of the twenty-eight injured by South Carolina Highway Patrol officers in the massacre, watches his son from the audience.
Almost as soon as Bakari Sellers starts to give his speech, his voice cracks. He fights back tears. Sellers struggles to complete the speech with his composure intact. The facial tissue he grips like a security blanket is visible to the camera.
Sellers, who at twenty-two was the youngest Black politician in the country when he won his seat in the South Carolina state legislature in 2006, breaks down several times during the course of “While I Breathe, I Hope.” He isn’t worried, however, about what anyone thinks of his naked displays of emotion. “If anybody ever wants to critique me for being honest,” he said in an interview with the Amsterdam News, “I’ll take that. That’s the only way that I know how to be effective. That’s the only way that I know how to communicate with people. In this time, people really want people to be honest with them. And that’s what I’ve been.”
Though none of the policemen responsible for the slayings were ever charged, Cleveland Sellers was subsequently arrested and jailed. It is evident that the younger Sellers has been steeped in the lore of his father’s life as a victim of racism and as an activist against it. While many Americans only recently realized that progress on race relations is not as advanced as they thought, it’s something that Bakari Sellers has known all his life. “While I Breathe, I Hope” makes clear that Sellers the younger, very early on, decided that he would continue the work his father started.
The film follows Sellers as he makes his 2014 run for South Carolina’s lieutenant governor after giving up his seat as a state representative. He says he agreed to be filmed mainly because of the family connection. “There was a great bit of hesitancy,” he shared, “because when you’re running a campaign, it’s very closed off, you don’t want people in your inner space knowing the strategy. But [director Emily Herrold] was somebody I trusted, because I trusted her mother.” Produced by Charlamagne Tha God, “While I Breathe, I Hope” was one of the selections in this year’s “AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange.” Just wrapping a limited run in Brooklyn, it’s likely to be digitally distributed in the near future.
During the emotional documentary that communicates the story of a fractured America in denial of both its past and present, Sellers visits his old public school in Denmark, SC where he points to the still very separate and unequal states of institutions like America’s schools. He says, “I realized when I was around thirty years old, that we hadn’t made a lot of progress. One of the things you get out of ‘While I Breathe, I Hope’ is that it’s a fight that has not been won.”
Instead of discouraging him, the persistent inequities fuel the activist blood running through Sellers’ veins. “One of the things that my father was, was a change agent.” he states. “My parents always echoed to [my siblings and I] to be change agents. For me, politics was the way to do that. It’s the polar opposite of saying, ‘Why get involved in politics?’ I’d say take a step back through all of the obstacles and say, ‘What more can I do?’ Because we’ve still got a ways to go.”
Though he lost his bid for lieutenant governor, Sellers is still a voice in politics as a CNN political analyst and board member of the voting rights organization Let America Vote. Asked what ordinary citizens can do to protect the process in the face of reported rampant voter suppression that threatens to skew the election even in the face of a large turnout, he said, “Don’t let that keep you away. Make that make you more demanding when you get to the ballot box. Get as knowledgeable as you can about the voting process in your particular state,
He feels it’s incumbent upon people and organizations with more know-how to do more. “To those lawyers or those individuals who have some background in elections, I would challenge them to do voter protection. I would challenge local civic organizations from the NAACP to other orgs to participate in voter protection as well, and make sure that we have fair, impartial elections.”
Though “While I Breathe, I Hope”points to an America that has at least partly reneged on its promise of an equal and fair society, it also indicates that the eternal flame to fight injustice, fueled by hope, burns in the