Politics & Government

‘Young, African-American and progressive in SC’: Sellers documentary gets TV debut

Emily Harrold hopes there are multiple audiences for “While I Breathe, I Hope,” her behind-the-scenes documentary about the campaign of then-30-year-old state Rep. Bakari Sellers to become South Carolina’s lieutenant governor in 2014.

Political watchers are one audience, and Harrold had planned for the documentary to end with Sellers’ campaign.

But the film took an unexpected turn past Sellers’ defeat to encompass the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the ensuing Confederate flag debate and the Palmetto State’s attitudes toward race. Harrold hopes that expanded focus will bring in another audience — viewers outside the state.

“I learned more about South Carolina (making the film),” said Harrold, an Orangeburg native. “I hope ... for it to shine a light on my state for others to see.”

The documentary will have its TV debut at 8 p.m. Monday, premiering as part of the “AfroPop” documentary series on the World Channel, a public TV cable channel.

The World Channel isn’t available in South Carolina, but the film will begin streaming the same day on PBS.org. South Carolina’s public television station, SC ETV, also will broadcast the documentary at 6 p.m. April 7. It will be re-broadcast on ETV’s South Carolina Channel at 8 p.m. April 8.

Harrold, who left South Carolina to learn her craft at New York University’s School of the Arts, was intrigued by Sellers’s 2014 run for S.C. lieutenant governor.

She took notice after watching a speech Sellers gave at the Democratic Party’s annual Galivants Ferry stump speaking event, highlighting the challenges of running as a young, African-American Democrat in the Deep South.

“It’s important in a documentary to have a subject who is likable and well-spoken,” Harrold said. “That speech still sticks with me. If he was not personable and a powerful speaker, we would not have a film.”

Sellers said he was unsure about opening up his statewide campaign to a film crew, but was convinced partly because he knew Harrold’s mother, a teacher at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School when Sellers was a student there.

“The inner workings of a campaign are very private. There are ups and downs. There’s strategy,” he said. “And I had no editorial rights on the film. It’s unfiltered and unabridged.”

Harrold negotiated close access to her subject, filming conversations in the car between campaign events, behind the scenes at TV appearances and at Sellers’ home after a long day on the trail.

“The fact that he trusted us to have that access was really great,” Harrold said. “There were sometimes conversations where they would say, ‘You can’t film this. Walk away.’ But everybody was very open. We filmed in people’s homes. ... It was very down to earth.”

The filmmaker tried to stay outside the campaign bubble by doing street interviews with more conservative S.C. voters to intersperse with the Democrats attracted by Sellers, who ultimately lost the race to Republican Henry McMaster.

“We went to Lexington County a lot,” Harrold said. “We talked to so many people who didn’t know Bakari’s name or planned to vote straight Republican. I wanted to sprinkle those in so the audience don’t think he’s going to win.”

Being constantly under the eye of the camera “fatigues you,” Sellers said.

Harrold’s cameras followed Sellers for the final month of his 2014 campaign against McMaster, now governor of South Carolina. “Sometimes, it was like a pimple you can’t get rid of.”

Sellers said he wanted to participate in the film in hopes that it would inspire residents of the rural area where he grew up and, later, represented in the S.C. House.

“I was excited to show Denmark in a positive light, for South Carolina to be shown in a positive light,” he said, adding he wanted the film to be for “poor kids who say they aren’t confined by their zip code or by rural South Carolina. They can dream big dreams.”

‘Changed the scope of it’

Harrold thought she was done with the movie after Sellers’ defeat.

But that changed in June 2015, when nine black churchgoers were killed by a white supremacist inside Emanuel AME Church. After it was revealed the gunman had posed with the Confederate flag, the banner’s presence on the State House grounds re-emerged as a major issue.

The Legislature quickly moved to take the flag down, and Harrold reconnected with Sellers, who was friends with state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a victim of the shooting.

She had an idea to keep the documentary moving forward, drawing connections between Sellers’ quest to be the first African-American elected statewide since the 1870s to the race relations post-election, and reaching back to the civil rights activism of his father, Cleveland Sellers, in the 1960s.

“It definitely changed the scope of it,” she said. “I conceived it as a campaign documentary, and it became something about what it means to be young, African-American and progressive in South Carolina more broadly.”

Sellers was happy to see the film extend beyond the end of his campaign.

“The story never ended,” he said. “She filmed me for four years, through the campaign, through Charleston, through Charlottesville.”

Harrold filmed up until the 50th anniversary commemoration last year of the Orangeburg Massacre, in which three students were shot and killed, and Sellers’ father was wounded by highway patrolmen at S.C. State University. Sellers took part in the ceremony alongside his father.

“The film opens with the 50th anniversary,” Harrold said.

The movie first was screened at the New Orleans Film Festival in October. It got its S.C. premiere at Columbia’s Nickelodeon theater a month later.

But the earliest screening in South Carolina was the one Sellers and his wife got while on vacation in Charleston.

“We laughed, we cried and then we hugged Emily,” he said, although not all the Sellers household were fans. “My 13-year-old stepdaughter wasn’t interested in it.”

Harrold hopes the audience can look beyond Sellers’ personal story to the portrait it paints of South Carolina as a whole. The former state representative hopes the online streaming option will get the film shown in schools.

The film also should raise Sellers’ profile for a future political race. The Democrat plans to run for Congress in South Carolina’s 6th District, whenever House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Richland, retires.

Sellers compares “While I Breathe, I Hope” to “Street Fight,” the documentary about Cory Booker’s race to become mayor of Newark, N.J. Booker, now a U.S. senator, is running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

“In the future, people won’t write political memoirs,” Sellers said. “They will have documentaries.”

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.