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“If not us, then who?” The five-word phrase was popularized by Rep. John Lewis and repeated by Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, an organization advocating for Black missing persons and the subject of a new four-part HBO documentary series called Black and Missing. Derrica and her sister-in-law and fellow co-founder Natalie Wilson have taken on the incredibly crucial yet rarely celebrated work of championing some of the most ignored and vulnerable members of society. Their work takes them to the grief-stricken arms of families still looking for their loved ones, police departments riddled with implicit bias wasting precious time, and newsrooms too busy looking the other way to see the crisis in front of them. Luckily for us, award-winning documentarians Soledad O’Brien (Matter of Fact & Latino in America) and Geeta Gandbhir (Why We Hate & I Am Evidence) take us along that journey in Black and Missing.
The four episodes offer a rare front-row seat into the foundation’s day-to-day operations, painting a harrowing picture. As an activist myself, I’m used to seeing the worst our society has to offer, and even I walked away shocked at just how many Black people—namely children and women—are missing and angered at all of the societal barriers keeping families from receiving the timely and exhaustive attention they deserve. Black missing persons cases remain unresolved four times longer than those of their white counterparts. “[Derrica and Natalie] have to work with the media and police and use the tools available to them no matter how flawed, for the families,” says Gandbhir. The Wilsons’ brilliant strategy, born out of their respective experience in law enforcement and public relations, gives the foundation unique and vital advantages. Derrica knows what quality and timely police work looks like, so she can spot when these families are being failed and when protocol is being ignored. Natalie is a PR expert, so she knows when and why the media is brushing these families and victims off. It’s not one agency or the other dropping the ball exclusively—it’s both. This perspective is what makes their work so impactful, and the series a must-watch.
I had the pleasure of speaking with both O’Brien and Gandbhir about what brought them together to amplify the Wilsons’ work. Both filmmakers are familiar with social justice advocacy and the power of using art to amplify it. In fact, it was their collaboration on a prior project that led to this particular series. Gandbhir and O’Brien took notice of early conversations around the “missing white woman syndrome” that have since become mainstream, where society’s idea of who makes a “perfect victim” leads to a discriminate deployment of resources, news cycle attention, and on-the-ground searches. Whereas all but heaven and Earth gets shifted to search for missing white people and children, Black women and youth are more likely to be labeled as runaways or delinquents. Beyond that, the distress of the Black loved ones left behind is more minimized and ignored than the white mother pleading for her child’s return.
The Wilsons face these stereotypes every day as they assist families in selecting the right photos to share with press and facilitate media training to help garner maximum empathy. O’Brien knows all too well what these families are up against. As a broadcast journalist, she has witnessed firsthand as producers debated whether someone who experienced a traumatic event was pretty or likable enough to be a guest, totally disregarding the humanity at the core of their “story.” “It’s brutally unfair…,” O’Brien says, “and sometimes media fails in how we think about the importance of some people’s lives.”
Gandbhir agrees, adding that “so often, Black people are blamed for the terrible things that happen to them. And also are criminalized—from when they are children through adulthood…That’s the biggest bias Natalie and Derrica are fighting when they work with families.” It’s truly no easy feat. As we see in the first episode of Black and Missing, whether you are labeled a “runaway” in those first 48 hours can be a matter of life or death. And even if someone—especially a young person—has left home willingly, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still vulnerable to dangers like cyber grooming to sex trafficking. Still, there is a complete lack of urgency to find Black missing people.
People power is what makes the Black and Missing Foundation so essential to the communities they serve. It’s what transformed the organization from a last resort into an emergency room that families now know to reach immediately. Bridging how this docuseries fits into larger conversations around police accountability, Gandbhir explains, “911 has been a catch-all for everything, but Black and Missing has been a model for an alternative…They’re kind of like superheroes but also human. They’re mothers, they work full-time. They’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” That trust and community rapport has made the team effective particularly in communities where people feel safer turning a tip into the foundation than their local police department.
It’s difficult to define what success looks like when it comes to a missing persons case—it doesn’t always involve finding the individual in question. When families come to the Black and Missing Foundation, sometimes they want to find their loved one alive, but sometimes so much time has passed, they’re simply seeking closure and someone to be held responsible. Scrolling through the foundation’s Instagram page, many of the same faces reappear over time with updates on their cases, kin, and leads. On posts bearing the words “Found Safe,” the comments section is flooded with gratitude and restored faith. On the posts warning of a “Sad News Update,” people offer condolences and demand larger efforts in investigating these cases. In both scenarios, families and friends find some closure, which is what Derrica and Natalie Wilson fight for. Their goal is to offer support that the community wasn’t getting before, whether that’s through finding that lost person, helping loved ones heal, demanding accountability, or ensuring other families don’t have to face the same barriers in the future.
Watching the series, it’s easy to become initially jaded and pessimistic about what is possible for fixing this issue. I couldn’t put my finger on it until O’Brien said this: “Tackling this kind of work, you’d imagine that Derrica and Natalie are bitter and angry…but they’re loving and funny and on a mission to save lives. In doing the most difficult of work, they’ve brought their talents together to really make change.” It’s what makes their commitment even more inspiring, but also relatable, Gandbhir says. “They say their goal is to work themselves out of a job. That’s how you know their intentions are in the right place.” And that’s an example worth following.
Black and Missing debuts with back-to-back episodes on Tuesday, Nov. 23 (8:00-10:00 P.M. ET/PT), with the final two episodes airing back-to-back on Wednesday, Nov. 24 at the same time. All four episodes will debut on HBO and be available to stream on HBO Max.
This content was originally published here.