Spotlight on Faculty Passion Project: ‘Let America Be America Again’
“Let America be America again. / Let it be the dream it used to be. / Let it be the pioneer on the plain / Seeking a home where he himself is free.”
Upper School Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator Omar López Thismón first heard these words from Langston Hughes’ 1936 poem, “Let America Be America Again,” about four years ago. “As soon as I read that poem, the visuals started to pop in my head,” said Omar. “The language alone is very, very visual.” Four years later, he carried out his vision and published on Oct. 30 a short film (less than five minutes) adapted from the original Hughes poem: a project of pure passion.
This isn’t his first passion project, nor his first film adapted from Hughes’ work. Five years ago, Omar released a video titled “Black Like Me” inspired by a collection of Hughes’ poetry. While “Black Like Me” communicates many of the same themes as the newer “Let America Be America Again,” the first project was much smaller-scale.
It was after the 2016 Presidential election when Omar decided to produce “Let America Be America Again.” Omar couldn’t find the time to start such an ambitious project until summer 2020, though, when his desires to produce the film were heightened by acts of violence and racial injustice along with the looming elections. “In the late summer, I promised myself to make something before the election,” said Omar.
The release of “Let America Be America Again” was timely. While Americans sought to elect new representatives and discern which politicians would better serve them, Omar’s film highlighted the importance of re-evaluating the common understanding of patriotism. “The poem by Hughes reframes patriotism in a way that we don’t typically think about it,” said Omar. “We think of patriotism as some certain ‘loving the country entirely without criticism.’ But patriotism in the eyes of Langston Hughes was more like noticing the flaws in the country and doing your best to fix those flaws to make the country better. That’s true patriotism.”
Omar worked with a team of close friends and creators. Garrison Hayes, who is credited with co-directing the film, is a pastor in Washington D.C., whom Omar knows from college. Hayes helped mostly with designing visuals that matched the language of the poem. Charles Cammack, who is credited as a producer, is one of Omar’s best friends. “He’s a very organized person so he helped put together schedules and ensure everybody was informed about where they needed to be at times,” said Omar.
Omar typically funds his projects through freelance work done during the year. COVID-19 effectively limited the number of freelance gigs he could pursue in preparation for the creation of this film, so he didn’t have access to as much funding as he would have liked. Originally, Omar wanted to hire actors to play the parts in the film. “I wanted specific facial expressions, specific things actors could do that might not seem natural to coach a normal person through,” said Omar. But with freelance projects being canceled, the video had to feature ordinary people in the roles.
Using non-actors ended up being a blessing for Omar, in that he was able to experience the genuine, entirely human reactions of normal people being forced to confront the many painful subjects that the film features. For example, there is footage in the film of a black father and son watching the television. Before the cameras began rolling, the two of them were watching continuous footage of police brutality on black people in an attempt to elicit tangible, raw emotion.
The same is true for the footage of the Native American father and his daughters. “As we were setting up the lights or whatever before the camera started rolling, I was witnessing those girls ask authentic, thoughtful questions about their heritage,” said Omar. “Because we used real people and not actors, the cameras were able to capture real conversations, real moments.”
Two of the “real people” filmed happen to be Pace Academy affiliates: Director of College Counseling Jonathan Ferrell and Class of 2020 graduate Jesus Tadeo. While the general public sometimes thinks about policies and politics as far-off and distant concepts, Omar hopes that in seeing these familiar faces in the film, Pace students might realize how close to home political decisions may strike: just another surprising benefit of using real people.
Omar plans on enjoying the success of his project’s recent release before starting on another film, though he hopes to start a new project soon. “I want to focus on longer-form pieces in the future,” said Omar. “I want to create something that goes in depth to discuss a particular topic. I don’t know what that topic is yet, but I have plenty of options to choose from.” Omar’s short film can be viewed on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GptrVGR_3Xg.