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‘Party Girls’ meet the world of politics

Documentary looks at women of color voting for the first time this fall

Imagine a summer-long slumber party. But instead of late-night gossip sessions about actor Idris Elba or food runs, you’re talking politics. That’s what executive producer Michele Barnwell’s forthcoming documentary Party Girls: Exploring Politics in America intends to uncover.

The project aims to air around Election Day 2016 in two forms: a six-part web series through PBS affiliate ITVS and as an independent film. Both will follow a small group of millennial women of color who travel the country engaging in the political process. They were in Philadelphia this week for the Democratic National Convention and are scheduled to appear on DNC Live, the convention webcast, on Wednesday.

Barnwell and Jackie Rappaport, the project’s supervising producer, are at Devil’s Alley Bar and Grill in downtown Philadelphia Tuesday afternoon, and talking about how this group represents a critical portion of the American electorate.

The decision to use all women of color wasn’t initially part of Barnwell’s vision. She wanted the cast to reflect America, a buffet of ethnic backgrounds and cultural influences. What drew her to centering the documentary around young women of color was the fear of optics. She despises seeing a lone black cast member on shows because of the pressure that comes along with it. “If I had put one nonperson of color in the cast,” she said, “when she doesn’t agree with the others, it will cease being about politics and it will start being about race.”

Looking at the young women eventually selected was like looking at herself at their age, a Wesleyan University senior who voted for Jesse Jackson for president in 1988 from the American consulate in India as she studied abroad. The Party Girls cast includes four women, all students between ages 19 and 22. All are preparing to vote for the first time come Nov. 8.

Although there are reality-show aspects to the project, Barnwell said she wouldn’t have considered pursuing it if the inspiration wasn’t authentic. This isn’t about coercing any of the young women on what to believe about a candidate or an issue. It’s a social experiment rooted in self-growth and self-awareness.

“Everybody is paying attention to how many women are voting for what candidate, but who is talking to this group? How do we know what they think? I find it as much fascinating as I do unnerving,” Barnwell said. “Their data and voting history and voting personality is collected. [But] it’s almost like people don’t see them. Our jobs, really, are to amplify their voices. That’s something we just keep reminding ourselves of. We don’t have to agree either. We want them to speak their absolute truth.”

Philadelphia is the cast and crew’s first location. They had hoped to take at least one cast member, a Republican, to the GOP convention in Cleveland last week, but didn’t have all of the necessary contracts signed in time. (Barnwell declined to provide a budget for the project, saying the full costs had not been determined.)

“We couldn’t move until the contracts were closed. Period,” Barnwell said. “ITVS absolutely wanted us to go as much as we wanted to go. But our contracts weren’t all signed. And without signed contracts, we can’t have signed cast. And without signed cast, we don’t have anything to shoot.”

The ink on the contracts is dry now. But understanding the need for a bipartisan project, Barnwell and Rappaport are working on a debate-team town hall meeting in Georgia in August with the Association of College Republicans.

The need for multiple views has been a concern from the beginning. “I was concerned I wouldn’t find enough of a spectrum of thought,” Barnwell said. “If you look at the news, it looks like millennials are all going one way. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. How am I going to find folks aren’t just on one train?’ I want a diversity of thought.

“I would say that is probably the most time I wasted being worried about that because it was coming and it was more like … it wasn’t as much of an obstacle as it felt like one earlier on in the process.”

Rappaport doubled down. “I think that I was afraid of going in with preconceived notions of what I’ve seen and what I know just living in New York City. I will tell you that I’ve been incredibly, 110 percent, surprised with myself, with this cast. Going in, I wondered, what will I see? What will I hear? What will I observe? And these girls are so much wiser and stronger than I ever imagined.”

One cast member, whom they won’t reveal in the interests of not providing spoilers, spoke supportively of Republican nominee Donald Trump. The other cast members wanted to explore why she felt that way.

She continues, “It’s kind of been a wake-up call for me. I’m kind of like checking myself every single morning. You know, how much this group of people, this group of women, have to offer this world and how important it is that we start listening.”

The cast includes Jessica Burnett, 22, a graduate of Georgia State University from Albany, Georgia; Khala James, 19, from West Palm Beach, Florida, and a junior at Howard University; Sarah Khan, 22, a graduate of the University of Michigan from Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Kayla Williams, 19, from Long Beach, California, and a student at Cypress Community College.

Though it’s too early to tell which topics will receive the most airtime, the women behind Party Girls vow there will be real conversations on immigration, mass incarceration, police brutality, equal pay and education reform.

“This is a time when they’re out there in the world saying, I wanna stick to what I believe in on a really, like, gut and heartfelt level,” Rappaport said. “They’re doing that right now.”

It’s almost 4:30 p.m. and the crew has to get back to filming. A Black Lives Matter protest is taking place near City Hall, an event they’ll stumble upon minutes after leaving the bar and grill.

Before getting up, though, Barnwell reflected on what she hopes the low-budget Party Girls can do for America.

“I think the landscape of the country that we all call home is changing. I think that if we wanna understand, we’re gonna have to figure out how we’re gonna do this together,” she said. “We’re gonna have to figure out how to reflect the vast experience of a country that is moving in a direction that looks a lot like this cast.”

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.