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‘The Big Payback’ in Evanston shows that reparations are possible

PBS documentary follows local and federal efforts to compensate Black Americans

When Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow decided to make a documentary about reparations in 2019, they thought their story was the history of the movement and the slow path through Congress of H.R. 40, the House bill that would study the concept of compensating Black Americans for slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination.

Then they heard about a budding local reparations plan in Evanston, Illinois. Alexander and Dow brought their cameras to a town hall meeting and had an eye-opening experience.

“Twenty-four hours later, we had gone from this idea of talking about history to saying, ‘Well, there’s history in the making right here,’” Dow said. “This is really the story we should follow.”

That history is captured in The Big Payback, a documentary premiering Monday on PBS that shows how Evanston became the first jurisdiction in America to offer reparations, in the form of housing funds, to Black people. Along the way, we see H.R. 40 take a major step forward and the concept of local reparations spread to cities nationwide.

“I hope that people who see the film take away that (reparations) is possible,” said Alexander, an actress, producer and activist who made her directorial debut alongside Dow, an established documentarian. “The possibility resides within you, the will to do it, to come together with common cause, to get with the community to make it happen.”

Evanston’s “Restorative Housing Program” offers eligible Black residents $25,000 – not in cash, but paid directly toward a mortgage balance, a down payment on a home, property taxes or a home improvement contractor. Recipients must have lived in Evanston at some point between 1919 and 1969; future payments will go to people whose parents or grandparents lived there during that time. The city pledged to spend $10 million over a decade, funded by a tax on legal marijuana sales. About $400,000 has been provided so far.

The “she-ro” of the film is Robin Rue Simmons, a former city council member who led the effort in Evanston. We see her overcoming opposition, from white people who said they aren’t responsible for what happened in the past, and Black people who said that housing funds are too insignificant to even be called reparations – “sloppy crap” that she’s “throwing against the wall to see what sticks.”

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (right) talks with Robin Rue Simmons (left) in Lee’s Washington, DC office.

The Big Payback, LLC

Rue Simmons draws inspiration from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who has championed H.R. 40 since the death of its original sponsor, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. Jackson Lee gets her own moment of victory in the film, when the reparations bill finally has the votes to move out of committee for the first time since being introduced by Conyers in 1989.

Midway through The Big Payback, the coronavirus strikes. Then the 2020 killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd inspire the biggest racial justice protests in American history. The pandemic forces Rue Simmons to work from home as she pushes her plan through. Seeing her private life — how her hair looks between braidings; her curious dog; her daughter’s virtual high school graduation – draws the viewer into her journey and magnifies the emotional impact of the story.

“I thought she was absolutely stunning,” said Alexander, who won two NAACP Image Awards for her role as Maxine on the sitcom Living Single and has a production company, Color Farm Media, whose credits include the 2020 documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble.

Robin Rue Simmons works from home and talks with local leaders about the reparations bill.

The Big Payback, LLC

“She had braids and she had big earrings, and she was wonderful. I adore the symbolism of her visually. And then you get to her mind, and you’re blown away,” Alexander said. “She has bravery and courage in her that’s been given to her by her family, by her background, by her community.”

Rue Simmons also carried what must have felt, at times, like the full weight of history, dealing with both racist messages from detractors and the needs of oppressed Black people. “She felt so much pressure to represent,” Dow said. “She was very nervous about when we were filming that she kept saying, ‘I don’t want you to see me crying. I don’t want you to see me crying.’”

Spoiler alert: the tearful moment did arrive. But it feels more like a validation than a weakness –recognition of how much Rue Simmons sacrificed to get some measure of justice for her city, and to spark a flame.

The flame still burns, but has not yet become a blaze. Evanston’s program is proceeding slowly, and at least five residents have died before receiving promised funds. Democrats did not bring H.R. 40 to the floor for a full vote before losing control of the House in the 2022 election. Instead, advocates are hoping President Joe Biden will set up the study commission by executive order. Still, governments from Providence to the state of California have been inspired to pursue their own forms of reparations, which advocates hope will lead to a full federal program to compensate Black Americans whose parents, grandparents and ancestors suffered under racist government policies.

Rue Simmons hopes there will be reparations for all deserving Black Americans. “I get a little sad that she probably, like me, won’t live to see it brought to bear,” Alexander said. “But I think that’s a true test of her courage.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.