“Cops and Prosecutors Truly Work the Same Side”: Ingrid Raphaël and Melissa Gira Grant on Their FOV Doc They Won’t Call It Murder
When 16-year-old Julius Tate, Jr. was killed during a SWAT raid by undercover Columbus police officers in December of 2018, citizens swiftly gathered to protest the unjust killing of a child. One year later, during an anniversary vigil mourning Tate’s loss, Ingrid Raphaël, co-creator of No Evil Eye and Film Futura, and Melissa Gira Grant, a New York-based reporter covering police brutality, came together to co-direct and collaborate on They Won’t Call It Murder, a documentary short from Field of Vision that captures the enduring grief and activism that surviving families of police violence undertake. The film, embedded above, makes its online premiere today.
The film recounts Tate’s unjust killing alongside three other victims who recently died at the hands of police in Columbus, Ohio: Henry Green, Tyre’ King and Donna Dalton. It also chronicles the fight for accountability that the families of the deceased doggedly continue. Though the film’s title refers to the fact that at the time of filming, it had been more than 20 years since a Columbus cop was charged with murder, the doc itself probes into the politics of what it looks like when justice is finally “served.” In Dalton’s case, the officer who killed her broke that 20-year streak and was actually charged with murder—a “victory” that the filmmaker’s (and Dalton’s own sister) owe to the fact that she was a white woman murdered by a Black man.
They Won’t Call It Murder surveys the horrific reality of the state-sanctioned execution of marginalized civilians, insisting that the wrongful extinguishing of life cannot be rectified by any financial settlement or prison sentence. In documenting the sinister reality of this epidemic as it pertains to Columbus, the filmmakers highlight the ubiquity of these senseless killings across the country.
Filmmaker spoke to co-directors Raphaël and Grant via email about their documentary short, touching on their individual connections to the city of Columbus, how they ensured the comfort of the mourning families involved and the oft-inconsistent definition of “accountability.”
Filmmaker: What individually inspired each of you to participate in this project, and what did you all take away from this collaborative effort?
Raphaël: The film takes place in Columbus, Ohio, a city whose legacy with impunity toward police killings perfectly befits the name it bears: Columbus, Christopher Columbus.
I was living in Columbus, Ohio during the murders of Henry Green, Tyre’ King, Julius Tate Jr. and Donna Dalton (the victims highlighted in the film) and many others in the surrounding Columbus area, witnessing the anger and grief of the families at protests, and supported organizers’ efforts to rally the Columbus residents. [That] would later inform how They Won’t Call It Murder would act as a container for these collective experiences.
After leaving the city in 2019 due to a lack of work opportunities, an opportunity to co-direct a film building off of Melissa’s extensive reporting on the city’s history of police killings with impunity sparked my interest, and I thought about the countless other victims I had heard of while living in Columbus and thought, “Now’s the time to let their stories known beyond the borders of this city.” It all unfolded from there.
The process of making this film was difficult, yet it was rewarded by acts of care, diligence, and trust. Making a film that asks participants, or subjects, to recount memories and moments of deep grief requires all of the ingredients that make a sustainable, and gratifying, relationship work: warmth, love, trust, safety, laughter, consent and more. Though you find these emotions through the film, they are bounded by realities of distrust, lack of safety and accountability from the city and local police department.
As a crew, we needed to make sure that we offered acts of care before and after each interview, that we obtained consent to film at vigils and provided support when families returned to the sites where their son or sister were killed. This taught me that the camera can be an extension of the self, not a barrier between yourself and the participant. When you enter someone’s home with all of this gear and they’re already wary of local news crews who disregarded their stories, you have to work really hard to not recreate that. And we did, we were attentive to each participants’ tempos and reluctancy. Because when we finished filming, their lives and grieving process continued: This is a humbling reminder that, as a first-time filmmaker, I will carry with me and embed into my continuing practice.
Grant: Four years ago, I met Bobbie McCalla, after a Columbus police officer shot and killed her sister Donna Dalton. I had been reporting on police violence for several years at that point. But that story was my introduction to the Columbus police department—the undercover officers, the pattern of killings.
That was 2018. By then, after the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, there was little expectation that prosecutors would charge a police officer with murder in such a case. Cops and prosecutors truly work the same side. When we started making this film, no Columbus police officer who killed a community member while on duty had been charged with murder since 1996.
The prosecutor in Columbus who would be responsible for these cases said something I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I probably wrote it into every story I did back then: he said that nine times out of 10, when asking a grand jury to consider charging a police officer with murder, that his office didn’t think a “crime was committed.” Rarely do they dispute that a police officer killed someone. What’s disputed is if it is a murder. So the press won’t use the word “murder.” But in my conversations with families, they almost always use that word. And while they aren’t waiting for a grand jury or a prosecutor to affirm that something wrong was done, when they are denied that, it compounds the wrong. Their understanding of justice, to me, felt more expansive than I could address in a piece of print journalism.
Collaborating on this film felt like a first step towards doing that more complex story some justice, to work with people who shared that respect for the families’ experience and knowledge of the criminal legal system, who valued them as experts, and who didn’t want to further compound what they had lost as we told this story together.
Filmmaker: They Won’t Call It Murder addresses that there is an overarching epidemic of law enforcement murdering Black and Brown people with virtually no consequence. The film, however, focuses on this injustice solely in the state of Ohio, namely Columbus. What made you want to focus on this crisis as it pertains to this specific corner of America?
Raphaël: I was once told that Ohio is the heartbeat of the United States; situated at the center of it, considered a fly-over state, discarded and ignored, though many legendary people were shaped by its landscape and quietness—to name a favorite, Toni Morrison. It’s a state that gets made fun of (understandably so) and though some stereotypes are true (corn fields, Buckeyes-craze, Hell Is Real banners, quietness), this is somewhere I chose to live after college and got to witness its history of violence with impunity.
As documentarians, I strongly believe that we can only give stories their due justice when we are directly connected to the people, themes or arcs that we aim to center. It provides you with a sensibility and accountability to the stories, people and landscape that a non-connected outsider couldn’t tap into. This film is something I could give back to the people and community in Columbus that fostered and shaped me—and show viewers that though the film focuses on Columbus, Ohio, this is an all-American story and reality.
Grant: Each of us had a connection to Ohio before collaborating on this film, either living there or having family there or both. And we got to see multiple sides of Columbus, from the winter of 2019 to the summer of 2020, to see how it contained that legacy of violence and that community we saw come together in the streets. It was about place but also about the passage of time, how this pattern of violence goes on, too, beyond the close of the film.
It’s not a pattern unique to Columbus or to Ohio. These killings could have, and have, happened in so many communities. And no community is representative of another. But grounding the story in one community, and how they had navigated common obstacles with the same police and prosecutors, was important to us. To focus on the way police killings shaped this community, the way people responded here, let us look at police killings differently: not as isolated incidents, but as a pattern of violence that can suffuse a place and define who belongs there and whose life matters there.
Filmmaker: Furthermore, how did you get connected with the film’s subjects, and what felt vital to highlight when it came to each family’s individual story?
Raphaël: Relationship-building, organizing and trust led us to our participants: Adrienne Hood, Dearrea and Malika King, Jamita and Maryam Malone and Bobbi McCalla. Local organizers who had established relationships with our highlighted families vetted myself and Melissa, which allowed us to document their stories in a trusting and candid environment.
We spoke to each family separately. Malika King, the mother of Tyre King, surprised us on set at her mother’s home and, after questioning our motives, trusted us to participate in the film. The vigil for the one-year anniversary of Julius Tate Jr.’s killing was occurring while we were in town filming. At the last minute, the family agreed for us to film and that’s how we got connected to his mother Jamita Malone. Bobbi McCalla, Donna Dalton’s sister, was in community with Melissa through her reporting work and Adrienne Hood, mother of Henry Green, was committed to speak publicly about her son’s murder and introduced us to Malika and Dearrea King.
Grant: Pretty quickly we realized that Ms. Hood had done the work of reaching out to families after she heard the news about any police killing in the community, and had been building a relationship with them, offering support if they wanted it, and were able to benefit from that work.
As we got to know each family on our own, through calls and spending time with them at home (before COVID), we started to see certain common experiences they shared, like the very specific way detectives handled them at the hospital, how police informed them and how little they told them, while at the same time sharing much more information with the press. Where they differ is when we got into the question of what justice meant to them—like if a prosecution was accountability, or if police could be held accountable at all. And some of their takes on that question also shifted over the course of our knowing them, from the months before COVID to the months after the 2020 uprisings.
Filmmaker: The landscape of Ohio itself is, of course, heavily featured in the film. It certainly provides a harrowing point of reference for the violent crimes committed here by police, but also offers moments of aesthetic beauty that are compelling (and somewhat hopeful) in their own right. How did you go about framing the film’s location, and what felt particularly important to capture or convey about this place?
Raphaël: When I lived in Columbus, I relied heavily on the bus to get around. This allowed me to discover many parts of the city through the seat of a passenger. I noticed the distinctive characteristics of each neighborhood, each divided by a highway or train tracks. A quintessential American city with rust-belt remnants and few downtown skyscrapers. We mimicked this POV with the camera and drove through streets surrounding the areas where each victim was killed—picking out routes and sceneries that showed the most recognizable landscapes, houses, graffiti, horizon of that area. When we premiered the film in Columbus, Ohio at the Unorthodocs Film Festival, I received feedback that folks appreciated that we showed each neighborhood, which meant we succeeded in capturing the city’s essence.
A memorable moment was waking up before sunrise with our crew and capturing the downtown skyline at the brink of dawn while staking out on a parking lot. It was the first time I witnessed the city’s skyscrapers glisten against the waking sun. It was a cold morning and though the view was beautiful, we were grounded in the fact that those buildings host the same individuals responsible for not prosecuting or indicting police officers.
Filmmaker: The one white victim of police violence that you spotlight, Donna Dalton, is unique in that the Black officer who killed her was charged with murder, unlike the officers who killed Black victims Henry “Bub” Green, Tyré King and Julius Tate, Jr. What discussions do you hope this film prompts about the system’s relative inability to provide “justice”?
Grant: It’s a huge question the film can’t fully address—but if we start from the position that you cannot separate the function of policing from anti-Black racism, which is where we as filmmakers did start, then you see how a system shaped by white supremacy will define accountability based on white supremacy. You can’t assume what people even mean by accountability in this system, what justice means. The criminal legal system and the media have a lot of power to define those things for the community; we resisted that, or we tried to.
It’s absolutely significant that at first, the story police and some media told about Donna’s killing was of a good cop defending himself in a vice operation gone wrong. Over time, as more and more facts about the officer who killed her came to light, including the racism reported by others within the Columbus Division of Police, the story shifted. What made it easier for people to see a Black officer as a criminal is intimately connected with what makes it easier for people to see a white woman as a victim, and what’s common across every story in the film is the way people killed by police are dehumanized and even blamed for their own deaths. They are denied their victimhood. For me, justice has to include breaking with those racist ideas about who is worthy of our protection—beginning at the beginning, not the end, of a life.
Raphaël: What kind of justice can truly be served when someone’s life has been taken? The film explores what the families consider to be “justice,” and they each have different answers. Their ideal of justice and accountability range from death penalty, imprisonment, an entirely new system, accomplices to receive carceral punishment, to sentiments that resemble abolition. It begins a conversation around the possibilities of “justice” that lean on what we know: the judiciary system. We rely on it to enact, and create the rules for, some sort of accountability, built on white-supremacist ideals which means it will fail to protect the needs and interests of oppressed peoples. From this perspective, when police officers act as extensions of power for the state, it is difficult to envision that the state would hold itself (through its judiciary system) accountable to the fullest extent which, to me, means the ending of police killings overall. For all of the families in the film, they have yet to receive any form of justice—as defined by themselves and the system. I would love to start a conversation around how justice could be “being able to live your life with abundance and safety” because we don’t have Tyre King, Julius Tate Jr., Henry Green or Donna Dalton to tell their stories.