Capturing Madison's crisis of inequality

The in-the-works documentary “Forward: Anger Into Action” recently went public after about a year of work.

Rev. Alex Gee of the Nehemiah Center speaks in footage from "Forward: Anger Into Action."

Rev. Alex Gee of the Nehemiah Center speaks in footage from "Forward: Anger Into Action."

Over about the past year and a half, as Madison has uneasily worked its way into a discussion about its racial and economic disparities—with activists, media and city officials often not on the same page—a team of Madisonians and Madison expats have quietly begun shooting a documentary to capture this difficult and potentially transformative moment in the city’s history. Titled Forward: Anger Into Action, the still-in-progress film recently went public with a social media and crowdfunding campaign.


They’ve already got a lot of footage in the can—of interviews with activists, of public forums held by the Justified Anger project, and of the protests that have been taking place since the death in March of Tony Robinson, an unarmed biracial 19-year-old, at the hands of a Madison Police Department officer. Until recently they’ve been shying away from talking to the media about it, though sibling co-directors Jonathon Leslie-Quam and Jamie Quam shared some early footage at the River Arts Center in their native Sauk Prairie in March, just weeks after the Robinson shooting. Leslie-Quam’s short documentary Blood Brothers screened at the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival. (Disclaimer: Leslie-Quam and I are friends, and another Tone Madison contributor, Joel Shanahan, contributed to the music for Blood Brothers). Jamie Quam works for Madison’s Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, as does the film’s content producer, Sheba McCants. Cinematographer Joe Brown is based in Milwaukee and currently teaches at Marquette University. The film’s production coordinator, Chance Cork, lives in Madison and also was depicted in Blood Brothers. Leslie-Quam now lives in Dallas, is currently a visiting lecturer in mass communications at Stephen F. Austin State University, and will soon begin a new job as an assistant professor in documentary production and media studies at Midwestern State University. The Forward crew is entering year two of what it expects will be a three-year process, with the crowdfunding money supporting more shooting and eventual distribution costs.

While the Tony Robinson shooting has been the catalyst for a lot of national and international media coverage of inequality in Madison, it hasn’t necessarily changed the filmmakers’ approach. "The shooting of Tony Robinson is a tragedy that should never have happened,” Leslie-Quam says. "When the shooting happened, it felt like an event that wasn’t out of place in Madison anymore. The community sees itself as a place where tragedies like this don’t occur, but the decades-old disparities tell a different story."

Leslie-Quam himself only began to understand this a few years ago as Jamie began telling him about the disparities under Madison’s progressive veneer. " I’ve been inspired by her on many occasions and it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be a documentary without her,” Leslie-Quam says. (I reached out to the crew as a whole with my interview questions last week; Leslie-Quam took the lead on answering them, as the rest of the team was busy with meetings.) “I had been a part of the problem while I lived in Madison,” Quam says of the relatively carefree couple of years he spent here before going back into academia. “I didn’t care to see beyond my own life at the time. I [don’t] want to be a part of that problem anymore.”

The film will focus heavily on the African-American activists working to address Madison's stark shortcomings, and inspire the city as a whole to build on their dedication and momentum. The filmmakers have been working closely with organizations including Race to Equity, YWCA Madison, and the Nehemiah Center For Urban Leadership Development. With that focus, Forward’s ultimate aim is to help show Madison and other American communities the possibility of creating change in this shameful, painful era.

"I hope the film shows Madison as a place where long-term sustainable change is possible,” Leslie-Quam says. "We don’t expect to see the numbers from the Race to Equity report turn over in just three years; but we do expect to see the city on a different path."