Zayd Atkinson was picking up trash outside his Boulder home on a spring morning in 2019 when he found himself facing a police officer’s handgun.
After questioning the 26-year-old Naropa University student about his presence on the school-owned property where he lived and worked, Officer John Smyly called for backup — which arrived in the form of eight officers and a sergeant. He said he felt “threatened by the trash grabber” in the hands of the young Black man.
In a recorded exchange that sent shockwaves throughout Boulder and the country, an exasperated Atkinson expresses disbelief at the scene unfolding outside his home.
“I’m picking up trash,” he pleads with Smyly in the video. “Your hand is on your weapon — and you’re going to shoot me?”
This tense and emotional encounter is the entry point into a conversation on race, place and belonging in a new documentary by Boulder County residents Katrina Miller and Beret Strong. Exploring what its creators call “the gap between the city’s progressive self-image and the lived experience of its Black residents,” This Is [Not] Who We Are traces the roots of racial inequity in Boulder, from this disturbing scene through the redlining practices that pushed Black residents into the Little Rectangle neighborhood in the 20th century, all the way back to the city’s founding in 1871.
Ahead of its world premiere on Sunday at the 18th annual Boulder International Film Festival, the Boulder Reporting Lab spoke with filmmakers Miller and Strong about what audiences can expect from their new film.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
First, could each of you talk a little about your background and the path that led you to work together on this film?
Miller: I grew up in southern Colorado, and I came to Boulder to study journalism back in 2000. It was definitely a shock to me that there weren’t very many people of color around. I wasn’t expecting that. I didn’t really know there were places in the United States that were like this, just lacking so much diversity. The town I grew up in was a military town, so we had lots of different types of people. I just thought that that’s how it was everywhere.
I got my degree and started my video production company Blackat Video Productions. I was making projects for small businesses and some international clients. When the pandemic hit, I started going out with my camera and documenting things that were going on. I did a film called The Silence of Quarantine. So it just started building and building — feeling so isolated and not seeing very many people of color.
I was really thrilled when I learned Beret and her husband John had been thinking about making a film about race in Boulder. I used to be a volunteer for the Boulder International Film Festival, so I would see Beret screening her films, while I had aspirations to one day become a filmmaker myself. Knowing that I am an African American involved in video production, they wanted to get to know me just a little bit better. By the end of our conversation, it went from “Maybe you can film some stuff for us,” to “Do you want to help lead this project?”
I had been thinking about this issue of race since I set foot here, so it just all really seemed to gel. I think we did what we set out to do in our collaboration in part because we have such diverse backgrounds. I mean, look at us — we’re totally different people. But it exemplifies how this diversity can add up to something really great, if we all come together for a common goal.
Strong: I want to appreciate what you just said, Katrina. We are a very mixed team, and that’s been cool because I consider this film to be a sort of dialogue between the dominant white community and the Black community, in some ways. Does a white person have the right to make a film about, or even be part of a film about a Black subject? There are debates about that. When we started working on this in 2019, I was probably more naive about all those cultural issues than I am now.
As far as my background goes, I started making films in the mid-1990s. I didn’t go to film school. I am a literary scholar by training, but I got the bug while living in Micronesia. I thought it was really an interesting medium because I love photography and other forms of visual storytelling. And I sort of dragged my husband into it. We’ve been working in filmmaking steadily for over 25 years now.
Katrina and I have a common friend who’s a filmmaker, and she introduced us. We got in touch and had a conversation about teaming up, and we realized this could be a great collaboration. I told her my husband and I had been thinking about this project for a number of months, and Katrina said “Oh, I’ve been thinking about this for 20 years.”
The documentary revolves around a media premise of Boulder as “the happiest place in America.” How does the film complicate this notion when it comes to the lived experiences of Black people here?
Strong: Boulder is pleasant and beautiful and a lot of people love it here. But it’s not exactly what we think it is. We don’t even know our own history, really. People don’t know the Ku Klux Klan was active here, for example. So this film is partly an invitation to get to know ourselves in a new way. There’s so much to love about the city, but there’s something very disappointing about it, too. We keep giving lip service to anti-racism in Boulder, but it’s not enough.
Miller: In some responses we received during feedback screenings, people said, “Oh, I didn’t know Boulder was like that.” But of course I don’t hear that from the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] community. The majority doesn’t usually see the problem on the surface. We hear things like, “Well, Black people just don’t move here.” Our film wants people to ask, “Well, why is that? What structures are in place that deter African Americans from living here?” It’s complicated, because we’re trying to show something people don’t usually see.
The incident between Zayd Atkinson and Boulder PD is an entry point into many of the issues you unpack in This Is [Not] Who We Are. How does his experience speak to the broader theme of racial inequity in Boulder?
Strong: The film is organized around him in some ways. He gave a brave gift through his resistance and his message. It was internationally covered by the press, because Boulder is such a swell spot, right? We fashioned the edit of his section of the film so people will absolutely see in a crystal clear way how awful it was. For me, part of it is about wanting people to really understand the story in depth and understand today’s anger.
Miller: What happened to him has happened everywhere. And I think it’s something people can look at across the board and say, “That’s wrong.” It’s just so universally wrong that I think it’s going to be understood from even outside of Boulder. But what are we doing to make sure that this doesn’t happen again?
What other characters will people meet in this film, and what issues will they illuminate for viewers?
Miller: One of the more emotional moments in the film is when we hear from a young girl named Celine. She was bullied in her elementary school when she was 10 years old. We hear her account of that. Instead of hearing from older people who’ve been through civil rights marches with Martin Luther King, we’re hearing from a child growing up today. Being a mother myself — I have an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old — I hear it come up all the time: “Is this something we should talk to kids about? How do we even have this conversation?”
Strong: She’s probably the most powerful character of all, in some ways, because of her emotion. She’s quite a remarkable person. But in terms of the film writ large, it’s kind of an essay film in the sense that we have a bunch of characters. Celine is the youngest, and then our oldest is nearly 80. We have clergy. We have business owners. We have a youth section. So, you really get to hear from people from different generations, perspectives and walks of life. It’s a tapestry — a weaving together of people, sharing different things.
The film explores contemporary social problems in Boulder, but it pulls them through a historical lens. How do you trace the issue of systemic racism and inequity back to the city’s founding?
Miller: One thing I think most people know is how much it costs to live here. When Boulder was first established, lots were priced for a certain type of person [at $1,000 each]. It was designed to keep certain people out. It’s one of the ways we’ve been oppressed, if you look back on it. It’s easy to exclude people if they don’t have the funds to live here, and that remains a problem today.
Strong: I didn’t know this history. I mean, you can see what Boulder is now, but I didn’t know they were selling these lots for so much money, when they were cheap or free in Denver at the time in the 19th century. Realtors and neighbors engineered where people could live.
The amount of institutional racism that went on so steadily, which our research uncovered, is what I really didn’t understand. The more we looked at it, the more deeply entrenched and disturbing it was. So we’re asking, “How did this history evolve, and where are we now?”
Boulder’s lack of diversity is an obvious and visible issue here. Do you think some viewers will be surprised to learn about the vibrant history of Black communities in the city?
Miller: Oh, it will absolutely challenge expectations. It already has. During a feedback screener, one of my African American friends said, “I had no idea there was such a vibrant Black culture here. What happened to it? How do we get it back?”
When people say, “Oh, there’s not any Black people in Boulder. They don’t live here,” that’s a really insulting comment. It perpetuates the invisibility we feel. We feel like we’re not put in positions of leadership or other opportunities because we feel invisible. So saying there’s no Black people here denies our existence and contributions as community members. The film defies that.
Strong: And there’s more going on here than I realized. It’s embarrassing to live here 25 years and go, “Man, I didn’t know.” NAACP Boulder County is doing incredible work, and it’s fairly new, but I wasn’t aware until I got involved. Through this project, I’ve met so many people who do so much community service in ways I didn’t know about. What I realized is there are lots of opportunities for anybody in Boulder who wants to connect and work on anti-racism, diversity and equity efforts.
Do you suspect this film may touch a nerve with some white audiences in Boulder — and is that potential discomfort part of the point?
Strong: I am sure there are plenty of people around town who are going to say the film’s too harsh. It’s going to come, and I’m certainly prepared to listen and engage in dialogue. Because I think you have to be willing to have those conversations.
You could say that all of those defensive feelings are natural, in a way, right? I mean, I feel defensive sometimes too. I feel guilty, or whatever it is, and I just try to sit with it and look at myself and ask, “What’s that about?” We want to show up as people and engage, so I welcome honest dialogue about these issues.
Miller: I mean, we know it’s going to happen just based off experience. When we try to have these conversations, it’s like “Oh, gosh. Here we go again.” We expect to hear that from some people when we start talking about inequity and what we want to do about it.
When we were having one of our feedback screeners, we sat down and talked about what to do with people who had negative things to say about what we’re doing. And we all decided that it’s important to talk to those people and try to express what’s going on and the importance of this film and these stories. Because, like Beret said, that’s how we’re going to move forward with these difficult conversations.
What does it mean for you to be able to debut this film at the hometown Boulder International Film Festival?
Miller: I volunteered with the Boulder International Film Festival for almost a decade. I started doing that because I needed to find a way to break into the film world when I was starting my business. There was always this dream that I could be a screening filmmaker at BIFF. So, it means a lot on that level to be a screening filmmaker and to give representation for other African American filmmakers. A lot of times people don’t always pursue what they want to because they don’t see themselves in the position — because they don’t already see people like themselves doing it.
I’m on this thread with Black people who live in Boulder, and I told them, “Come and see this film. It’s for us. It’s for you.” That’s why this film was made, and I want nothing more than for us to share in this moment together.