Akil McKenzie’s poem Historians wins Best Social Justice Film

In late 2020, Akil McKenzie released a four-minute video short called Historians with Falling Motion and Hallowed Grounds. What started as a stand-alone poem turned into a passion project where people came together to spread their message about injustices in the Black community through art. The video has since gained thousands of views through YouTube and Instagram and won Best Social Justice Film at the Vancouver Independent Film Festival in 2021.

“It was right after the death of George Floyd and the marches had begun. I was sitting down and I was watching this happen, and I feel like every time there is a tragedy like this that happens, there’s a cycle. It happens: you’re mad. It happens: you’re sad. It happens: you’re tired,” McKenzie explains. “I would say at this point I felt very tired and I didn’t know how to place my feelings because I was like, is this ever going to get better? Can we change this?”

Akil McKenzie headshot

He was watching brothers and sisters of his marching down the street and thought: what else can we do? Then he just started writing. He sat there for two hours, letting himself feel everything and write it all out. 

“I was writing to express the feelings that were going through me as I was watching people who look like me suffer and then at the same I was writing because maybe this could help some other people understand as well,” McKenzie says.

In his opinion, poetry can bring a topic to light in a way that people want to engage with and listen to. “I feel like when you speak to people they don’t always want to listen or have the conversation if you have something you want to say. But when it’s put into an art form, they’re bedazzled by the way it’s being said so they actually want to listen.” 

After recording Historians on his phone in his car, he thought about what it would look like to make something more. He says he didn’t want to capitalize off of tragedy but ultimately decided that as long as anything they did moving forward would amplify the message, then it would be a good way to get it to more people and bring more impact.

When it came to making the video, McKenzie says he didn’t want it to just be about him, so he sought out some familiar faces. McKenzie’s family is in the video, including his mother father, grandmother and great-grandmother. But the video also features people he’s never met. Some people came to him through friends and others reached out after seeing a post about the project.

He decided not only to feature other individuals in the video but to feature other types of art, too. “I wanted to tell the story I’m telling through other art forms as well so that way there’s a little piece of an art form that everyone can find a relation to.” He decided to use dance and fine art as a way to accompany the poem. The entire video takes place in an art gallery, surrounded by paintings and illustrations centred around Black history and Black lives. 

In the poem, McKenzie says: “I am tired that Every Black History Month when I got to write a poem I have new material to talk about.”  While that remains true this year, McKenzie noticed something different about this Black History Month. He says previous years were about the steps we need to take, but this Black History Month it’s been about taking those steps. “We’re on the precipice of the new world we’re trying to create. We’re doing it. Keep going.”

The message McKenzie hopes people take away is the idea of hope. “That’s the most important part, and the idea that we’re all still here,” he says. “We’re all still in this fight. We haven’t forgotten.” After George Floyd, Akil says one question going around was that once it’s no longer “trendy” to care, will people still stand up when wrongdoings are done? “[Historians] is supposed to be showing that yes. Yes, they will.”

Watch Historians here: