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A Documentary that Tackles the Tricky Subject of Race

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With all of the news about Barack Obama’s pastor and the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., race has been at the forefront of the national conversation recently. Yet few outlets in popular culture have stepped up to address the issue. One documentary, Meeting David Wilson set to air this week on MSNBC, is hoping to change that.

As the title suggest, the documentary is about David Wilson. Two David Wilsons, in fact. The first is a 28-year-old African-American news producer who lives in Newark, New Jersey. The second David Wilson is white, 62 years old, and owner of a small chain of barbecue restaurants in North Carolina.

Now, here’s where the situation with the two men gets interesting: The white David Wilson’s family, if traced back generations to the antebellum South, once owned the African-American David Wilson’s family as slaves.

The documentary brings the two Wilsons together for a candid talk about race. MSNBC will show the film at 9 pm on April 11, and it’ll be immediately followed by a 90-minute live discussion on racial issues in America. The talk will take place at Howard University, and it’ll be moderated by Brian Williams.

I chatted with Pete Menzies, one of the executive producers of the film, about the experience of making a documentary about such a thorny issue. “It was a story that needed to be told,” he says. “And it’s such a timely story now. The timing couldn’t be better—the planets really aligned for us.”

Menzies got his start at MTV, putting together news segments and documentaries like My Life Translated about soldiers in Iraq, so he was used to working with a skeleton crew like the kind used to shoot Meeting David Wilson. “We pulled together a documentary the old-fashioned way, with four guys piling into two cars with five cameras, and just documenting everything that was going on,” he says, adding, “it was like a college road trip.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the shoot was easy. “The couple nights before the shoot, everyone was nervous for a different reason,” he says. “It was like having pre-wedding jitters. Everyone was on edge. Dave, especially, because he had so many questions he wanted answered.”

In the end, though, Menzies couldn’t be happier with the way the documentary turned out. “It tackles a lot of questions that people on both sides of the equation have,” he says. “We were very direct in the questions we asked. We tackled touchy subjects, like reparations. Dave was terrified to ask about them. We didn’t want to offend the white David Wilson. But he wanted to get answers.”

“I can’t wait to hear what people are going to say,” he continues. “It’s going to be a highly charged conversation, especially now.”

Visit the Meeting David Wilson official website.

Meeting David Wilson on MSNBC.

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