Revisiting the Ghosts of Slavery: An Interview with Dr. Le Datta Grimes and Johnathan Knight on their film Invented Before You Were Born

Revisiting the Ghosts of Slavery: An Interview with Dr. Le Datta Grimes and Johnathan Knight on their film Invented Before You Were Born

Jonathan Knight is the director and producer of INVENTED BEFORE YOU WERE BORN.  Dr. Le Datta Grimes is an African-American journalist and historian. 


Why did you make this film?

Dr. Le Datta Grimes: I am a historian. And I LOVE telling stories. My work specifically focuses on Black communities in the 19th and 20th centuries, and this film explores Black life in those periods beyond the scope of slavery. In the Bibb Freedmen, we get to see free Black people as landowners, thinkers, business owners, and decision-makers. In Richard Bibb, we see the possibility of change and transformation. And I truly believe this is a story worth telling, hearing, knowing, and engaging with.

Why is this film relevant to our current moment?

Dr. Le Datta Grimes: We live in an era of lies and erasure. Instead of confronting this nation’s racialized past, some would rather mythologize and make up stories of virtue rather than be virtuous. Black History has fallen prey to this way of thinking, and it is under virulent attack. There is a growing effort to minimize and diminish any work that confronts this nation’s racialized history or its outcomes, so it’s terribly important to produce work that counters this initiative. Invented Before You Were Born is relevant because it opens the door for audiences to have hard conversations on race, redemption, community, and allyship.

Jonathan: We are in a moment right now with growing censorship and erasure of the history and experiences of people of color. Invented Before You Were Born is dedicated to exploring the history we all share in America and looking at it honestly and from many points of view. What we discover is that through honesty and responsibility, we can find a path we can be proud of and make connections we never expected.

Why use filmmaking to examine this issue?

Dr. Le Datta Grimes: History has often been described as change over time. And to some degree, it is just that. But, to my mind, history is better defined as a change in people over time: who they were, the decisions they made, and why they made them. While the former definition offers us clinical distance and thereby a theoretical understanding that’s found in the academy, the latter offers us connection, an opportunity to see ourselves and relate. Similarly, documentary filmmaking allows us to explore historical people, their decisions, actions, and outcomes in a way that is not high-brow, but palatable and engaging to the masses.

Why did you become a filmmaker?

Dr. Le Datta Grimes: I believe history belongs to the masses – and not just an elite few. I believe stories like Invented Before You Were Born deserve to be shared among a myriad of thinkers, people of varying intellects and insights. I want to equip, educate, and empower the masses with my work, and filmmaking is a beautiful avenue for this. Many people don’t enjoy reading. Some are afraid of strong, vigorous, challenging debates, but documentaries are typically accessible and less intimidating.

Why was it important to tell this story through the perspectives of your film participants?

Jonathan: This story isn’t new. There’s been historical markers and notes in history books about Major Richard Bibb for over a century. But the story was always presented in a way that centered Bibb and his actions to emancipate the people he enslaved. No one seemed to ask what those people thought, or did with their freedom. We found that there were many descendants of Bibb, both Black and white, who had stories passed to them from different perspectives. We strove to provide as many perspectives as possible, and get the real stories of the people freed in Bibb’s will. History is only fully told when you get all sides, and so much more interesting when you do.

Was there anything that surprised you in the process of making this film?

Jonathan: I was truly surprised at how deeply this experience changed me. It became a core experience for me and forced me to confront feelings of guilt and shame, as well as learning to be vulnerable in hard conversations. Through it, I came to value the connections and family I met more than my emotional distance and comfort. It’s been deeply rewarding to take these risks and grow.

Tell us about the issue your film focuses on.

Dr. Le Datta Grimes: Invented Before You Were Born deals with uncomfortable issues of race/racism, White superiority, Black enslavement, and inequality. Unlike other stories, however, it also moves beyond the lens of Black degradation to issues of faith, transformation, Black freedom, and Black land ownership. Last, with the reunion of both sides of the Bibb story – that of the slaveholder and the enslaved – the film copes with responsibility and the possibility of reconciliation.

Tell us about how audiences have been responding to your film.

Jonathan: I’ve had the privilege of attending screenings of Invented Before You Were Born in widely diverse areas and audiences. From LA to Boston, from Texas to Chicago, and most importantly, Russellville, Kentucky, where most of the film was shot. It's overwhelming to see how touched the audiences have been with the film. What’s amazed me are the discussions that follow every screening. People don't just exit at the credits, they want to stay and talk about it. We get so many great questions and stories from the audience’s own lives and family histories. We developed our teaching guide to help facilitate these discussions, inspired by Invented Before You Were Born.

Bring the documentary INVENTED BEFORE YOU WERE BORN and Jonathan Knight to your campus.