The 2018 midterm elections marked a watershed year for women of color running for political office in the U.S., with a dramatic increase in candidates and history-making wins all over the country. And that fateful November night likely just marked the very beginning of a glass ceiling-shattering revolution in American politics.
Safinia sees the impetus of “The New Majority” movement, as they call it, stemming from a combination of a few different factors. There was the campaign, election and young presidency of Donald Trump, who “applied a clarifying focus to sort of direct effects on communities of color and on women.” There are the rapidly shifting demographics, with the U.S. projected to become ‘minority white’ by 2045, and our elected leadership not coming close to reflecting that. “And then, like anything that happens [seemingly] overnight, it never happens overnight,” Safinia explains. “It’s generations of power building and community. So those three elements just kind of came together in 2018 in a very powerful way.”
And She Could Be Next, which aired on PBS and is now available on-demand, is an illuminating and insightful look at the movement framed through the grassroots organizing and campaigns of six different women of color vying for office in the lead-up to the 2018 elections: Stacey Abrams (the first Black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party when she ran in Georgia), Bushra Amiwala (a Muslim-American who ran for Cook County Board of Commissioners in Skokie, Ill. at the age of 19), Maria Elena Durazo (a Mexican-American trade union official who ran for office for the first time, California State Senate, at 62), Veronica Escobar (a Mexican-American county judge in El Paso, Tex. who ran for congress), Lucy McBath (a Black gun reform activist who ran for congress in Georgia), Rashida Tlaib (a Palestinian-American state legislator who ran for congress in Michigan).
“It was time to tell an American political story with women of color as the leads and as this transformative force in American politics while the demographics are rapidly shifting and we're in the middle of so many upheavals,” says Lee (Makers: Women in Politics, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs), who describes herself and her co-director as political junkies. (The series, executive produced by Ava DuVernay, was made by an entirely women of color creative team.)
“I think that's what makes each of these women particularly resonant and also successful is that they really share lived experiences with what so many Americans are going through,” says the Iranian documentarian Safinia (Seeds), who recalls applying for U.S. citizenship the day after Trump first proposed the idea of a Muslim ban as a candidate in 2015, and feeling “floored” by his election one year later. “And those Americans who never feel seen in the system now feel seen and are willing to lean in and participate. So it just felt like a really brilliant way to look at our democracy through this lens of the power of women of color.”
Both filmmakers point to the life and career of Tlaib, the oldest of 14 children born to working-class Palestinian immigrants in Detroit whose “very grounded, very accessible,” activist-like approach to lawmaking, as particularly inspiring to them, especially in contrast to establishment politicians. “I had the lights switched on for me,” says Lee of meeting Tlaib for the first time while shooting Makers: Women in Politics. “I was like, ‘Wow, I've never seen somebody like this before. I always kind of picture Mitch McConnell or even Nancy Pelosi, [these] dinosaurs who are in politics.”
Not all of the women Lee and Safinia trailed were victorious. Chances are you know that Abrams did not become governor of Georgia, losing a hard-fought, painfully narrow and controversial (with charges of racially motivated voter suppression) battle against Brian Kemp in the state’s closest gubernatorial race since 1966. You probably also know that Tlaib made history by becoming one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, along with Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar. (If you don’t know which of the other women won or lost, the suspense will only enhance your experience of watching And She Could Be Next, so we won’t spoil it here.)
As a body, though, the women collectively represent a clear sea change. “Our focus was always that we wanted to talk about this movement because the movement is underway, has been underway and has been underreported in the mainstream news,” Safinia says.
In addition to Tlaib and Omar’s historic wins, 2018 saw Ayanna Pressley and Jahana Hayes become the first Black women elected to Congress in Massachusetts and Connecticut, respectively, Escobar and Sylvia Garcia become the first Latinas elected to the House in Texas (OK, we spoiled one victory here) and a Puerto Rican ex-bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at 29. (A great companion piece to And She Could Be Next is the Netflix doc Knocking Down the House, which covers similar ground and prominently features AOC.)
“It just feels like, yeah, we've reached a kind of tipping point in terms of all this stuff,” says Lee.
The movement will very likely continue through 2020, a year in which we’ve already seen more historic wins for women of color during June’s primary elections.
“There are even more women of color running for office in the 2020 cycle than there were in 2018,” Safinia reports. “So this tells us that there is this [movement].”
There could even be a woman of color elected vice president. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has pledged to choose a female running mate, and names like California senator Kamala Harris, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth and Florida congresswoman Val Demings have all been floated as potential picks. “Based on the evidence of our work, we think it’s really important,” that Biden chooses a woman of color, Safinia laughs.
Of course it still comes down to who’s the best man or woman for the job. As Abrams says in the series, “I don’t want anyone to elect me because I’m Black. I don’t want anyone to elect me because I’m a woman. But I want you to know that as a Black woman, the things that I’ve had to accomplish to be positioned for this race are skills that I will bring to this job of being governor: Being underestimated. Having to navigate spaces where we are not expected to be. Being able to see challenges where other people don’t understand them. Knowing how to overcome barriers. Being able to identify that there were actual barriers.”
The more candidates that continue to break down barriers like Abrams and Tlaib, the more women of color we’ll see running and being elected to office, which could finally make American government accurately reflect the demographics of the populace it serves.
And that’s exactly the point of And She Could Be Next.
“Part of the reason we wanted to make this is because it really does matter who you see,” Safinia says. “And across this country, when we would see young women of color of all stripes [whose] whole universe of what's possible for [them] shifts when they see someone who looks like them or come from a similar background as them in the position of power. And it suddenly seems like that becomes possible.”
Watch the trailer:
Read more on Yahoo Entertainment: