In late May, Chris Rogers was driving to the Victory Grill for his latest project—a series of murals paying homage to the historic venue’s status as one of the most powerful relics of Austin’s Black community. But as the artist made his way downtown, he saw a swelling crowd of demonstrators protesting police brutality outside APD’s Seventh Street headquarters. Almost instantly, the emotion he’d been withholding since learning of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis came pouring out. “I tried to go back to work, to make myself unsee what I saw in that video of George’s death. I put on videos of my favorite comedians in hopes of cracking a smile, but I just sat there dead-eyed,” he says. “I was paralyzed. I mean, how could I focus anything else? I put up an Instagram story searching for a wall to paint and, 15 minutes later, Native Hostel hit me up. The rest is history.”
Over the course of the next two weeks, Rogers channeled his pain and frustration into his most compelling public piece since he arrived in Austin in 2012. Titled “If HE Can’t Breathe, WE Can’t Breathe,” the mural depicts activist (and former NFL quarterback) Colin Kaepernick and memorializes several high-profile victims of police brutality over the years, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Michael Ramos, and Floyd. As he painted, Rogers was followed closely by filmmaker Chris Haywood, an East Austin native and creative director of The Come Up Media. The end result is Haywood’s newly released mini-documentary, Hashtags and Halos.
Artist Chris Rogers during an interview in the film.
From the outset, Haywood hits viewers with a medley of auditory and visual homages to Black art, beauty, and anguish—a sequence powered by an emotional spoken word poem performed by local wordsmith Christopher Michael. As black-and-white images of Black Lives Matter protests and a video of a solitary dancer flash across the screen, Michael’s words ring out in stirring fashion, each line building upon the one before it to deliver the documentary’s thesis:
George Floyd, the usual suspect, whose life is not what they respect
Who’s next to get a knee in the neck
Black ball player, blackballed for taking a knee
Black man dies when cop takes a knee
I can’t breathe, man. I don’t want to be
Another hashtag or halo
As the film progresses, Haywood unpacks the meaning behind Michael’s poem—that Black Americans are fed up of seeing their names trending on social media after yet another police killing—while providing a behind-the-scenes look at Rogers’ creative process. Beyond capturing the laborious nature of conceptualizing and painting a massive mural, it also lends to the mentally grueling aspect of the artist’s work. Having a platform to speak out about the broken system fueling police brutality is powerful, Rogers admits, but it also weighs on you.
And yet, as evidenced by his final product, Rogers was able to push through this adversity and complete a piece that, he hopes, breeds understanding and introspection for all Austinites, Black or white. “There’s no way that cop could’ve sat on George Floyd’s neck for 9.5 minutes (almost 3 minutes after he went limp) if he saw himself in George Floyd,” he says in the film. “Conversely, if he saw George Floyd as this thing, as ‘it’, as ‘other,’ now that gives him some wiggle room.”
To that point, Haywood says the 14-minute documentary is meant to start a conversation and, ultimately, help people find common ground. It’s also a testament to his experience as a Black man and Black filmmaker in Austin. “One of the biggest things I wanted to convey in this film is that we live in the same country, but our viewpoints and experiences differ greatly. It’s impossible to separate my experiences as a Black man from my filmmaking,” he says. “The struggle and experiences of being Black have forced me to be resourceful and creative. It affects what I think is cool, the music I choose to help narrate the film, and the stories I want to tell. I want to use my video skills to tell stories my community needs to share.”
A passerby snaps a picture of Rogers’ mural.
While Rogers says our city and country have a long way to go, Haywood’s work suggests that the seeds of hope are being sewn. By the end of the film, the mural is complete, but, more importantly, its mission of creating an open dialogue about race has already taken root—and with that, a greater appreciation for humanity as a whole.
This notion is driven home by a conclusion that starkly contrasts the opening scene.
As the film closes, the poet, Michael, is back, as is the solo dancer. This time, though, they’re shown in vibrant color, mirroring the brushstrokes that brought Rogers’ painting to life after weeks of strife. Proudly, Michael stares into the camera and issues a proclamation of promise, strength, and defiance:
I believe in peace
I don’t want to see my city burn
But we have a right to defend ourselves
And we’re out of cheeks to turn
No more hashtags and halos (6x)
Hashtags & Halos Short Documentary from Chris Haywood on Vimeo.
Follow Chris Rogers @chrisrogersart on Instagram and visit thecomeupmedia.com to see more of Chris Haywood’s work.