Beverly filmmakers document Alabama vaccination campaign; will screen at Sundance festival

Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine

By Shelley A. Sackett

It was spring 2021, the second year of the pandemic, and filmmakers Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine were depressed. They were living in Alabama, a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

“We had nearly forgotten what it was like to make eye contact with other humans. We finally had a vaccine, but people weren’t getting the shot – at least not in Alabama,” Levine said by email.

The Massachusetts natives’ dour moods lifted, however, when they heard about Dorothy Oliver, a woman who was running a vaccination drive out of her mobile home convenience store in Panola, a rural Black town of almost 400 near the Mississippi border. Panola was too small for its own COVID vaccine center and the closest hospital is almost 40 miles away. Many residents don’t have cars; some still rely on horses for transportation.

Oliver and County Commis­sioner Drucilla Russ-Jackson hatched a plan to keep their town safe. Rather than try to bring Panola’s unvaccinated to the hospital, they would bring the hospital to Panola. They persuaded a local clinic to bring a pop-up site to the town under one challenging condition: They had to convince 40 residents to sign up for the vaccine.

Although Panola had its share of skeptics, a lot of residents wanted the shot. It was logistics – not anti-vax ideology – that kept them from getting it. As social justice advocates and activists, Levine and DeCruz were troubled by the underlying unfairness behind the public health reality of this poor, Black rural community.

They jumped into their car and drove out – unannounced – to meet Oliver at her store. “Instead of sitting on our couch in a state of existential dread, we set out to seek solutions – and frankly, some hope,” said Levine.

Oliver welcomed them like family from the beginning. “She showed us that even in trying times, even when discussing a politically fraught issue, the only way forward is with hope, warmth, and a sense of humor,” DeCruz said.

Levine and DeCruz were so struck by Oliver’s tenacity and the injustice of Panola’s situation that they decided to bring the story to a larger audience. “The Panola Project,” a 16-minute documentary they coproduced and codirected, chronicles Oliver’s campaign as she goes door to door, talking people into signing up and lightly chiding them about their fears and concerns. The film was recently named an official selection of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

DeCruz and Levine, who grew up in Beverly but met as adults in New York City, share a deep commitment to social justice issues. They were both raised in families grounded by Jewish values, culture and traditions. They moved to Tuscaloosa when Levine was hired as an assistant professor of media production at the University of Alabama.

Levine remembers learning about the Jews’ difficult history as a kid, when he attended Hebrew school at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. “This created a deep-rooted desire to fight for justice for all. The idea of ‘tikkun olam’ was important to my worldview from early on,” he said.

DeCruz’s life and identity were shaped by both race and religion. Her mother is white and Jewish and her father is Black. Growing up, she didn’t know many mixed-race families and at home, “We never talked about race, despite the fact that it was impacting each of our lives every day in numerous ways. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to figure out my place and understand the many layers of my identity. These factors were a large part of what drove me to do racial justice work,” said DeCruz, the associate director of advocacy at Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.

“The Panola Project,” which spotlights the racial and social inequities behind public health policy, was a perfect fit for these two filmmakers professionally and personally, with Oliver as its perfect spokesperson. “I just felt like I had to do it because the government, nobody does enough in this area,” Oliver explains on camera. “This area here is majority Black. Kind of puts you on the back burner.”

Oliver received USA Today’s Best of Humankind/Best of Womankind Award, which recognizes and celebrates an everyday person who is making a difference in their community. Dr. Anthony Fauci thanked her, saying her work can serve as a model for the country.

DeCruz points out that, despite Alabama having one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, 99 percent of adults in Panola have now received their shots, thanks to Oliver and Russ-Jackson’s relentless campaign. “The film showcases the incredible strength of Black women who frequently serve as the backbone holding their communities together,” she said.

For Levine, who recently began as a communication, journalism, and media professor at Suffolk University, the power of storytelling became obvious at an early age. He clearly remembers the pivotal moment that set him on his journey as a filmmaker, or “visual storyteller” as he calls it.

He was a 7-year-old, fulfilling his Hebrew school assignment to record a relative’s story. Armed with a plastic Playskool cassette tape recorder, he interviewed his great-grandmother about her journey to the United States. She told the boy how – when she was just a child – her parents hired a smuggler to sneak her out of Russia under the cover of night to escape antisemitism.

“Had I not gone that day with a tape recorder, her story would have been lost. The connections to our contemporary stories of migration would have been lost with it. This showed me, at a young age, the power of stories,” he said.

To view “The Panola Project,” go to youtube.com/watch?v=j1wI4T9SKGA.

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