San Francisco Film Fest 2022 Interview: A.K. Sandhu on How History Comes to Shape the Future in “For Love and Legacy”

Even after the two had started to get to know each other during the filming of “For Love and Legacy,” it was bound to be a little intimidating for A.K. Sandhu to ask Fredrika Newton to ask to see some personal artifacts from her relationship with her late husband Huey P. Newton, the iconic co-founder of the Black Panthers. Pictures of the fiery revolutionary had been placed all around the studio of the sculptor Dana King for reference as she prepared a bronze bust for a park on the street that bears his name in West Oakland, but the filmmaker had wanted to see pictures of the Newtons as a couple.

“I’m just in awe that I’m hearing these personal stories about this historical figure in a whole different way than I ever thought would be possible for me to hear, so we wanted to capture bits and pieces of that and every time I’d say, “Okay, Fredrika, could you show me some old photos if I come over one day?” she’s like, ‘Are they really important? Do people really care to see this?’ Sandhu recalls with some incredulity, given the impact the Newtons had made towards closing societal inequities. “It was still really baffling to me that in her mind she felt that the origins of her story were not  important enough to be shared or worthy of prominence in the film… and when she’d show me these archives, I was like, “Trust me, this is really important. People haven’t seen this side of Revolutionaries like Huey and heard [your] personal stories,’ and I think this speaks to the lack of representation. When we don’t see people like us take up space in cinema, we question the importance of it.”

Although it goes without question that Huey P. Newton made history, “For Love and Legacy” considers those doing the important work of keeping it alive, particularly when long-marginalized communities are made to feel like footnotes. In this tender documentary short, King and Newton aren’t only molding a piece of clay, but shaping how generations see the civil rights leader and by extension, see their own strength as they envision themselves and their place in the culture. With every decision made about the contours of Newton’s face, King, who was a broadcast journalist before becoming an artist, scrutinizes what it says about the man and the movement he led, while Newton, who lost her husband far too soon when he was assassinated in 1989, is able to feel as if he’s in the room with her once again, illustrating how large his presence looms to this day for many, in spite of there being no proper monuments to recognize it.

As King creates something undeniable to celebrate Newton’s memory and everything that he stood for, the same could be said of Sandhu, who shares a kinship with the sculptor in having started out in a different profession before following her passion, and “For Love and Legacy” has already clearly made its mark as it is taking the west coast by storm with stops at the Seattle, San Francisco and Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles this week before making its New York bow at Tribeca this June. Recently, Sandhu graciously took time away from a busy schedule to talk about how the film took shape, fighting obstacles from COVID to inclement weather and finding purpose as a filmmaker.

How did this come about?

I was accepted into a film fellowship for emerging BIPOC filmmakers in Oakland called Re-Take Oakland. The goal was to mentor emerging filmmakers of color to tell stories from their communities, but personal stories that did not reduce  BIPOC stories to simply social issues and to find an Oakland-based character. Social issues can intersect with their lives, they just don’t have to be the only way to look at them. As I was – and am still – trying to find a sustainable way to afford to be a filmmaker in the Bay Area, I had gotten a job back in finance in 2019, so my mother doesn’t have to stress about the mortgage alone, [and at work] I happened to be in the lunch room and one of my only friends at that job, Erin Proto, asked me what I was doing this weekend. I explained I’m in this film fellowship, looking for this subject. She said, “Oh my God, Dana King lives in Oakland. She could be pretty cool.” And when I found Dana King, I was really excited because as a kid in the Bay Area I grew up watching her on the news. That was the only woman on TV who looked like me and she had this career transition at the age of 50 to being an artist.

I had that job for barely a year, thanks to COVID layoffs, and I feel the only reason the universe led me there was so I could meet my friend Erin, who tipped me off towards Dana and this story came to be. My initial idea was “Oh, Dana transitioned in her career and I transitioned in my career, how great is that story about a brilliant woman of color reinventing herself” and we’ll feature her beautiful art. But the timing of it all was interesting – she wasn’t actually working on a piece at that time and we decided to do a deep dive into her life and her transition from broadcasting to art, but then COVID hits and Black Lives Matter erupted, and it changed everything. Our filming had gotten slightly delayed and then [Dana] goes, “Guess what commission I just got? A sculpture to honor Huey Newton and the Panthers.” And I’m realizing that I’m about to witness history being made for the first time.

Fredrika Newton had commissioned it, and all of a sudden, I was like, “Wait, now I have this opportunity to speak to and include a real Black Panther member? Of course!” Then the story evolved and we pivoted towards making the story about Dana and Fredrika and how Black women do the legacy work behind the scenes and pass down that legacy for future generations and why they do it without much recognition, [like] the unseen journey behind the creation of a sculpture like that. So it was like receiving a divine message of this is what you have to do, this is the right time to do it and it was really, really special experience.

I’m glad that you did – did Dana tip you off to to come by the studio at certain points in the process or were you there the whole time rolling?

That was interesting. They started this before they had raised the money for the whole journey of getting this sculpture made and installed and luckily, I’m only 25 minutes away from them. They felt safe enough [to have me in the studio], given the COVID pandemic, since it was mostly just me filming by myself and rarely did I have another person helping me. [Dana] just said, “Come over when I work on it,” so I would just show up and try to be a fly on the wall and we did get delayed a lot in terms of money being raised or them getting permissions from Oakland to finally do the installation. It finally got rescheduled from February of 2021 on Huey’s birthday all the way to October, which was the 55th anniversary of the [Black Panther] party, so the delay actually ended up being a blessing in disguise, giving me more time to follow the journey and make it a whole complete story.

The entire history really comes through in the conversations between Dana and Fredrika. Did that emerge organically?

That’s the beauty of having a subject who has had a broadcast career – it just does your job for you. [laughs] Dana’s such a good conversationalist and the conversations they had were so natural, the only thing I ever had to ask them to redo was walk in front of the sculpture so I could get a closeup shot of their hands on the sculpture, which they naturally had before, but I never had to really guide them. When they were actually deciding whether [Huey] was going to wear a jacket or not, that was the most natural moment where I actually had a friend that day doing sound with me and we both had to bite our tongues so we didn’t laugh out loud at what just happened in front of us. Their friendship evolved during this process, and having a front row seat to that was just so beautiful, watching women of color – they’re both my mother’s age – and this work that they do for us goes unnoticed and never really has that much space in cinema and to be able to provide that space through this film was just such a privilege.

When you have this connection to Dana as someone who had another career before becoming an artist, even though you end up not telling that story, did it end up informing how you wanted to depict the creative process?

It’s hard to separate. Being a woman and being a woman of color myself, working in finance where I was always the diversity when I walked in, in everything I do and through my current work in film, I believe in thinking differently and challenging the cultural hegemony in cinema. When I transitioned to film from finance, it was natural. When the market crashed in ’08, there was not much of an opportunity cost to just do what you wanted for a while and that somehow led to an international career in photography which grew into film pretty quickly. So I was just following the signs of the universe and I realized I have to challenge the status quo and the way I do that now through my medium of film is just by giving space to underrepresented groups in society, which is women of color and for them to not just be limited to all the trauma that they’ve experienced, but them just doing amazing things and living in their fullness. And for audiences, especially girls and women, it’s extremely important to see themselves and for others to see us the way we see ourselves.

That’s why I am really grateful for the fellowship and Jennifer Crystal Chien, who singehandedly, with limited resources, launched the Re-Take Oakland fellowship and created such an enriching experience for BIPOC filmmakers in the Bay Area. I did not go to film school. I am self-taught. But coming into contact with amazing filmmakers who are really trying to change the status quo and having them be mentors on this project was really huge learning experience for me. There’s a million other stories that I’d like now to be focusing on when it comes to the Panthers or seeing them differently through their poetry or through their personal archives and I hope this project getting out to places will allow me that honor and the resources to be able to tell those bigger stories.

I’m excited to hear that and you mentioned that it was a blessing that the unveiling of the bust was delayed as much as it did, but in the film, you note that the specific day might not have been ideal when it took place during one of the worst storms to hit Oakland in recent memory. What was it like filming that day?

That is the one day when I hate to admit it, but I was very grateful to Amazon because I ordered five different camera covers and one of them fit perfectly. I had all my rain gear on, but the rain was so strong, Dana and I were laughing afterwards [because] she goes “My raincoat is wet on the inside” and somehow the camera remained dry. What was interesting was that everything was wet — condensation started to develop inside the lens filter and I didn’t have dry hands, so I could remove the filter and the condensation, but it allowed this beautiful glow that actually added to the scene, so it was one of those things — I lost my father in college, but my mother still talks about “Oh, his spirit is helping you, doing this or doing that and that day, I was like, “It’s Huey’s spirit! It’s helping me get these beautiful shots in the middle of this ridiculous storm.” Most people would’ve been like, “Nope, conditions are bad. We’re not filming today,” and I filmed through the whole thing. It was the most surreal and the most fun I’ve ever had shooting.

“For Love and For Legacy” is now screening virtually as part of the Shorts Program “Welcome to the Family” at the Seattle Film Festival through April 24th, the San Francisco International Film Festival before screenings of “American Justice on Trial” on April 22nd at 6 pm at the Roxie Theater and the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza on April 22nd at 4:10 pm & April 23rd at 9:30 pm. It will next screen at the Tribeca Film Fest as part of the Shorts program “Portraits and Performance: Celebrating Black Art & Artists” on June 18th at 2:45 pm at the Village East and to host an Educational or Community screening, please reach out to the filmmaker ak@aksandhu.com.