Ruth Etiesit Samuel
November 23, 2021
On Tuesday, the four-part docuseries “Black and Missing” debuts on HBO, chronicling the journey of two sisters-in-law bringing awareness to Black missing persons cases ignored by law enforcement and national media. The documentary centers on Derrica and Natalie Wilson as co-founders of the Black & Missing Foundation, and on their crusade to reunite families and change the narrative regarding missing Black people.
Directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Geeta Gandbhir and journalist Soledad O’Brien, the series spotlights different cases and the nuances that distinguish them, including the impacts of online grooming and domestic violence. Gandbhir said that in “Black and Missing,” she sought to address structural, systemic issues like disability status, gender, class and more.
“In Episode 1, we focus on the police, law enforcement, systemic racism in law enforcement, and the labeling of Black and brown kids as runaways. In Episode 2, we really focus on the media, the racial bias and missing white woman syndrome,” Gandbhir said. “In Episode 3, we focus a lot on women, domestic violence and mental health. There is this incredible pressure that we put on Black women to be the people to hold everything together for their family and community all while under-resourcing them the most.”
Episode 4 of “Black and Missing” focuses on poverty, considering Black and brown individuals live disproportionately in poverty compared with other populations. Gandbhir noted that poverty can lead to housing and food insecurity, but also to mental health issues that can make one more vulnerable to trafficking, being criminalized by the police, and, ultimately, going missing.
“It’s important to us to find out the ways in which Black people and brown people go missing. There’s a concept of going missing, disappearing through a crime, having a mental health issue, and ultimately leaving your community and your family,” Gandbhir said. “But, there’s also the disappearance of Black men through incarceration. We definitely tried to address the structural problems with our society, while still trying to keep the stories of our contributors in the forefront.”
After three years in the making, all four episodes of the series will debut on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max. Ahead of the documentary’s premiere, Gandbhir and the Wilson sisters spoke with HuffPost about the purpose of their work.
What spurred the inception of the Black & Missing Foundation?
Natalie Wilson: The inspiration behind the Black & Missing Foundation is a young lady by the name of Tamika Huston who went missing from Derrica’s hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. We read how her family, particularly her aunt who’s in media relations, really struggled to get national media coverage surrounding Tamika’s disappearance. A little while later, Lori Hacking disappeared and she dominated the news cycle. [Tamika’s] Aunt Rebkah reached out to the same reporters, same network, same programs, and there was no interest in Tamika’s story. So, Derrica and I wanted to do some research to see if this is an issue affecting our communities. Also, Natalee Holloway went missing and she dominated the news cycle.
When we did our research, we found that 30% of all persons missing are or were of color, mostly Black men, so we decided to do something about it. With my public relations or media relations experience and Derrica’s in law enforcement, those are the two critical professions needed to help find and bring awareness to our missing. That number of our missing has now grown to 40% of all persons missing are of color. That’s why we keep going. We’re motivated to help these families that have no other avenues, nowhere else to turn, they’re not getting the resources from law enforcement, and the media isn’t covering their story. That’s why the Black & Missing Foundation was created, to be advocates for these families.
Geeta, as a non-Black woman, what made you want to take this story on?
Geeta Gandbhir: So, I have worked with Soledad and her company on a film prior to this series called “Hungry to Learn,” and it was a really good experience. We had a great relationship and working with Soledad, who is a Black woman, I really enjoyed the culture of her company and felt a lot of kinship already with our political views. I have a long-standing relationship with HBO as well, but this series came from Soledad’s company and they came to me and asked me if I would be part of it.
Reading about Derrica and Natalie, it was impossible to say no. A really important thing this series does is debunk that sort of “All Lives Matter” myth that all we as [Black, Indigenous and other people of color] do is complain about the police and don’t take any actions to do anything for ourselves or help ourselves in any way. Natalie and Derrica are the antithesis of any of the false narratives that folks want to put out there. All these families that we see are doing everything they can and oftentimes, it’s with very little support and minimal resources. To me, this was also very political. It was important to do this film to sort of expose the systemic, structural, and political issues behind this crisis around the same people. It’s in line with the sort of work I do. Because I am not African American, it was really important to me that my other directors are Black women. My entire production team was also Black women, so I couldn’t have had a better team to put this together.
As founders of the Black & Missing Foundation, what does it mean to have your life’s work amplified through this documentary?
Natalie Wilson: To be approached by Soledad O’Brien, she’s a veteran in the news business and in the industry, and to have someone like her come alongside us, to partner with us, to share our stories, I think that’s a huge win not only for the organization but for the families that we serve. It’s also a testament of our hard work. We’ve put in a lot of hours and people are noticing, and to have someone notice the impact that we’re making, want to work alongside us, and want to take it to another level, I think it’s awesome and it’s really indescribable.
Derrica Wilson: I echo everything that Natalie said and with the documentary, it’s going to inspire others to take action and want to do more in the community, especially when it centers on our missing Black men, women and children. I’m very honored to be able to work with Soledad, HBO, Geeta — it’s just been an amazing opportunity and something that we’ve never dreamt of. Because we didn’t get into this for the accolades ― we got into this because we realized that there was an issue in our community. In order to address an issue, you have to be willing to be the change. Natalie and I, we are mothers, we are wives, we work full-time jobs, but we have a passion to help folks and utilize our expertise to be able to hold their hand.
When these families come to us, they’re at their worst, like the most vulnerable time in their life when others have closed the door in their face, speaking of law enforcement and the media. We want to be the champion of change. I look at the documentary as a call to action because it’s going to give that bird’s-eye view on what the struggles are for families in the Black and brown community. But also now that we realize that this is the issue and everyone is aware of it, what are we going to do to implement change?
From watching “Black and Missing,” viewers learn that police departments often regard youth as “runaways” upon turning age 16 as opposed to “missing children.” How do you think the adultification of Black girls contributes to the disregard for their safety when in need of help?
Derrica Wilson: It’s not uncommon for law enforcement to label our girls and boys as runaways that are under the age of 17. You have cases where we have children that are 10, 11, 12 being classified as runaways. We really need to change that narrative, that application, and the reporting structure. Law enforcement is not looking for them, the media is not putting out the information, so no one cares. That’s what we’re hearing from the family, that no one cares so these pimps are using our kids and they’re targeting them. We have to do a better job with how these cases are handled, and we really need to get rid of that term: “runaway.”
It was emphasized in the documentary that cooperation and collaboration with law enforcement is integral to find missing children. After the calls to defund and abolish police last summer, do you believe these departments and systems are capable of reform?
Derrica Wilson: We are hopeful. We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go. Building those relationships with law enforcement is so critical. But we are hopeful that we can have a seat at the table across the country to sit down and discuss holistically the changes that are so needed. We need to look at best practices, we need to look at the classification. We need to establish policies and procedures.
For example, families must wait 24 hours before they report their loved ones missing in most states; there are a few that you can report immediately. We need to do away with that and if they’re missing, the report needs to be taken immediately. We also want to see how these cases are handled because we know that missing persons are not considered a priority, especially when it’s an adult. Men and women can come as they please, and so that’s why a lot of resources are not dedicated to the missing person units across the country. Again, as Natalie was giving out the statistics when we started, it was 30%. Now, it’s 40% missing persons of color yet we make up 13% of the population. Clearly, there really is a disconnect.
I’m a member of NOBLE (National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives) and to be able to sit down with the members and strategize with individuals that can relate that look like us to implement change, I think that’s gonna be very vital. We can’t do it by ourselves; we have to work alongside with law enforcement, especially when we’re getting tips coming in because we want to follow up on the tips and the information. But we also need them to dedicate more resources and we need them to take our cases seriously.
Natalie Wilson: For us, the takeaway or the real impact of this docuseries is we want to further the conversations across newsrooms. We want them to address the biases, whether it’s intentional or not, on how they cover these cases. With law enforcement, we really need to challenge them to look at themselves and to see how they’re classifying these cases as Derrica mentioned because these stereotypes are really impacting the urgency in adding resources to the case.
Derrica Wilson: When you look at a flyer and one flyer says “runaway” and the other flyer says “missing,” the messaging is not created equal. When you’re asking for the general public to help, they are less likely to share a runaway poster.
Why do you think media outlets do not respond to cases of Black missing girls in the same manner and with the same fervor as cases such as Gabby Petito, Elizabeth Smart, etc.?
Derrica Wilson: Our kids, our girls are being adultified and they’re not seen as victims, especially when they’re victims of sex trafficking. We need more diversity in newsrooms, so that the gatekeepers are telling stories that represent the diversity of their audience. Most newsrooms are run by white middle-class men and they don’t see themselves in the stories, and we tend to be criminalized. Those are the narratives that we’re trying to change because these are mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers; they’re valuable members of our community. What we are doing is advocacy as well where we’re trying to change the narrative surrounding our missing so that as a nation, we can do something and hold the media and law enforcement accountable.
Do we have information on the demographics of perpetrators and kidnappers? Is there any data that points to a particular demographic that preys on Black women and girls?
Geeta Gandbhir: We thought about that, as far as trying to insert that into the documentary, but we did not find any data that was really comprehensive or conclusive on that. There’s more data on people who are victims or survivors, than on the people who are the perpetrators. I think that’s another film, to be honest. For all of those issues, when it comes to perpetrators or people who’ve been arrested for crimes, you really have to look at the context, then you have to examine race within that, etc. So, we did not find any concrete data about perpetrators and that was very interesting.
Derrica Wilson: We haven’t either, but that’s something definitely we need to keep in the forefront to take a look at.
Natalie Wilson: Absolutely. What we have noticed, though, is that there is a correlation between missing persons and domestic violence. We’ve seen that, even with the inspiration of the organization and Tamika Huston’s case.
The documentary spotlighted the Black & Missing Foundation’s partnership with the Baltimore Police Department to train EMTs on how to recognize the signs of a trafficking or kidnapping survivor. Has that training spread to other departments in different states?
Natalie Wilson: Absolutely. What we have done over the course of the years and continue to do is partner with law enforcement, partner with other organizations to bring awareness. I think the most important piece is being proactive. We’re not a reactive organization. We want to teach people how to be safe, how to protect yourself before something like this happens. We have held numerous training events around the country. We went to universities, then we went to high schools, then our faith-based community and so forth, so on. Of course, when COVID hit, we took everything that we would do in person and we started partnering up with organizations to do this virtually. Again, I think everyone is really starting to take notice and how we’re stronger together. We can’t simply do this by ourselves.
What do you want people to take away from this documentary?
Natalie Wilson: The takeaway is a wake-up call for the media to really look at themselves and how they cover these cases and their biases that’s preventing coverage. For law enforcement, how they’re classifying our cases and not adding resources to it. What we want the community to know is that they have an ally in this fight, and we can do so much more if we come together. Really, we all have a responsibility to stand up for ourselves and say enough is enough and to hold the media and law enforcement accountable because our missing matter too. We need our community to get involved and to not only be aware, but to help these cases go viral, and to share them within their network so that more missing can come home.
What can the media do?
Derrica Wilson: One of the things that we actually tell our media partners is don’t wait on a story to be trendy. Be the breaking story yourself. Less is more. We understand that not every case is going to meet the 5 and 10 o’clock news cycle. We understand that not every case is going to elevate to mainstream media, but we need to create equality in our coverage. All these families are hurting with the unknown, not knowing if their loved ones are hungry, sick, being mistreated, or even if they’re going to walk through the front door again. We have to really rally around these families. We have to bring about humanity. These are mothers, these are wives, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters.
Natalie Wilson: We’re not picking on the media or law enforcement because all of us have a responsibility to help find and bring awareness to our community. If all of us work collectively together, I think we can do so much more. Derrica and I are really just fire starters in this conversation. We’re really coming along as a lifeline for these families and what we’re doing is we’re giving them hope, and many of them we’re giving them hope for the very first time. There are so many doors that are closing for these families when they don’t have hope it’s hard for them to keep going. When someone comes along and they’re in the fight with you, we’re asking these families just to hold on for another day and just to keep fighting.
Photo credit: HBO