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A film about the blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands. Problematic? Or are the Dutch just having holiday fun?
A film about the blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands. Problematic? Or are the Dutch just having holiday fun?
536 backers pledged $27,785 to help bring this project to life.

Exciting News! New Name. New Team. Limited Preview in Italy!.

Kno'Ledge Cesar, Zwarte Piet is Racisme
Kno'Ledge Cesar, Zwarte Piet is Racisme

Hello Wonderful Community of Mine,

It's been quite some time (a little under a year in fact) since my last update about the documentary that you all so passionately supported. Many of you have checked in about the film's progress. Others have lent support in a myriad of ways. And then there were some who just wondered what in the world was going on with the film. Well, to address some of your inquiries, over the past two years since we successfully launched this campaign, we've been on quite a roller coaster ride.

To save you the boring details, I've spent the year, applying for funding, securing top notch producers, researching the subject matter, participating in a fellowship at the United Nations in Geneva as well as Firelight Media's Producer's Lab Retreat for emerging filmmakers and working on a sample that will allow me to secure support needed to complete this film. I've faced many challenges and disappointments and learned more than I could have ever imagined about documentary filmmaking. The biggest lesson, perhaps is that good films not only take money but they take tons of patience, tenacity and time. There was a moment or two that I felt discouraged However, the recent wave of serendipitous events are evident that potentially powerful moments, happen exactly when they're supposed to. It's all a process. That said, I couldn't wait to share a few bits of incredible news with you! So, without further ado...

(insert drumroll please)

WORKING TITLE: The new working title of the film is The Black Dutchman. For those of you who have closely followed events in the Netherlands, you are aware of the vast changes that are happening nationwide related to race, Black people and Black representation. The film has morphed into something much broader than Zwarte Piet, which is only a small aspect of a much larger problem in Dutch society and this new title reflects this reality.

My Producer and I, hanging out with Haile Gerima at SANKOFA.
My Producer and I, hanging out with Haile Gerima at SANKOFA.

The NEW A-TEAM:  I've brought on three heavy hitters to the team - dream hampton as Executive Producer, Alexandra McDougald and Numa Perrier as Producers. dream needs no introduction (but just in case, check out her website at Alex, is an industry veteran, who produced Alive Inside, a 2014 Sundance award winning film and was the force behind Haile Gerima's distribution for Teza. Numa Perrier (Black & Sexy TV amongst other things), is also an award winning filmmaker and artist. The rest of the production team - Shawn Peters, Raoul Popma and Bouba Dola are still on board and are as excited about completing this film as I am. 

INTERNATIONAL SNEAK PEEK:  Perhaps the most exciting news of all is that a sample of The Black Dutchman will screen as part of the ReSignifications: European Blackamoors, Africana Re‐Stagings exhibition, curated by Dr. Awam Akpa, in conjunction with NYU's Black Portraiture[s] Symposium! The 6 minute work in progress will be on view at both Museo Stefano Bardini and at Galleria Biagiotti in Florence, Italy. Inclusion in this show is a huge honor and such an incredible opportunity for the film. I'll be exhibiting alongside an internationally renowned line up of painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers and choreographers including one of my mentors, Dr. Deborah Willis, founder of the symposium and several of my colleagues and friends. If you're traveling to Italy for any reason, please visit the exhibit. I'll also be moderating a panel titled Habitual Linesteppers: Constructing Blackness Beyond the Imagination featuring Ja'Tovia Gary, Dr. Allison Janae Hamilton, Charl Landvreugd, Fahamu Pecou and Numa Perrier. Come check us out. The exhibition will be on view May 29 through August 29, 2015. I won't be sharing it for public consumption online yet but you'll be the first people to get notified when I do.

Museum Stefano Bardini
Museum Stefano Bardini

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Special Thanks to everyone for your positivity and collective commitment to seeing this project through to its completion. So many people have been working in small and large ways to make this happen - everything from contributing to financing trips, contributing to historical and contemporary research, editing the work sample, doing research, assisting with our social media platform, sharing constructive feedback and sending grant opportunities my way. There's no way possible that this could be done without any of you. I am scheduled to travel back to the Netherlands later this year with hopes to complete post-production in 2016. Stay tuned for more updates and stay engaged on our facebook page.  Lastly, to the Black Dutch community and non-Black allies and comrades in the Netherlands, I SALUTE YOU for all that you've done and all that you continue to do, to change society one confrontation at a time. Black Lives Matter Everywhere.

Until Soon,
Director + Producer
The Black Dutchman #theblackdutchman

Work In Progress | Zwarte Piet Documentary Update

Documenting the Anti-Zwarte Piet Demonstration, Amsterdam, NL ca. 2013 | Photo Credit: Jimini Hignett
Documenting the Anti-Zwarte Piet Demonstration, Amsterdam, NL ca. 2013 | Photo Credit: Jimini Hignett

Greetings All,

Happy mid-2014! I hope that this message finds you in good health and spirits. It has definitely been a minute since my last update. So much has happened since then and I’m happy to finally be able to bring everyone up to speed with what’s going on with the film.  If you completed the survey, you should have received your perks. Those of you who pledged at higher levels have more on the way.

As some of you all may know, last year, the Netherlands exploded over the Zwarte Piet issue. Much of the controversy happened after Dr. Verene Shepherd, the former chairperson of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent of the United Nations, vociferously denounced the holiday celebration as racist. As a result, millions of mostly white, pro-Zwarte Piet supporters went to social media to express their outrage over the statement and support of the tradition. Pro-Zwarte Piet protests were held and tensions flew. Anti-Zwarte Piet activists received death threats and the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights were inundated with hundreds of thousands of hate mail. I also received some threatening messages and other negative feedback about the film from people who were not happy that their tradition was being shown in a non-positive light.

Annual Sinterklaas Parade, Amsterdam, NL ca. 2013 | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis
Annual Sinterklaas Parade, Amsterdam, NL ca. 2013 | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis

Despite some anxiety, I traveled to the Netherlands and stayed there for a month last November and December during the height of the holiday celebration to document the many protests and festivities that took place as well as attend Amsterdam's annual Sinterklaas parade. The anti-Zwarte Piet protests that occurred, were unprecedented. Hundreds of people from various backgrounds came out to express their outrage and frustration with the blackface tradition and its celebration. In response, the Dutch majority in many ways celebrated the holiday more passionately than ever before. I took note of the every day signs of racism that are interwoven in the holiday itself.

Piets at the Intocht (Arrival of Sinterklaas) in Amsterdam | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis
Piets at the Intocht (Arrival of Sinterklaas) in Amsterdam | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis
A Zwarte Piet Ragtime Brass band. | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis
A Zwarte Piet Ragtime Brass band. | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis

The energy was intense during those four weeks but I was humbled to be one of millions of people from both sides of the debate, who bore witness to one of the most historical moments in Dutch history.  That would not have been possible without your financial support and the physical and moral support of my adopted family, friends, comrades and colleagues in the Netherlands who are dedicated to this project and committed to creating change in their own society. Special thanks to Bouba Dola for joining me in the trenches to capture much needed footage for the film during last year's holiday season.

Zwarte Piet is Racisme activist Kno'Ledge Cesar at Zwarte Piet Niet Demonstration, Amsterdam, NL ca. 2013 | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis
Zwarte Piet is Racisme activist Kno'Ledge Cesar at Zwarte Piet Niet Demonstration, Amsterdam, NL ca. 2013 | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis
Child Activist at Zwarte Piet Niet Demonstration, Amsterdam, NL ca. 2013 | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis
Child Activist at Zwarte Piet Niet Demonstration, Amsterdam, NL ca. 2013 | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis
Anti-Zwarte Piet Protest at Sinterklaas Parade in Amsterdam, NL ca. November 2013 | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis
Anti-Zwarte Piet Protest at Sinterklaas Parade in Amsterdam, NL ca. November 2013 | Photo Credit: Shantrelle P. Lewis


CTV | Canada TV Interview

MUSED Magazine


I was able to travel to the Netherlands and spend two months there, doing research, attending conferences and lectures, meeting with scholars and activists and conducting documentation for the film. I was there during the 150th celebration of Keti Koti, which commemorates the end of Dutch slavery and then again for the Sinterklaas holidays. Over the past year, I submitted several grants applications that were not approved. Initially, it was a major blow and felt like a defeat. When I first began this project, I placed tremendous pressure on myself to have the film completed by the end of last year. After hitting a few roadblocks and seeking advice from veteran filmmakers, I realized that my timeline was a bit ambitious.  With anything in life, the fastest route is not always the best road to travel. In hindsight, had that funding been awarded, the story that we would have captured would not have been as complete. With the many developments that have occurred in the Netherlands over the past several months alone, I’ve gained even more perspective about the kind of narrative that should be told, one less about shock value and more of an in-depth picture of how an environment that celebrates blackface, affects the lives of everyday people. With that said, making a film about such a controversial topic, in a foreign land, is definitely not as easy as I thought it would be. It has required patience, flexibility and a level of tenacity and resolve that has provided me with an extraordinary challenge and opportunity. A friend told me during a particularly stressful moment that "if a mountain was smooth, it couldn't be climbed." With that bit of inspiration, I pushed forward. I am a 1000% committed to this project and will do whatever it takes to produce a powerful finished product.

This past Spring, I was one of five fellows selected to participate in the Programme for People of African Descent at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. That afforded me the opportunity to engage with other Human Rights activists, including scholar-activist Su Girigori from Curacao, as well as the U.N.'s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, and representatives from the Dutch Kingdom. They were already aware of the Zwarte Piet controversy and have since conducted an official country visit to the Netherlands and Curacao to investigate the status of people of African descent there. As a group, they released a formal post-visit statement urging the Netherlands to take bolder steps to address issues, including Zwarte Piet, that are detrimental to people of African descent living in the Netherlands and the Dutch Kingdom at-large.

At the U.N. with my co-fellow Dutch Antillian Scholar and Activist Su Girigori
At the U.N. with my co-fellow Dutch Antillian Scholar and Activist Su Girigori

Recently an experienced grant writer and a new producer have come on board and joined the A-Team. This November, the production team will be returning to the Netherlands to shoot more footage and interviews. We’re also working on a work sample to be shared with funders and our supporters later this year. If all goes well, I anticipate a finished product to be released late 2015/early 2016. 


Over recent months, there have been significant developments around the Zwarte Piet issue. Here some links to a few: 


  • You can follow weekly updates about the film and related topics on on our facebook page
  • Be on the look out for links to photo albums of my two visits to the Netherlands last year 
  • You all are cordially invited to attend BlackStar Film Festival, a Philadelphia-based film and music fest featuring independent films from around the Diaspora. I'm an Advisory Board member for this amazing event and served as a juror for this year's Short Documentary competition, along with Tambay Obenson (Shadow and Act) and Dyana Williams.

I’m so appreciative for the steady encouragement and assistance that so many of you have extended on the journey to make this film not only something of high quality but of social significance with the potential to change society. I look forward to sharing more updates as the project progresses.

In Light,


Director + Producer

Protest Art in Rotterdam
Protest Art in Rotterdam

Call for Participants - Black Pete, Zwarte Pite: The Documentary

Greetings All,

I hope that everyone's summer is getting off to a great start! As many of you all know, I am preparing for my next trip back to the Netherlands to conduct preliminary research for Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary as well as to cover some footage of the celebrations and events happening around Keti Koti and the 150th Year Celebration of the Abolishment of Slavery in Dutch territories.

Ideally, I will be spending much of my time identifying individuals with interesting stories and experiences related to the celebration of Zwarte Piet. While we will not start our main production until the Fall, we are interested in identifying key subjects now.

What we're looking for:
*Individuals who are officially involved with Zwarte Piet celebrations and organizations (including the officials/individuals who organize the annual parades, Intocht, etc…)

*Families who host elaborate celebrations and traditions involving Zwarte Piet.

*Sinterklaas/Zwarte Piet historians (and/or academics who have conducted extensive research on the topic).

*Journalists who regularly cover Zwarte Piet celebrations.

*Individuals who dress up as Zwarte Piet (particularly someone who has done so for many years and/or a young adult who is just beginning to dress up).

*Individuals who have been engaged in historic protests or resistance against Zwarte Piet (even if it was not highly publicized).

This is an opportunity for people interested in discussing the history, customs and traditions associated with Sinterklaas to potentially have their story included in the documentary.

Please Note: For individuals concerned about the overall approach of the film, while I may have on my own opinions about the celebration as an American, as a filmmaker and researcher, I'm committed to telling the most objective and nuanced story possible. Interesting films are those that explore all sides of a controversial issue and that's what I'm interested in accomplishing with this documentary. I would especially love to hear from people who hold his tradition near and dear to their hearts, who don't see it as problematic or racist and who are open to discussing the tradition in a very honest, intelligent, meaningful and respectful way.

For more information or if interested in being considered for participation in this project, please submit the following info:

Affiliation with Sinterklaas Celebration:
A brief summary of how you celebrate the tradtion in 3 - 5 sentences:

Shantrelle P. Lewis
Director | Producer
Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary

Interview Dates: June 19 - June 29, 2013
Production Dates: November - December, 2013
The Netherlands


Tales of Zwarte Piet in the Caribbean and South America

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Greetings All!

I've recently returned from a month-long excursion throughout the Dutch Caribbean conducting research on African traditions in the region. Thanks to the generous support of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) for a forthcoming exhibition that I'll be curating about the Dutch Caribbean Diaspora, I was able to travel to Aruba, Curacao and Suriname for the purpose of researching African traditions in the region.

While my work in the aforementioned countries is focused on cultural traditions that have been maintained and retained since the first groups of enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean islands and mainland of Suriname by Dutch master enslavers and traders, it was inevitable that tales of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet would appear in my general investigations and interviews.

Needless to say, Zwarte Piet popped up randomly in each country that I visited. In Aruba, I discovered that a newly acquainted friend, who just happens to be tall, white, blond and of Dutch descent, for many years as a young man played the role of Sinterklaas for children in his neighborhood as his friends dressed up as Zwarte Piet. It wasn't until later in his adult life that he began to question the practice and see it as problematic. He still has affectionate feelings towards Sinterklaas, he just doesn't agree with the blackface associated with Zwarte Piet.

Then I met a middle-aged Black woman who was educated in the Netherlands. She told me that when she lived in the Netherlands as young artist, she made certain that she did not wear hoop earrings or particular colors, as not to be called Zwarte Piet during the holidays, which apparently happened to her on more than one occasion.

In Curacao, I met several people who shared their views about the holiday. Many of the Antilleans that I spent time speaking to, were not opposed to Zwarte Piet but did not support his blackface. Over recent years, Curacao has increasingly made changes to their celebration of Sinterklaas. The most prominent change has been the changing of Zwarte or Black Piet to "Rainbow Piet." The figure has literally been transformed into Piet of assorted colors - Red Piet, Green Piet, Blue Piet, etc…

Perhaps the most interesting anecdotes I encountered during my travels were in Suriname. Among them was the story of the Vredes (and another that I'm going to save for the film). The couple was among the thousands of young Surinamese intellectuals, professionals, workers and families who traveled to the Netherlands seeking educational, economic and professional opportunities. During the earlier years of their marriage when their first daughter was a young child, the young couple protested against the celebration of Zwarte Piet at their daughter's school. This happened after their daughter came home crying saying that kids at school were calling her Zwarte Piet. Needless to say, there was a meeting held and Mr. Vrede demanded that the school alter its practice of the celebration to something that was more appropriate for all kids, including his child. He believed Zwarte Piet to be both racist and offensive. One of the parents said in response: "My grandfather did this, my father did this and the next generation will do it too." The next day, an article was published in a local paper, the Volksrant about a "frustrated Black man" in opposition to Zwarte Piet. So many years later, Mr. and Mrs. Vrede are disappointed that the tradition is still alive and well. However, they are excited to see all of the activism happening around the subject by various individuals and groups in the Netherlands and very supportive of our documentary.

These experiences were all brought to my attention without me having to go digging for information. My time in the Dutch Caribbean has provided even further context for my developing understanding of attitudes towards race and racism in the Netherlands.

We have our work cut out for us, but I can't wait to start working on this film!

As usual, I look forward to sharing my findings.  Now that I'm back, we've also started production on your various kickstarter perks. Can't wait to start shipping those as well. Have a fantastic and productive week.

In Light,

Pictured: Astrid and Barry Vrede | Suriname, South America | April 2013

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Masha Danki! (Thank You!)

First: [God] is sacrifice. Suffer in this life and you will be happy in the next.

Second: People who have fun are childish. Remain tense at all times.

Third: Other people know what is best for us because they have more experience.

Fourth: Our duty is to make other people happy. We must pleae them even if that means making major sacrifices.

Fifth: We must not drink from the cup of happiness; we might get to like it and we won't always have it in our hands.

Sixth: We must accept all punishments. We are guilty.

Seventh: Fear is a warning. We don't want to take any risks.

These are the commandments that no Warrior of the Light can obey.

~ Paulo Coelho, The Warrior of the Light

Dearest Warriors of the Light,

In 30 Days:  We raised $27,785 | 536 People Financially Backed Our Campaign | 8,688 People Shared Our Link on Facebook | We were featured in three publications including the Huffingtonpost | A global community became involved in our art for change                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

On behalf of the A-Team, please allow me to say thank you once more. Prior to launching the kickstarter campaign, I was nervous and excited. After launching and thus committing 24-hours of my day to promoting and sharing it, I often times asked myself why was I adding such a huge challenge on my plate, as if I didn't have enough projects to keep me busy. This was not an easy task. Tackling such a controversial subject is not for the faint of heart.

However, the more feedback that I received, both positive and negative, from the white and Black community alike in the States, in the Netherlands and internationally, the more that I realized that this film had to be made. The response and support, as I've stated several times to date, was so positive, that it was humbling. Many people, especially Dutch citizens and Dutch Caribbean citizens, kept me encouraged. It's their stories that will be told in this documentary, not my own. I feel blessed that I am able to use my tools and talents to do so for such a higher purpose and critical platform in hopes that our future will be brighter.

Because of your confidence, I promise to work as hard as I can to make the most poignant, thoroughly researched film that I can possibly direct and produce. This is a journey and we are only at the beginning. I hope that we can count on your moral support along the way.

I'm currently traveling throughout the Dutch Caribbean, conducting research in general for my Andy Warhol Curatorial Fellowship and the more I learn, the more I'm amazed by its culture and history.

Please anticipate receiving your perks during the timeframe allotted and I definitely look forward to embarking upon this journey with you.

Continue being amazing people wherever you are in situated currently in the world. Our universe is a magnificent place.

Masha Danki (Thank you in Papiamientu).

Warmest Greetings from Curacao,
Director & Producer

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