Cheryl Allison’s documentary Pieces of Us is one of the most important films anyone can watch right now. The film captures the stories of LGBTQ+ hate crime survivors, but it’s not solely about what happened to them. It’s also about their healing processes and how they’re continuing to make the world better. It’s uplifting as well as heartbreaking, and certainly thought-provoking whether you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community or not.
I recently sat down with Cheryl for an in-depth conversation about making the movie, doing her due diligence as a director to honor her subjects while also connecting with a wider audience, and how she went from being an actress to a filmmaker. Learn more about Pieces of Us and Cheryl in our interview before you visit the website to get more information and find out how you can see it for yourself.
Brittany Frederick: You began your career as an actress, so how did you venture into becoming a documentary filmmaker? Was there something that motivated you to broaden your career?
Cheryl Allison: For over 30 years I have been a performer. My degrees are in music and after I got out of college, I moved in the early nineties to New York, and that’s what I did. I had a career in musical theater—did Broadway shows, tours, regional theater, that sort of thing. And then of course [I] have done film and television. I think a lot of actors, when they’re on set, they really enjoy watching the behind the scenes and things like that.
About six years ago, I had just really fallen in love with the process of making a film. A story had fallen into my lap that I thought would be a good documentary, and I thought, “Hey, why not me? Why not tell the story?”
Since then, I have directed my first narrative short film, which was so much fun. But my heart is in documentaries, because at this stage of my life, I love trying to make a difference and bringing awareness with certain topics. I created my film company called Wow Films and my motto is activism through art. And so that’s how I fell into it. Taught myself to edit, and what I didn’t know, I asked. People taught me, and you can learn anything on YouTube. (laughs)
BF: With Pieces of Us specifically, what resonated with you about telling an LGBTQ+ story and one that specifically focused on hate crime survivors?
CA: First of all, I am an out and proud gay woman. I’m a huge activist, an advocate for the LGBTQ community; it’s my community. I’ve been out my entire adulthood, so it was obviously a story that means a lot to me because of that.
What happened was a really dear friend of mine named Mickel Dycus, who is the central subject of the film, [was] a victim of a hate crime. The way he coped—because he is a fellow performer, did musical theater, all of that—he developed a one-man show called Pieces of Me where he talked about it. That was a form of his healing. And through his healing, he reached out to other survivors and people that were going through trauma, and he created this amazing circle of support. Then these people together started paying it forward to others, and raising awareness and helping.
He thought This story is bigger than just my own healing now. He came to me and said “I think this might be a good topic for a documentary.” And he said, “I really want you to make the film and direct it,” because he wanted somebody who was a member of the community and he had seen some of my other work. They got an executive producer to come on board in from Los Angeles named Mark VanderHyde, and he funded the film and we were off.
BF: Tone is very important with the film. You don’t want to shy away from the reality of what your subjects have experienced, but you also don’t want to make it so depressing that an audience doesn’t connect with it. How did you find the appropriate balance?
CA: One reason the film appealed to me was there have been other documentaries about hate crimes, whether it’s with the LGBTQ community or some other marginalized group. But I was very adamant that this was a story about surviving, and turning being a victim into a survivor, turning hate into love. What they have done is actually very hopeful and very positive by reaching out and forming this community of support, showing that there are resources out there, like the New York Anti-Violence Project and straight allies that we highlight in the film as well. [Pieces of Us] shows that there’s a community of support out there, and that while a victim may be going through their trauma and dealing with that in whatever way that looks like, there are organizations that can help you through it and you’re not alone.
The end of the film is actually quite uplifting. You see them rejoicing at World Pride and you see them all together. It was very important to me that that be the focus of the film. That we don’t just wallow in the assault. We obviously had to addresss it. How can you not address that a nine-year-old boy took his life? And [his] mother is still going through it. She is traumatized by it. But yet she felt supported in a community for these other people to come and embrace her. And so even through her grieving, there was still hope. That’s what I wanted this film to give.
BF: Are there parts of the film that you particularly want audiences to pay close attention to? What stood out to you as you were making it?
CA: This film [shows] this can happen anywhere. The bullying against LGBTQ or hate crimes, that kind of bias that’s still against our community, can happen anywhere [at] any economic level. We have the Prince of India, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, in the film. When he came out to his parents, not only did they disown him but the entire country disowned him. He was the only openly gay royal in the world, and it happened to him. And then it can turn around and happen to a young boy in Colorado who’s nine years old. He came from just your kind of average background, and it happened to him.
It doesn’t really matter who you are, it can happen. Leia’s story, the mother of Jamel, is very heartbreaking and I think anybody can relate to it. Nobody wants to see a nine-year-old boy take his life for being bullied. I don’t care what your religious background is, your political background, nobody wants to see that. At the beginning, there’s a principal that’s highlighted with a gentleman named Jipsta, who’s a hate crime survivor and a teacher. His principal welcomed him back into the school and said “We’re not going to hide your hate crime. We’re going to tell the students what happened to you, and we’re going to use it as a way to teach them.” Can you imagine if every school did that? And if every elementary school was saying, “Hey, you’re not going to bully here, and this is not wrong, and this is what happens”? We might have less suicides and things like that.
BF: Ideally viewers will watch Pieces of Us and reach out in their own communities to get that kind of support or offer it to others. Do you have directions you’d point people in after screening the film?
CA: The simplest thing you can do is to be kind, watch what you say, and speak up. When you hear someone saying something that would be in a bullying fashion, or anti-LGBTQ, something derogatory against the community or any marginalized group, the simplest thing you can do is to say, “No, that is not appropriate.”
Straight allies are so important. Get involved with the New York Anti-Violence Project. The Trevor Project is a huge national organization that takes a huge stance against LGBTQ bullying. Then there is PFLAG, and they’re in our film. You don’t have to know somebody who is gay. You can be involved in that, support it, in almost every city.
For our community, should someone need support, they can also reach out to PFLAG. They can reach out to the New York City Anti-Violence Project. They can reach out to their local resource center for the LGBTQ community. And we have a list of resources that we feel are good places for people to start.
BF: What’s the reception you’ve gotten from the film so far?
CA: At the screenings at the film festivals that we have been in, at educational screenings that we have done, people will say, “I want to do more. I want to get involved. How can I do it?” Or some people say, “I’m going to show this at my church, and I am going to start a conversation about this in my church.” Or “We’re going to get this into the schools.”
We did a kind of short festival circuit, because we really want to get this thing distributed so people can see it who don’t have access to the film festivals. We were in 12 film festivals, and I’m so happy to say the film was honored with a lot of best films, best documentaries, that sort of thing. The film and the message of the film have been being received really well. I’ve been contacted by many churches or schools and colleges that want to do a screening of this film. And that’s a wonderful way to educate people more, help them realize how they can get involved, because it’s so important.
BF: Ultimately, what do you want audiences to take away from Pieces of Us? What’s going to make this film a success to you beyond just the standard metric of how big its audience is?
CA: I think a lot of times, society thinks that the LGBTQ+ fight is over. They got marriage equality, they’re good, right? They marched, they got equality, we’re past it now. But that is not the case. The LGBTQ community, in so many ways, is still marginalized. I live in Texas; our government is trying to take away our rights all the time. They’re not able to do it, usually it gets stopped, but not for a lack of them trying. [My wife and I] got together in 1995. I finally got to marry her in 2011 in New York, and then it finally became legal here in 2016.
There are still hate crimes. There are still laws they put into effect to try to take away rights. There are still these type of macro-aggressions that happen against the community. And now it’s happening big time with the transgender community. especially trans women of color. And so I think it’s important when people start that conversation, they realize that just because you have the right to marry now there is still a long way to go until we’re really considered equal in people’s minds and in their hearts.
A wonderful trans woman named Victoria Cruz, who’s in the film, she’s a Stonewall Riots survivor. She says it best. She goes, “I don’t want to just be tolerated. I’m here, I’m not going anywhere. I want to be accepted—not just tolerated, accepted.” Some people don’t realize that a lot of these hurdles that we face are still there.
For more information about Pieces of Us and resources to support the LGBTQ+ community, visit the film’s website.
Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.