Raphael Sbarge has spent decades entertaining audiences on TV series like Murder in the First and Once Upon a Time. But viewers may not know that he’s also an Emmy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker. His latest project, the four-episode docuseries 10 Days in Watts, chronicles the opening of the MudTown Farms urban garden while also exploring other issues in the Los Angeles community to separate real life from the perception of Watts.
Just prior to the series’ premiere as part of Black History Month, I spoke with Raphael to learn what attracted him to the story of MudTown Farms and its founder Tim Watkins. We also discussed how 10 Days in Watts was made and how it has the potential to show audiences what it’s truly like to live in the community. Learn more about the project before streaming all four episodes online or on the PBS app.
Brittany Frederick: You’ve long been passionate about environmental issues, and you’ve made other films before. How did you discover the story that’s told within 10 Days in Watts?
Raphael Sbarge: I did this other film called LA Foodways, which was nominated for an Emmy and did very well. And in the course of that I met this guy Tim Watkins; he runs this incredible community center there. I’d never heard of it. I’d never heard of him. But as soon as he started talking about his father, this father-son connection was really moving to me. This incredible story of his dad having escaped lynching in Mississippi. He refused to get off the sidewalk with a white Western Union guy, got in a fight, broke his rib—and so at 13, they came and knocked on the door and they said, “We’re coming for you.”
He had to run out in the middle of the night and jump on a train and go as far as he could on the train. The last stop was Los Angeles and he thought, I’ve gotten away, things are gonna be brand new. He walked into Union Station and there was a whites-only water fountain. He basically lived on his wits and he ended up working at the Ford motor plant. He kwas a natural leader, came up through the ranks and ultimately became taken in by Walter Reuther, who started the UAW and introduced him to Cesar Chavez.
His dad was this remarkable man, and then his son really sort of followed [in] his father’s footsteps and runs this community center. He opened this farm which is sort of a callback to his father and a metaphor for renewal and restoration and healing. There was something about this father-son story and the land and the earth and all of that, that just moved me. At least initially, I thought, maybe it’s a story about his dad.
BF: Then it clearly developed into something much larger. What was that process?
RS: in conversations with KCET, they got very excited about it [and] decided they wanted to co-produce it with me, which means that we share in the financial responsibilities of it. What that also meant is that we got to do this as a series. It being a four-part series allowed us to expand the amount of people that we talked to and their stories and gave us more runway.
BF: How were you able to integrate so well into the Watts community and get these folks to tell their stories?
RS: There was a question that came up, of course, like hey, you’re white—should you be doing this? I said I hear you and I went to Tim, and I said to him, I’m getting some getting some feedback here, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. And he said there are all these Black filmmakers here in this neighborhood who know this story. They’re not knocking on my door. You’re knocking on my door. He said I want you to do this. I feel like you’ve got the sensitivities to do this.
Tim was really interested in having a story told about second-generation leadership, which of course, that’s what this is, and also an opportunity to [do] something about the farm about the farm’s opening that really is also about the community. He responded to that and so did KCET, which was great. And because I had earned Tim’s trust, and because he knew my, work he then introduced me to so extraordinary people in the neighborhood who were willing to talk to me. These are people that wouldn’t just not talk to a white guy, they just don’t talk. And because Tim said talk to this guy, they did.
BF: Watts is a community that many people may not know about, and if they do, they don’t know much. How did you figure out the story you wanted to tell after speaking to everyone and hearing their points of view?
RS: The idea was to tell a story that really challenges some of the preconceptions of Watts. Watts has suffered under the the perception of what happened in 1965 and 1992. The Watts riots—if you talk to anyone there, they’ll refer to them as “the Watts revolts,” because they were both triggered by police violence. Of course now in the specter of George Floyd, we’ve all had a lot of re-evaluation about how these things start and and who started them and what the complexities of them are. But this is a really underserved community, not unlike many others across the nation that are dismissed for any number of reasons.
I wanted to tell a story that gave us sort of an intimate picture of what it’s like to be in Watts. What the people are like and how remarkable they are. I’ve called this a “patchwork mosaic of resilience.” There’s this incredible thing called Watts pride, which I didn’t know about…As hard as it is to be there. This community is impassioned to want to make it better, make their lives better, take care of each other, extend a helping hand to other folks. It’s not an easy place to live…[But] I can tell you that the people I’ve met there are extraordinary, and I was so taken by their humanity and their strength and their kindness and their courage and their resilience.
BF: You know what it’s like to tell a great dramatic story as an actor who’s been involved in some very high-profile projects. Did any of that scripted experience help you in finding a way to communicate this real-life story to an audience?
RS: I’ve been an actor for like five decades now, and as an actor, you’re a storyteller of another sort. Every time you take one [role] on, you’re basically in it to tell the story. When I began directing about 12 years ago, I discovered that there was an awful lot to learn. It’s like I’ve been in a car a million times, but once you actually take the wheel, it’s a whole other thing…There’s a tremendous amount of detail and complexity in the making of it. But I have discovered that the storytelling that I’m doing translates in some way and I can see a path.
There was something about this that just hit my heart, that I that I couldn’t quite let go of. As a director, you’re essentially trying to corral lots of extraordinary people—in front of the camera, behind the camera, at a network— to connect with your vision. Passion is probably the single most important thing that you can have for a project. It takes everything you have and then it wants 100 percent more. Passion is the most important way to get something made, in my opinion.
BF: There are plenty of amazing stories within 10 Days in Watts, but are there ones that surprised you or otherwise stuck out to you?
RS: I spoke to an amazing preacher in Episode 2 who talked about the acronym for Watts, which is “We are taught to survive.” And I was really struck down when I heard it. There’s an incredible story about a double amputee who’s an astounding basketball player and a young man who’s lived through so much. His injury happened in Watts and he talks about that. There’s another guy who’s served 35 years of hard time. He was put with another family because his mother was had substance abuse problems, and he came out of that and then got into the gang world…Now he’s come out and and has dedicated his life to helping others.
There’s an amazing program called Better Watts initiative, which is this environmental program that planted 60,000 trees. They’re also looking at the water because Watts has a Flint, Michigan-like water crisis, with lead in the water, high levels of lead. The young Ph.D. students who are addressing that is powerful. I had no lack of stories.
BF: What are you hoping viewers leave with after seeing 10 Days in Watts? Is it just that broader insight into the community or are there specific takeaways that you’re hoping for?
RS: This is an opportunity to take a take a second look at Watts. I think it’s a love letter to the neighborhood. And I am so grateful and humbled that the neighborhood has reached out back to me and said, this is great. It’s really honest and honorable. Somebody even said I can’t believe that you’re not from Watts [and] you told the story. Well, I didn’t tell the story; I let them tell it and I just tried to get out of the way. Their stories are amazing.
I heard that after the first airing, a whole bunch of people lined up at the gate outside the farm, waiting to get in because they were so eager to see it. That’s thrilling. I was there the other day athere was a postman; he’d seen the screening and was like, I’m going to tell everyone at the post office they need to come down here and volunteer. Tim was saying we now have so many volunteers. We have to create a huge schedule so we can figure out who’s here. (laughs) There’s some talk about people wanting to donate more money to it and help. That makes me so happy.
This is about Watts, but again, there’s just so many cities that are like Watts that don’t have the name recognition, but have similar issues. And I hope that we can look for ways to connect with people and then perhaps find ways to help them. It’s a different set of rules that they live under and the things that they have access to. We all obviously know everyone had to do home schooling during COVID. They only have dial-up in Watts. They’ve got no high-speed Internet. So what does that mean? [There’s] just limited access in so many ways to so many things.
[And] at this time when we’re all struggling with complicated news everywhere, if you want to have a story that is uplifting, it’s tough. But because their spirit just is uncontainable, that shines through and that’s really moving. I think [that] leaves us feeling there is a little bit of hope and possibility.
10 Days in Watts is available to stream on the PBS app as well as online via PBS and KCET. The series will also re-air in its entirety on KCET April 22 from 8-10 p.m. for Earth Day.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.