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. Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson are the co-founders. Black & Missing FoundationAnd on their quest to reunite families, change the narrative about 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 said that while poverty may lead to food and housing insecurity, it can also make people more susceptible to being trafficked, arrested 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.”
It took three years to make it happen.All four episodes will air on HBO, and they will also be streamable 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. Lori Hacking went missing a few days later. She dominated news cycles. [Tamika’s] Aunt Rebkah reached out to the same reporters, same network, same programs, and there was no interest in Tamika’s story. Derrica and me wanted to research this issue in order to find out if our communities are affected. Natalee holloway disappeared and dominated news coverage.
We discovered that 30% of missing persons were or were people of color (mostly Black men) so we set out to address this issue. 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. The 40% who are missing from our community is now of color has risen to 40%. 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: What made you decide to tell this story as a non Black woman?
Geeta Gandhir: 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. Our relationship was great and I enjoyed working alongside Soledad. She is Black and I felt an instant kinship with her 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.
You couldn’t say no to Natalie and Derrica when you read about them. 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 counter any false narratives people wish to tell. All these families that we see are doing everything they can and oftentimes, it’s with very little support and minimal resources. It was very politically-oriented to me. This film was necessary to expose some of the structural and political problems that led to this crisis. It’s in line with the sort of work I do. It was important for me to have Black female directors because I’m not African American. 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. To address a problem, one must be open to change. Natalie and I are both mothers. We are also wives. Although we do have full-time jobs we share a passion for helping others and using our skills to their benefit.
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 are the advocates for 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. What can we do now to make this a reality?
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 girlsyour safety and helplessness when they are in dire need.
Derrica Wilson: It’s not uncommon for law enforcement to label our girls and boys as runaways that are under the age of 17. We have runaway cases where children are aged 10, 11, 12, and 13. It is time to shift the narrative, this application and the reporting structures. They are not being sought by law enforcement, and the media does not provide the necessary information so nobody 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.”
The documentary stressed that law enforcement cooperation is essential to the search for missing children. Are you convinced that these police departments and their systems can be reformated after last summer’s calls for defunding and abolition of the police?
Derrica Wilson:We have hope. We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go. It is crucial to build these relationships with law enforcement. However, we believe that the nation can get a seat at its table and be open to discussing the many changes needed. It is important to examine best practices and the classification. It is important to create policies and procedures.
Family members must report loved ones missing within 24 hours in many states. There are however a few cases you can immediately report. 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. It was 30 percent, according to Natalie, who was giving the stats when we began. Now, it’s 40% missing persons of color yet we make up 13% of the population. It is clear that there is an issue.
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. We also require them to allocate more resources, and to treat our cases with seriousness.
Natalie Wilson:The takeaway for us or the true impact of this series is to encourage conversations within 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 themselvesAnd 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 is it that media outlets are not responding to Black missing girl cases in the same fashion and with the same passion as Elizabeth Smart or Gabby Petito??
Derrica Wilson: Our kids, our girls are being adultified and they’re not seen as victims, especially when they’re victims of sex trafficking. Newsrooms need to be more diverse so the gatekeepers can tell stories that reflect the diversity of their readers. 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.
Does anyone have data on demographic details of perpetrators or kidnappers Are there data that shows a specific demographic preying on Black girls and women?
Geeta Gandhir: That was something we thought of, and tried to incorporate it into our documentary. However, there wasn’t any reliable or complete data. 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. This was very surprising as we didn’t find any evidence about the perpetrators.
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. We have observed a link between domestic violence and missing persons. 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. Does this same training have spread to other state departments?
Natalie Wilson: Absolutely. We have worked with law enforcement over the years, and we continue to work with them to raise awareness. Being proactive is the key. We’re not a reactive organization. Our goal is to educate people about safety and how to prevent such an unfortunate event from happening. Many training events have been held all over the country. After high school, we attended universities. Then, we moved on to the secondary schools. Finally, our faith-based communities followed. When COVID arrived, however, everything we did in person was taken online and we began partnering with other organizations. Again, I think everyone is really starting to take notice and how we’re stronger together. We can’t simply do this by ourselves.
You want the viewers to remember 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. We want to let the community know that there is an ally and they can achieve so much more together. We all share a responsibility for standing up for our rights and holding the media and police accountable. Our missing are also important. It is up to our community to be involved in making these cases more viral. They should also share them with their networks to ensure that even more missing people return home.
What is the role of media in promoting democracy?
Derrica Wilson: One of the things that we actually tell our media partners is don’t wait on a story to be trendy. You can be the story breaker. It’s better to be less than more. We understand that not every case is going to meet the 5 and 10 o’clock news cycle. Although we know that not all cases are going to make the news, it is important to ensure equal 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. These families need our support. Humanity must be our goal. These include mothers, wives, siblings, brothers and sons, as well as 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. Collectively, we could accomplish so much more, I believe. Derrica is my fire starter in this discussion. 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.
“Black and Missing” debuts back-to-back episodes at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday. The final two episodes will air simultaneously Wednesday on HBO Max and HBO Max.
This interview has been edited and improved for clarity.