Maya Washington Talks About Her Award-Winning Short Film CLEAR

Addressing the Issue of Wrongful Imprisonment

One of the primary aims of the Catalyst Content Festival, which held its 14th annual event here in Duluth earlier this month, is bringing creatives together with industry producers, agents and execs. Besides the multitude of informal meetings, there were also pitch sessions, or what might be compared to parent/teacher conferences or speed dating.

It was preceding one of these meetings that I met Maya Washington and learned about her award-winning film CLEAR, which gained additional exposure here at Catalyst. There are several takeaways from the 15 minute film, and Washington’s passion for her project.

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Maya Washington

Upon meeting her I found Ms. Washington’s enthusiasm infectious. Inspiration comes in many forms. Through the years I’ve often said that our biggest influences are the books we read and the people we meet. I can’t help but believe Maya Washington will be influencing and inspiring people for years to come.

The theme of her film is wrongful incarceration. CLEAR has gained nationwide visibility in film festivals this year, Catalyst most recently. Other festivals include the Richmond VA Africana Film Festival, Denton Black Film Festival in Texas, the Cal State Fullerton University Festival, Nevada Women’s Festival, Red Nation Film Festival in Beverly Hills, CA., a festival in Wilmington, NC., the One Nation Film Festival in Colorado Springs and elsewhere. The film has also screened at University of Minnesota, California State University Fullerton, and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. At her very first event she received a Jury Award for Best Short Film and was featured in a special screening in Indie Memphis Nights Weekly Film Series MicroCinema: Film Fatales.

“It’s been really a great journey,” Washington said. “We’re waiting for Tina to finish her Ph.D. dissertation next week to begin an educational and public policy community effort to get the film out to a broader audience who share concerns about these issues.”

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Tina Bar

Tina Barr is the friend who opened Washington’s eyes to the scale of the problem regarding wrongful imprisonment. Barr had been studying at the University of Minnesota and is on the threshold of finishing her PhD.

“I study wrongful conviction, and as a social work researcher I was interested in their experience re-integrating back into the culture,” Barr said.

When I asked about the verified number of exonerations she replied, “There are about 2500 confirmed exonerations since 1985. This is widely believed to be hugely underestimated. The realistic estimates by legal scholars are a conservative 1–4% person of the prison population. There are two million currently incarcerated. This number does not include the number of people who make plea bargains to get a reduced sentence.”

It was Barr’s research that helped strengthen Washington’s resolve that this film was an important project. “I had reviewed the literature and talked with many of these people, and worked closely with Maya to make her film as realistic as it could be to what happens,” said Barr. “This was my first foray into using film to tell the story.”

Maya Washington stated that the initial catalyst that prompted her to pursue this project was her friend, the lead actress George Keller. They originally met as fellow actors, originating roles as mother (Keller) and daughter (Washington) in the national tour of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers by playwright William S. Yellow Robe Jr., a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation in Northeastern Montana. Those familiar with history about the Buffalo Soldiers will recall that they were a black regiment of the U.S. Cavalry formed after the Civil War to fight Native American tribes in the Indian Wars, leaving behind a painful history for those impacted.

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Ember, bathroom scene. (George Keller)

One consequence of the soldiers serving out West was the unique black and Native American mixed-race offspring. Keller, Washington said, has “a unique ethnic background and the industry hasn’t given her the opportunities she deserves.” As a writer/director/producer and actor Washington said, “I have always wanted to write something for her as an actress. I always had it in my mind to find a vehicle or story to cast her in a lead role.” CLEAR became that vehicle.

“As Tina was telling me about her fascinating research, I was moved that people who have been wrongfully convicted do not necessarily receive financial remuneration. Or remedy for what they’ve suffered,” Washington said. “It was fun to be inspired by two strong women (Barr and Keller) whom I admire,” she added.

One of the common challenges of reintegrating into society after a prison term is money. For people wrongfully incarcerated, however, there are some additional special challenges.

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Ember and Claire, bedroom scene.

“I think some of the challenge you face is that there isn’t a parole process or care team after they release you. Some of the stigma that felons experience, like not being trusted, will also not get you a fair shake,” Washington said. “Also, people assume you have become criminally minded just by being incarcerated. (They assume) your personal integrity may have been compromised by the experience. The trauma itself may result in stress disorders and affect your mental health.”

Another layer of difficulty has to do with family matters. “When it comes to raising your children, or in marriage or relationships, it is a very difficult position to put your spouse and family or loved one in. Your family also ends up on the receiving end of the bad deal and skepticism.”

When asked how she has been changed through this project, Washington replied, “I think I have personally been aware of the systemic problems in our criminal justice system, aware of biased policing, and bias in the way people with more resources get better breaks.

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Catalyst Content Festival

“The aha moment for me was seeing that I could actually do something about it, to find a way to open up peoples’ eyes or minds using my skillset. It’s an overwhelming, multifaceted issue with a lot of moving parts. Part of what motivates our representatives in government to enact change is the groundswell of people making people aware of the issues. Storytelling is a powerful way to open up those conversations.”

Based on the feedback, it’s a story that has been really touching audiences, she said.

* * * *
EdNote: For me personally, a real “aha” moment in this story was how creative people can internalize an insight and transform it into a story or work of art that connects with a wider audience. Statistics can be eye-opening, but stories touch us in deeper and often profound ways. (cf. Carla Hamilton link below.)

Related Links

Maya Washington interview with Cathy Wurzer
Carla Hamilton’s Gezielt (Targeted) Creatively Makes Us Think and Gives Us Something To Talk About

Originally published at

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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