Q+A with 'Dreamland' Director Salima Koroma

Discovering Dreamland

Isoul Hussein Harris, Managing Editor of WarnerMedia's The Inclusive, sat down with Salima Koroma, director of the CNN documentary Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street, to talk about Black wealth in 1920s Tulsa, the 'white race riot,' and developing the courage to stand up for her personal story. 

Salima Koroma

Courtesy of Salima Koroma

WarnerMedia: Congrats on directing and executive producing Dreamland, the premiere of which marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot. 

Salima Anderson: Thank you. We're not the only ones who've made a documentary about this milestone in the American history of Black people in Tulsa, which is nice. We often talk about these mainstream stories involving primarily white people, where one telling of the story could suffice. But then you have so many different versions by different directors and then the reboots and everything. So, in this case, I'm okay with many different versions with the telling of this important story.

That's a great perspective. Why was telling this story important to you?
We must learn the truth of our stories and tell them ourselves. If not, we run the genuine risk of idealizing our history—of going to the extreme in either direction. In 1921, Tulsa was this prosperous town. Its prosperity came from the oil boom of the early 1900s, which allowed for this economy of Black people to build their own communities. Obviously, they weren't allowed to patronize white businesses, so they created their own and had enough money to do it. There were wealthy Black businessmen, hoteliers, doctors, and lawyers in the Greenwood district. Black people in America don't often see historical images of themselves looking rich and prosperous. However, in Greenwood, you also had working-class Black people--domestic workers who were making ends meet and just living life.

 

Part of the Greenwood district burned in the 1917 Tulsa Race Riots, including the ruins of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Three people walk through the devastation—courtesy of The Everett Collection.

History often erases the balance. There was this thriving black community. I read that rich Black women were traveling to Paris to shop. However, that wasn't the entire Black community; as you mentioned, there were also domestics and poor Black folks. I'm sure there is an exciting story within that story about the separation between the well-to-do Black people and the working-class Black people.
That is a great point. I wish I could have told that story as well! I read many of the books that pointed out that most Black people were domestic workers commuting across the train tracks and working for white families. Then they would come back into their own community. I am not sure if the affluent Blacks had maids. If I were writing the movie for this, they would have maids. I would want people to understand how grand some of these Black people lived in the 1910s, 1920s, America—right after Reconstruction and enslavement.

I agree with you. Something is jarring about the image of a wealthy Black family employing a domestic who is also Black.
It's bitter and sweet. It's a race AND class conversation. We talk about race; however, we often neglect to talk about the impact of class. Hearing your question makes me wish I had explored that more in the film.

These stories are so layered and nuanced. They need multiple tellings. 
Yes. And as a Black filmmaker, you often have the pressure to tell the story of your entire race. There's the fear of messing up and the guilt that would follow. It's not just one story. It's 100 years of history to put into a documentary!

Salima Koroma and members of the Greenwood community discuss the city's history inside black owned business, the "Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge"

Salima Koroma and members of the Greenwood community discuss the city's history inside the black-owned business, the "Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge" Credit: Patrick Altema (co-EP) / courtesy of The SpringHill Company for CNN Films.

How is filmmaking for you as a Black female director?
Thank you for asking that the way that you asked it. It felt like I was in a therapy session because in this industry, sometimes you need therapy. For example, I could ask: "Can we change that? Can we change that to this?" I say it almost like a suggestion. Because I look young, and I am a Black woman, some people have had the nerve to say "No," and act as if they don't understand what I'm saying. I talked to other Black women filmmakers about this, and they said: "It happens to us all the time. Don't allow it." As a Black woman, sometimes people don't believe you when you say something. Or your ideas are pitched right back to you. I had to learn that I had agency.

What have you learned about yourself through your work?
It's dope being a young, Black woman. I have a unique, creative perspective to bring to the table. I think that people see that in me. I believe that the industry sees that in us, as Black people.

It's the conversation around valuing black content versus valuing black lives. I believe that the larger society loves Black culture but, collectively, may not love Black lives.
Yes. Even in Tulsa's Greenwood. Those Black people were murdered, and their beautiful town was destroyed. Their families have not received reparations. The city covered it up. The city deputized white citizens to kill Black residents. There are three survivors from that time who are still alive. They've never received anything from the city. However, there have been stories, books, podcasts. Movies and more were made about the massacre, and none of that goes back to them. People come in, they take their stories, and they leave. They've been yelling about this for a long time.

 

A ruined street in Greenwood, the African American section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. Photo courtesy of Everett Collection.

Was this Tulsa tragedy a "race riot" or a "race massacre"? Although the phrasings are frequently used interchangeably, both carry very different meanings.
It was a white race riot. And some Black people in Tulsa will say it wasn't a massacre because that takes away their agency. They say that they didn't just sit back; they fought back. They were protecting their community, but they failed to fight against the city and the planes dropping [nitroglycerin] bombs.

What was your initial inspiration for the film?
I looked at the photos of all these beautiful Black people from the 1920s and saw who we were in history in this booming town in a colorful time in America. I thought, "Where is the Black Great Gatsby? That's what I wanted to see.

What are your future ambitions?
Dreamland is about a dream deferred. It's about the universal aspects of life. I want to continue to tell stories about the human condition and how we relate to one another.

Behind-the-scenes of The Burning of Black Wall Street. Image courtesy of Salima Koroma.

Behind-the-scenes of The Burning of Black Wall Street. Image courtesy of Salima Koroma.

What's your next story?
It's about the woman who put the first web camera on the Internet who filmed herself living life all day, back in the early 90s. She even consulted on the film The Truman Show. She became wealthy, and then she just disappeared. I want to tell this woman's story as a vehicle to explore the aspirations and optimism of the 90s, a time when the Internet was this sparkly place and a Utopia of sorts. Did we reach that utopia? Or did we end up in a dysfunctional nightmare?


Seeing Greenwood banner

In advance of the centennial, CNN offered a two-week seminar program about journalism, best practices in digital photojournalism, and guidance for preparing for careers in journalism to Langston University students. Selected students were paired with CNN mentors and received feedback on resumes and past work. This outreach and development program created by Jennifer Dargan and Breeanna Hare would not have been possible without the partnership of the WarnerMedia Talent Recruitment Team.

Special Thanks to the following employees who served as ambassadors and mentors for the program: Nick Levan, Nick Pratt, Antonio Hairston, Diane Ruggiero, Roxanne Garcia, Dominic Torres, Bernadette Brown, James Anderson, Aimee Sanders, Autumn Joyner, Johnita Due, Monica Neal, Isoul Harris, Brett Roegiers, Bernadette Tauzon and Priscilla Saunders.

MORE ABOUT GREENWOOD

Greenwood, a historic center of Black wealth, is the site of one of the nation's most shocking mass murders. Accounts vary but view this explainer of what happened from CNN's Sara Sidner.