Erik Nielson, J.M. [Jason] Harper, and Sam Widdoes, ’08


A red carpet day

Sam Widdoes, ’08 (above right), produced As We Speak, a documentary inspired by the research of UR professor Erik Nielson, author of Rap on Trial. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

What’s your mindset going into Sundance?
This is the first project I’ve ever had at a film festival. It’s my first time being able to see a project of mine in front of a live audience and to be able to get the director in front of an audience to really showcase the work that we all put in together. I’m really honored that we were chosen as part of the US documentary competition.

I’m excited. I’ve heard a lot of different things about Sundance, but mostly that it’s a whirlwind with the different kinds of great filmmakers and people there. From what it looks like, we’ll get the chance to really have discussions about the subject matter of the film. I hope that will inspire a lot of questions and hopefully generate some action.

Why do you think this film stood out to the Sundance selection committee?
One is the filmmaker, J.M. [Jason] Harper (above center), and the quality of the film that he made. He really challenged what documentaries can look like. There’s a lot of information presented, but it’s presented through the eyes and experience of a rapper named Kemba. As Jason has said, he wants us to spend 90% of the film falling in love with Kemba and then the last five to 10 minutes seeing how this artist can be portrayed in a negative light just by virtue of his lyrics. Rap lyrics are being presented to juries for the purpose of prosecution. That should be scary to anyone who has walked into a museum and seen that people have different interpretations of art.

On top of that, there’s a timeliness to the film and the subject matter because there’s a big trial going on in Atlanta right now with the artist Young Thug and other defendants in his record label. What’s catching the eye of a lot of people in that case is that some of the critical evidence being used is lyrics that they’ve written. Without discussing anything about the case or making any assumptions about guilt or innocence, it’s the fact that this music is being presented to a jury by a prosecutor. The notion that a prosecutor or the state could interpret art for the purpose of proving guilt or innocence is the thing that shocked me. I think the Sundance selection panel may have said, “Well, this [film] is a different way of looking at this. It’s a complicated story.”

You first learned about Nielson (above left) testifying at trials as an expert witness from an article in this magazine. What made you think this subject had potential as a film project?
Erik’s position was fascinating to me as a former litigator. [Widdoes has practiced law in California since 2014 —Ed.] I think about that moment when 12 people are going to decide the fate of a person, and there’s this one interaction where this guy — Erik — is going to bring as much of his academic expertise as possible. I’ve never been in a courtroom where hip hop was involved in any way. When you see artwork in a courtroom — it’s almost like this doesn’t belong here. Why is it here? And how do we make sure that the guardrails are very high?

Most of the journey from reading the article about Erik to making this film was finding this beautiful, complicated storytelling and seeing there are so many stories to be told within it — different cases and defendants who either were aspiring professional rappers, amateur rappers, or even people just messing around on their on their social media. It was always a matter of finding the storyteller to weave this together in a way that’s coherent, compelling — and as expressive, groundbreaking, communal, and beloved as the music itself.

Our goal is to find small moments that are really compelling and through them tell a larger story about who we are, what we value, and how we relate to each other, and to entertain in the process.

What do you like about the producer role?
The challenge of creating something from nothing. How do we get from a little idea to a crew shooting a scene and then an editor cutting it together? It’s taking each step along the way. There’s an analytical side to it that I really enjoy. I also love relating to creatives in the way that allows them to do their job best. I’m not a creative. I took a photography class in high school, and I might have been my lowest grade. There was something about it I didn’t grasp. I was in a couple plays, but it wasn’t for me. There was something about the arts that I was attracted to being close to, but I never wanted to be the functional part of it.

Being a producer has given me a really enjoyable connection to it while using what my skills and brain are more closely aligned to. Because I’m a trained attorney, I know the steps along the way that have to get done so those creatives can really flourish.

Why did you choose Richmond?
My dad’s from Pittsburgh, and my mom’s from New Jersey. All our family’s on the East Coast. Both my parents encouraged me and my siblings to look at schools on the East Coast. The world of Los Angeles and growing up with children of Hollywood — they were very leery of that world. I’m thankful for that because I got exposure to a very different culture than Los Angeles culture.

I remember going on a tour of Richmond, and it’s not hard to fall in love when you step foot on campus. I just thought it was such a special place, and I was drawn to things like the leadership school, even though I didn’t end up end up majoring in it, and even the number of international students on campus for such a small school. It also had big-time, Division I sports, and I was a basketball player. So there were there all of these elements that were interesting that felt I would be familiar. On top of that, it was it was beautiful. My brother was in school in Connecticut. I visited him in January, and I was that was all I needed.

Any parting words?
I find it so cool that my connection to this whole project started with Richmond and finding Erik in the magazine. I’m very proud that Erik is a professor at my alma mater and doing the kind of work that he’s doing.