By Shirley Ju
February 4, 2019
Lee Adams is here to shed light on minorities all across the world. Aptly titled Minority Reports, his show on Vice follows the New York-based filmmaker and host as he explores different communities of underrepresented individuals by telling their story in a way that not only sheds light, but sparks a larger conversation. Whether it’s covering a white student at HBCU Morehouse, a black bull rider in Texas or a white K-Pop group in Korea, Minority Reports provides an unconventional look at some of society’s often overlooked groups.
For Adams, working with Vice means working with a company that not only supports his creative vision as a filmmaker, but encourages him to tell harder, more challenging stories in innovative and interesting ways — something he definitely doesn’t take for granted. We Take Note caught up with Adams for an exclusive chat about the creation of these episodes and the difficulty in staying neutral:
How long does it take to shoot/produce an episode?
It depends on the story and the schedule of the contributors who participate, like “the talent.” A lot of time, it’s a month and half. Pre-production, maybe a week or so of shooting, and then we edit for about a month to a month and a half.
How does it feel to work on a show that reflects the social climate of our times?
It’s incredible. This is the reason I became a filmmaker, was to in some way help contribute to building the world I want to live in. Often in the mainstream media, representation is something that comes up — especially those of us who consider ourselves minorities. It’s great to be able to make something that sparks a lot of interesting cultural conversations, while being entertaining and providing representation to people that might need it.
A lot of the material covered in these episodes are either conversations that people either avoid, or don’t have the ability to have or be a part of. We get to do a lot of really creative, exciting, insightful work, that also has purpose.
How did the show come about?
Originally, someone approached me at Vice. I was writing a story, a print piece, about white students at black colleges. They were curious to find out if we could make a video component to come out alongside it. At the time, I didn’t know it was going to be about Tiago. I just knew that we were going to try to make a doc about the experience of a white student at a black school. I met Tiago, we shot that doc, and my producers at Vice were like, “We need to make a whole series about this.” About finding minorities in places you wouldn’t expect, and how their minority status shaped their lived experiences. It started with the HBCU episode. From there, it turned into what it is now!
What was the process like? How do you find the subjects for the show?
Every episode is different. When it came to Tiago and his story, we’d been reaching out to a number of white students at black colleges all over the country. My brother went to Morehouse. I have a lot of friends who went to Morehouse, who are still very active in that community. One of my buddies who actually works for Morehouse told me, “Oh, there’s this freshman who’s from Miami that’s a student ambassador. He gives tours, he’s white, you guys should talk to him!” As soon as I had a convo with Tiago, I knew we were going to make an episode about him.
I wanted to make an episode about black cowboys, because there’s this whole community in Montana. After doing research, I discovered Neil Holmes was the only black professional bull rider in the top 100 of the PBR. I had to make a doc about him! We just got lucky, it turns out he was retiring. In my experience of doc filmmaking, it starts with a small idea or question really, then you got out into the world to see if you can find an answer. When you do, sometimes you find these really tremendous circumstances that are ripe for storytelling.
The K-Pop episode was similar. After seeing all these headlines about this white KPOP group in Seoul and the way people are reacting to them, I knew we had to cover that story. That’s an incredible minority situation. Same thing with Asian rappers, 88Rising is having a moment. One of their artists had the #1 R&B album in the country (Joji), and that’s the first time an Asian artist ever has ever done that.
That’s where the story starts, and then we zoom out to see what we can ask and what discoveries we can make from that story.
What goes into the decision-making process when deciding who to feature?
It really depends on the person. Sometimes we start with a question or message that we want to give to our audience, but often times — I don’t want to use the word ‘character’ — it’ll come down to the characters themselves. How interesting and dynamic their stories are. With Tiago, it took one conversation and I knew. He was the perfect person to do a story about white students at black schools — which isn’t a new thing by any stretch. Tiago is far from the first, the last, or the only, but he had such a dynamic story and interesting perspective.
Let’s say I’m talking to the only black Kung Fu master on Earth. But if he’s not dynamic, he doesn’t tell it well or it’s not super interesting, it might not be right for documentary. It might be great for print, but we want people to engage with the content. I don’t want to make another run-of-the-mill, boring documentary. I want something that’s engaging, and insightful, and interesting, that people want to consume. My goal as a filmmaker is to make something that people are not only interested in and are informed, but something they looking forward to seeing.
What did you learn from the tension that culminated during the episodes?
The overall theme I keep running into is that being minority, at this point in our history, takes an incredible amount of courage and resilience. In front of every individual, who is one of few in any situation, there’s gonna be challenges that are unique to you. A lot of people who consider themselves to be minorities are navigating situations and sets of circumstances that are new or different, and can’t find a lot of advice or insight anywhere. Throughout the course of making the show, when I ask them a hard question, often times, they’re ready for it. Because I don’t think a lot of people put themselves in these situations if they weren’t equipped to deal with the challenges presented to them. I find that really inspiring.
Were there any moments during filming when you had to bite your tongue, for the sake of remaining neutral while the cameras were rolling?
Totally. In the season finale for Season 2, we made an episode about young black conservatives. I consider myself moderate, but I tend to be more liberal leaning in the ways I view policy and government. Having conversations with people who say ‘Barack Obama didn’t do anything for them’ throughout his presidency, or having people tell me that having a driver's license isn’t a big deal when it comes to voter suppression laws — things that I inherently disagree with, that I wish I had time to debate with them — that’s not my job as a storyteller. My job is to observe, report, and leave space for them to tell their side of the story from their perspective, then give the audience the opportunity to make their own conclusion.
Because I’m not there to tell people how to think or feel. I’m just there to present these stories and ask hard questions so that the contributors have to think, but also so the audience has the benefit of not only feeling like the questions in their mind are being addressed — that they’re being challenged when they watch the show. In that episode in particular, there are tons of times I wish I could debate, but that’s not really my place.
To see more episodes of Minority Reports, you’re in luck because new episodes from the show’s second season have been released on Vice’s YouTube page. Make sure you subscribe too so you can watch new episodes as soon as they drop. If you’re intrigued by the work Adams is doing as a documentarian and filmmaker, feel free to follow him on Instagram as well.