A still from Fearless Video’s short film project “COVID Conversations.” It was one of two short films that received a $60,000 grant from Black Public Media to promote COVID-19 vaccinations in Black and brown communities in Baltimore. Video still courtesy of Fearless Video.

Baltimore is the first of five U.S. cities to show short films promoting COVID-19 vaccinations for underserved communities as part of an effort funded by Harlem-based national nonprofit Black Public Media.

Black Public Media received a grant from the National Network to Innovate for COVID-19 and Adult Vaccine Equity (NNICE) for the purpose of developing media strategies that improve vaccination rates among Black adults.

In March 2022, BPM held a Baltimore Black Media Story Summit, which brought together Baltimore creatives, public health professionals, and community organizers. They also put out an open call for filmmakers to pitch projects to help spread the word about vaccinations.

“BPM’s Story Summits started in 2019 as a way to get media makers together regionally to talk about issues and topics and subjects impacting Black media makers,” said Qiona Woffard, BPM’s manager of special programs. “We were thrilled to hone the Summit’s focus to the effects of COVID-19 in communities of color.”

The grant from NNICE designated five regions across the country that reported low vaccination rates in Black and brown communities.

“Of the five cities, we chose Baltimore to be the first site because of the closeness and tightness of the community, its creative talent, and its proximity to BPM’s headquarters in New York City,” Woffard said.

Black Public Media awarded a $60,000 grant each to two short films promoting adult vaccination in Baltimore’s Black and brown communities: “COVID Conversations” by Fearless Video and “Baltimore Speaks: Black Communities, COVID-19, and the Cost of Not Doing Enough” by AphroChic.

Black Public Media partnered with Outcast Food Network to host community screenings of the films in early November at Unity Hall and at The Pearle. Vaccine clinics and grocery giveaways were also available at both screenings, courtesy of Outcast Food Network.

“Baltimore Speaks,” by filmmakers Jeanine Hays, Bryan Mason, and Leon Shipp Belt of production company AphroChic, is not yet available to stream online. But its mission is to “rebrand vaccination, not as a government mandate, but as a vital act of being part of Baltimore’s Black community and protecting it,” according to the press release on the film.

The documentary addresses the connection between historical medical mistreatment of Black people in Baltimore and the resulting present-day mistrust for medical systems. In the short film, Baltimore residents, medical professionals, and community leaders discuss the impact of COVID-19 on Baltimore’s black community and the reasons why they got vaccinated.

“COVID Conversations,” by filmmakers Julian Hamer and Yessica Hernandez-Cruz, founders of production company Fearless Video, is available to watch online here. Hamer and Hernandez-Cruz met working on videos for Vice President Harris’ presidential campaign.

“COVID Conversations” is not a continuous short film, but rather four two-to-three-minute video clips featuring informative but light-hearted man-on-the-street interviews with Baltimore residents led by comedian Sir Alex and medical expert Dr. Osose Oboh.

The unfiltered and uncut dialogues with Baltimore residents are designed to disarm and engage people in conversations about the vaccine.

“We tried to think out of the box to find a way to allow folks in Baltimore to give their honest opinion about what they thought,” Hamer said.

“Instead of drama, we decided to hit people with laughter because joy is an emotion that folks really need, especially dealing with the stress and grief that has come with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hamer said.

“Conveying this message through laughter allows people to be a little less guarded,” Hernandez-Cruz said. “They will be able to receive information in a new way, instead of thinking, ‘Here comes another PSA telling me what to do.’”

The four short clips are currently running as ads on social media platforms in Baltimore.

“The best way to combat misinformation is to provide the right information on the same platform where someone’s crazy uncle is posting anti-vax memes,” Hernandez-Cruz said. “We thought this is the best way to communicate a really difficult message.”