Interview with ‘The Friendliest Town’ Director Stephen Janis and Producer Taya Graham

New documentary The Friendliest Town follows a government takedown of Pocomoke City, Maryland sheriff Kelvin Sewell.

This film is a hard one to watch because you are taken into the life of someone who is destroyed for wanting to make a difference. There is brokenness within our country and distrust with the people who are tasked with protecting civilians on a day-to-day basis. Many people think that the only way to fix this unjust system is to have people on the inside fighting for what is right and fair. In The Friendliest Town director Stephen Janis, along with producer Taya Graham, take us into the downfall of an individual who never stopped trying to fix something that has been broken. It is a powerful film that manages to show you up close and personal how corrupt our justice system really is.

After some technical difficulties on my part, I was luckily able to speak to Director Stephen Janis and Producer Taya Graham to talk to them about the film and the story they were able to cover.

The first question I want to ask is, how have you guys been adapting to quarantine life over the past year?

Taya – “It’s interesting you ask that because we are journalists and you can tell in the documentary that we are used to being out in the field, we are used to talking to people, so not being able to reach out to the community in the same way, in an in-person way, has been a difficult adjustment. But, we have tried to be creative and keep recording.”

Stephen – “It has been I’m a little weird and especially you know this documentary never would have gotten distributed if we hadn’t actually been locked down because we were just going to screen it in a couple places. Then, once quarantine happened, then I started sending it out to different companies and we got a distribution deal. So weirdly, it has been beneficial to the wider audience of the doc which is interesting.”

Of course, you guys made this film before everything happened last year, but especially with everything that happened this past year when it came to social and racial injustices, I think this was an important film that people should see. Another question I have is that, after witnessing the occurrences over the past year, especially with what happened in my home state in Louisville, do you think this film means a little bit more?

Stephen – “I think that one of the reasons this film might be important for people who are concerned about policing is because we often debate about policing in ways that we don’t really understand what it is and what it means. I think because you can see how intertwined policing was within the history of racism and racial segregation and social boundary enforcement in a city like Pocomoke, and how having a black police chief, who was integrated with the community, changed policing and made policing something that was more productive for the community is important to acknowledge. The debate we are having constantly, like with what happened in your state and others, is about the role of policing and ‘why do police do this and why do police do that’. A lot of it has to do with the political history of policing, and this film touches on that.”

Taya – “The other thing that I think the documentary shows us is two important things. One, community activism works in a way that this documentary is a blueprint for people who want to make real change in their community. When the ‘Citizens for a Better Pocomoke’ banded together they did their best to get representation on their city council so that in the future decisions like this would not be made without the input of the Black community. It is good to show that a group of small people who are determined can actually make a difference and change their community and change the way they are policed and how politics are done. The second aspect that is important is to show that community policing can be productive, and I think there is a larger conversation about how law enforcement interacts with the communities, especially communities of color, and to see that there is a type of policing that can actually be respectful of the community and keep them safer is important. Unfortunately, we also see that there is a reaction from the law enforcement establishment when people do try to change the way policing is done. When they do try to pull back on the War on Drugs, you can see that there is a pushback against reform, but it is possible.”

Why do you think there was such a movement to not only get rid of him [Kelvin Sewell] but to destroy him on top of that?

Stephen – “You have to understand the history of the Eastern Shore in Maryland, which the Eastern Shore in Maryland had slaves and was a slave-owning culture, and its agriculture relied on slavery, so there’s a really fraught history of race on the Eastern Shore and a history of racism [Jim Crow], but it has kind of kept quiet.”

Taya – “It’s interesting you brought up slavery because on the Eastern Shore is where one of the last lynchings in this country actually occurred, and one of the Pocomoke city residents actually referred to what happened to Kelvin, his firing, and his subsequent prosecution and persecution, was that it was like a modern-day lynching. Some of the tactics they used to discredit Kelvin, because like you said it wasn’t enough just to fire him they had to discredit everything he had done because of discrimination laws.”

Stephen – “Because the Eastern Shore has never reconciled with its history, one thing you will hear from the white residents is that there is no racism here. Kelvin forced them to acknowledge that history, and by forcing them to acknowledge that history, he created a situation where they were like ‘we have to discredit this man because he’s shedding a light and putting a mirror up to the history of the Eastern Shore that we don’t want to acknowledge, and he is making us acknowledge it. In doing so we can’t just fire him, we have to destroy him because if we don’t discredit him then there might be actual change.’ I think that is why they felt they had to pursue this man to the end of the Earth because they felt they had to win the argument, and they didn’t want to reconcile with the racist past of the Eastern Shore. I think that is why it was so comprehensive or scorched earth.”

You bring up not wanting to reconcile with their past, and you can see that in the documentary when some of the white residents are interviewed at the Christmas festival and they push the lack of Black people to the side and make excuses like “they were here at the beginning” and “you should have seen it last year.” At the end of the film, we find out that many of the people who were involved with Kelvin’s story ended up leaving Pocomoke. Do you think there has been changing [in Pocomoke] or do you think the same things have been going on?

Stephen – “I think there has been a change in the sense that Todd Nock, an African-American, was elected to lead the council. I think there has been a change because the African-American community has refused to accept the things the way they were, but I don’t think the white community has changed very much in terms of accepting that or reconciling with that.”

Taya – “I think things have changed in that the African-American community has found a way to find representation on the city council and to have some influence in the politics there. They have empowered themselves, but I have to say that the white community has not changed, as you mentioned during the Christmas party when he said ‘they were here earlier’, we [Stephen and Taya] were there the entire time and there weren’t any African-Americans present the entire time. So, I don’t think the white community is yet ready to deal with their racist history and some of the current effects of the racism and the legacy of that racism on the town. Some of the white people who stood up for Kelvin, who were willing to speak out on the record and say he was a wonderful police chief and what is happening is wrong, they did have to leave the town because there were serious consequences for them. One woman had experienced vandalism when she had her car windows broken, and when she went to have her car windows repaired she was told she couldn’t receive service in fear that no one would go to that shop anymore. So, the white people who did stand up and speak out had serious repercussions and eventually ended up leaving the town, unfortunately.”

My last question is about Kelvin, and I think our audience would love to hear how he is doing and how he has been reconciling with everything?

Stephen – “He is doing well, he still works with the State’s Attorney so he has a job, fortunately. His probation ended, but he still has a second appeal pending before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals for the second conviction for misconduct. So, I think he is just hoping that this time the court will completely toss the entire idea that he committed a crime. So, I think he is optimistic, but I think this has changed him completely. I think it was really devastating for him to go and try to change policing, and end up being accused of being a criminal basically.”

Taya – “I think he is doing well, but I do think this has changed the way he views the criminal justice system. He has been a homicide detective in Baltimore City for decades and then went down to Pocomoke City in order to change the style of policing that he saw in Baltimore that he saw as destructive. So, when he had this opportunity to create positive change in this community, he thought he and his family were going to retire there. His wife was a nurse at a local hospital, his kids were going to school there, he joined the local Church, I mean he was ready to spend the rest of his life in Pocomoke, so to have to be uprooted like that, and then also be accused of criminality was really devastating for him. And even though, like Stephen said, he has, to some extent, moved on, I know people from Pocomoke City still call him up and ask him ‘are you going to come back and be our chief?'”

The Friendliest Town is available now on VOD.

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