After publishing his book The Torture Letters in January of 2020, Laurence Ralph decided to adapt it into an animated short—reckoning in both cases with systemic racism in America, in hopes that society at large will address it, and take meaningful action to stop the violence it perpetuates.
Based on over a decade of research, both projects are structured as a series of open letters to victims of police violence, and to those who have spoken out against it. Drawing attention to a police torture scandal in Chicago that unfolded over the course of three decades, they use this history as a foundation, to open up a discussion around tragedies that continue to play out.
For first-time filmmaker Ralph—who serves as a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University—the idea in adapting his book was to connect with younger generations, in order to educate and emotionally engage them with deep-seated social issues.
“It’s challenging the viewer to be involved and to think about how they’re connected to the vulnerability of other people,” Ralph tells Deadline. “You might not have known about these particular cases, or you might have some vague idea that people experience police violence and suffer from it, but I want people to pause and think about how they’re impacted themselves, and how their not knowing is a kind of privilege, and a kind of complicity in it.”
Below, the Torture Letters directors reflects on the process of adapting his book for the screen, and what gives him hope that, like the abstract shapes in his film, America itself can transform.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about your book, The Torture Letters, and the decision to adapt it?
LAURENCE RALPH: The book is about a scandal in which over a hundred Black male suspects were tortured in police custody. It happened in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and since that time, there’s been a lot of activism to first just acknowledge that it happened, and then later, to get communal resources for the families and communities impacted by it. One of the things that happened in 2015 was The Reparations Ordinance, and it included a lot of collective resources for the city of Chicago. Alongside that, there was a mandate that the history of this police torture scandal be taught in Chicago public schools.
So, as an educator, I was drawn to that aspect of it. But I knew that the book I was writing wouldn’t be accessible to teenagers. So, I started then thinking about, “Okay, how can I translate some of this knowledge to that younger demographic?” And I began to be drawn to animation for that reason.
DEADLINE: How did you personally come to awareness of the police torture scandal in Chicago? And at what point did you decide to explore it with a book?
RALPH: It mostly came from my time in grad school [at the University of Chicago], and my time in the community. In 2006, I started doing research in Chicago, and gang research, and when I was doing that kind of research, this is well before the Black Lives Matter movement. There were incidents where young men were shot by the police, and I recall community members saying, “Well, if nothing happened to [Chicago PD Commander] Burge, nothing’s going to happen to these officers.” They were talking about the police torture scandal, and I knew at that time that I wanted to delve more into the history of that, and to think about why there has never been accountability for the police, when it comes to torture.
DEADLINE: What inspired you to embrace an epistolary mode, in telling this story?
RALPH: Well, I was struggling with how to write about torture, and this is part of the reason for the animation, as well. It’s like you write about a topic like torture, and it becomes either too graphic that people automatically get turned off, or it becomes sterile, and you lose the impact of what’s really happening.
It’s hard to find a middle ground where you can convey the reality and the experience of it, in a way that’s impactful. But I noticed that when torture survivors were talking about torture in community settings, it didn’t seem graphic and it didn’t seem voyeuristic, and I realized that that had a lot to do with who they were addressing, and the sense of urgency. And I began to be drawn to the letters because when you write a letter, you have to be clear about the purpose of it—about who it’s for, about what you want them to know. And I found that if I kept myself grounded in that kind of approach, I was able to convey the emotional reality and the nature of torture in a more humanizing light.
DEADLINE: What were the first steps in bringing your short film together?
RALPH: Once I decided on animation as a vehicle, I started doing research on animators, and different styles of animation that I wanted to express. I knew that I wanted to do something that was a little bit abstract, so it could convey the emotional nature of it, and the transformations that happen. You know, when you talk about violence, violence can transform into something else very quickly.
I was involved with this Conception series that The New York Times had, and one of the animators for that series really stuck out, Jocie Juritz. So, I reached out to her, and assembled the team from there. We also got a composer, Pierre O’Reilly, who does a lot of great work with sound, as a way to connect emotion. So, I reached out to him, as well, and it was supported by a grant from Princeton.
DEADLINE: How did you approach the challenge of mining a script out of your book?
RALPH: I picked key people that I wrote to in the book, as a way to tell the overarching story of police violence in Chicago. So, I took key moments in the book and had to edit them a lot, just to get them in a place where they can be translated, visually. Most of it’s taken from the book, and from specific experiences, like interviewing teenagers about their experiences with violence.
I knew I wanted to include some of what the teenagers said, and some of what they asked me. When I interviewed teenagers in Chicago, the first thing they asked me was, “What was your first experience with the police?” You know, they didn’t trust me at first; they wanted to know where I stood. So, I wanted to include my experience, as well, because that was so important for allowing the research to happen in the first place.
DEADLINE: From what I understand, the cubist art of Jacob Lawrence was one of your key visual inspirations. Tell us more about how you worked with the abstract language featured in the film, and what you wanted to express through it.
RALPH: I think in talking about violence, especially like torture, there’s a way in which it can seem like there’s no way forward. So, a lot of the images just confront you, and are hard shapes. It seems like there’s no way to move beyond them, but then they shatter and break apart, and form something new. So, there’s a kind of cyclical nature to the short, where you’re confronted by these violent images in the form of abstract shapes, but then they morph into other things, and provide a way for transformation. I wanted to continuously think about that as a cycle, and as a way to move forward, beyond something that seems so devastating.
DEADLINE: What was it like for you to embed yourself within the world of animation for the first time, as a creator? Was there a learning curve?
RALPH: I realized through the process that I think very visually. I think when I write, there’s a way that I’m translating the visual that I see into words. But this is easier, in a way, because I can just describe what I want to convey, emotionally. So, the process was just going back and forth with Jocie, and talking about how to convey emotion most of the time, because the limitations of the book were that it’s hard to convey emotion.
DEADLINE: Were there other major challenges in realizing your vision?
RALPH: There’s a different time period than I’m used to, and a lot of moving parts, so just managing that production was challenging. But I think the nature of the collaboration was something that I enjoyed a lot. I felt that the team got on the same page, and everybody had a lot of freedom to express their ideas.
One worry all along was about distribution, and how to get it out to the world. But fortunately, or unfortunately, we were wrapping it up just as the summer hit, and with the events with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, The New York Times expressed interest. So, then that was the other challenge. We had to speed up and finish it at that point, so there was a big push at the end to get it done.
DEADLINE: What gives you hope that America can get to a point where police brutality is less prevalent, and where systemic racism is meaningfully addressed?
RALPH: Right around the time when the film came out, it was an interesting moment, where former students were calling me and talking about what they learned in the classes I taught, and how it’s affecting them, and wondering what they can do. It coincided with the pandemic, and so there was a wider sense of the kind of vulnerability that I was talking about. We are connected in a way, and we are underprotected, and more people know what that feels like now. So, they can relate to other issues like police violence through the vulnerability that they’re experiencing in this moment, and knowing what it’s like. Like, it might not be your fault that you get Covid. It might not be your fault that a police officer stops you, but you can still be victimized. I think knowing what that feels like is important.
[Also], people organizing under the banner of Black Lives Matter, it was a very diverse group of people of all ages, various backgrounds, and I think that that was an important thing.
And just professionally, I was called to speak to a lot of different groups and companies and universities, and the dialogue is opening up in a way that it had never before around these issues, as long as I’ve been researching them. I think the success of the film is another indication of that, that I would have never expected, and it’s opened up conversations that I didn’t know that people wanted to have.
DEADLINE: Did your time making The Torture Letters leave you thinking about making more animated films?
RALPH: I’m definitely drawn to animation and I definitely feel at home in the animation community. I’m thinking through a lot of ideas about what’s next, and what I can do to bring social issues to light through animation.