Rod Watson: Documentary taps community voices to combat vaccine hesitancy

Marsha McWilson holds a photo of her sister who died of Covid-19. McWilson has lost six relatives to Covid and had it herself; she’s part of a documentary that screens on Saturday trying to break down vaccine hesitancy.

Marsha McWilson’s sister had a heart attack Christmas morning when breathing problems caused by Covid-19 sent her into cardiac arrest. The family took her off of life support six days later.

She also lost an uncle to Covid-19.

And four cousins – all of the losses occurring before vaccines became widely available.

McWilson’s is just one of the personal stories in a new documentary, “FIGHT FOR GOOD: One Body One Soul,” being screened Saturday as the latest tool in the effort to overcome vaccine hesitancy.

The 29-minute film from the Community Health Center of Buffalo and the Buffalo Documentary Project includes not only the center’s medical experts busting myths and breaking down the science around the vaccines in ways that are easy to understand, it also includes everyday people from Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Along with trusted professionals, those ordinary voices may be the best hope for cutting through the resistance – fueled by misinformation and disinformation – that keeps killing people and keeps herd immunity out of reach.

“The worst Christmas we ever encountered in our lives,” McWilson said in an interview, describing the death of her 68-year-old sister, Vanessa Walker, one of the first Black women to own a salon in Niagara Falls. “We had to let her go on New Year’s Eve.”

McWilson’s is one of the first voices in the film, describing the state of denial in the Black community when Covid first hit. For too many Western New Yorkers, it’s a state they’ve never left.LaVonne Ansari, Community Health Center chief executive officer, blames much of that on the false information being spread on social media.

“It’s killing us,” she said of the lies and misinformation that health professionals are racing against. “We can’t keep up.”

With the Omicron variant more transmissible and resistant, Delta still dominant and holiday gatherings in full swing as potential virus spreaders, the documentary couldn’t be more timely. It’s a follow-up to the original “FIGHT FOR GOOD,” which premiered last spring and featured the Health Center’s professionals discussing their experiences and motivations in helping the community deal with Covid and other challenges. That documentary was selected for film festivals in Cleveland, Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta and will be part of an international film festival in February.

While the original was an effort to archive the African American community’s response to Covid, the follow-up is aimed specifically at getting more people to get the vaccine. Both films will be shown, followed by a live discussion, at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main St. The event is free, but those wishing to attend are asked to register at:

In the new film, the Health’s Center’s professionals demonstrate how vaccine doses are prepared and stored. They also explain that it is not a live vaccine and cannot give a person Covid-19, but merely helps the body create antibodies to prevent illness or minimize its severity. It’s the type of basic information that can cut through the fog of the war on truth.

But medical professionals can only do so much.

Part of the film is shot in Signature Cutz, the unofficial barbershop of the Buffalo Bills, where one customer, a veteran, says he was “100% against getting a vaccination.” But then he caught Covid. A short time later, the VA just happened to call and say it was offering the vaccine. “I was about the second one in line” to get a shot, he says.

Another customer, referencing the infamous Tuskegee experiment, said seeing other African Americans get vaccinated “made me want to get the vaccination.”

“We’ve got to stay safe. We’ve got to keep the community safe. So take your vaccination. It’s not a game,” Signature Cutz owner Kenny Harris says in the film.

In an interview, Harris – who said he and two of his barbers caught Covid early on – admitted he was skeptical of the vaccine.

“But I’m in a high-contact job,” he said, explaining that the need to safeguard others pushed him past his hesitancy. “Even if I questioned it, I couldn’t be selfish.”

After the losses she’s endured, McWilson – a Niagara Falls salon owner, singer and actress – has little patience for those who reject the vaccine because they claim not to know what’s in it.

“They don’t know what’s in a whole lot of stuff and they’re steady eating it, they’re steady drinking it, and they’re steady taking it,” she said.

What would she say to those who remain vaccine hesitant?

“Are you kidding me? Did you see what I just went through?” she said, before borrowing from a line in “The Color Purple” that is tragically apropos in light of what her family has endured. “Don’t trade places with me.”

That kind of honesty from people in the community may be more effective than anything from the roster of medical talking heads on national TV news shows.

In fact, Ansari said the Health Center has been holding Zoom meetings with barbers, beauticians and pastors to learn what they are hearing from their customers and congregants so the center can better meet their needs.

“We learned, really, how to listen to our community again,” she said.

Going above and beyond to listen and make themselves accessible to the community has, in turn, built trust so that community members now believe Health Center staffers when they tell them something.

The organization, which has four locations, opened its Niagara Falls facility in 2015. Following through on that commitment, Ansari said, also helped dispel skepticism because hesitancy doesn’t come just from historical experiences with vaccines or the medical community, but from a society that makes promises but then doesn’t deliver.

The Health Center delivered on its promise, and is still delivering – as evidenced by Saturday’s screening and community discussion.

The documentary ends with McWilson clutching a picture of her sister while singing “Rona Mae Blues,” a song she wrote to honor Walker and other victims of the coronavirus. Her anguish is palpable as she sings, in part, “if only I knew it would be the last time I … saw you.”

he’s right: No vaccine skeptic should want to trade places with her.



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