MSU’s Screenwriting and Animation Program Receives $20,000 to Launch ‘Changing (H)Arts Scholarship’
Morgan State University (MSU) SWAN (Screenwriting and Animation) students Thaiyir Sanders and Andre DeNeal (pictured above), along with MSU alum Alfonzer Harvin, are credited among several collaborators on the acclaimed animated short film, “Cops and Robbers.” The project, which was originally intended to stream on social media, was catapulted to new heights upon its release by Netflix in December 2020, reaching more than 200 million international subscribers.
Produced by actress and Baltimore native Jada Pinkett Smith and directed by Arnon Manor and Timothy Ware-Hill, the eight-minute emergent media production uses narrative, video and animation to form riveting commentary about social justice. It was sadly inspired by the brutal killing of Ahmaud Arbery and the ongoing pandemic of police violence against Black Americans. It is based on a video-poem, written and performed by Timothy Ware-Hill, in which he reminisces about his life as a Black child growing up in Alabama and reflects on injustice, as an adult.
Keith Mehlinger, director of SWAN, recalls how Morgan’s screenwriting and animation program became involved with the project: “In the middle of June last year, Arnon Manon and Timothy Ware-Hill reached out…to gauge our interest in joining a call-to-action (project) following the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery. The effort was made more urgent by the death of George Floyd, and within weeks we had joined the call…to bring Ware-Hill’s spoken word viral video to life as a short, animated film.”
Morgan’s contribution to the Oscar-buzzworthy production can be found in an animated vignette depicting Black children playing “hide and seek” while the narrator reminisces about the innocent game of his youth, contrasting starkly with the more consequential “games” Black youth of today navigate with unfortunate regularity. The finished product represents a collage of animation styles and genres, expressing the agony and tension of racially motivated police violence against Blacks. The animation created by Morgan’s SWAN collaborators offers a poignant narrative to the final production.
“It’s an incredible feeling to see your work and passion shared with the world, especially during a time of great turmoil,” said Thaiyir Sanders, a senior in the SWAN program. “With ‘Cops and Robbers,’ I truly felt seen not just by my colleagues as I worked on our section but seen by my country (for) what was likely the first time. I am honored to have been a part of this project.”
Senior Andre DeNeal added about SWAN and the “Cops and Robbers” experience, “The learning (curve) was off the charts, thanks to the expert collaboration offered by Arnon Manor and Timothy Ware-Hill. They were drawn to us because of the social justice themes of their work, and our standing as an HBCU with an interdisciplinary film and technology major with concentrations in animation.”
Morgan’s SWAN program is among a handful of film programs at HBCUs and is the only interdisciplinary cinematic arts and sciences program with a liberal arts framework emphasizing visual storytelling and its evolving forms while integrating computer science and technology for 2D/3D animation, game design and visual effects.
Using the original spoken-word poetry set against video and animation, “Cops and Robbers” is rooted in themes that reflect on human commonality, childhood innocence and introspection on the loss of innocence. The themes resonate throughout the film. Redemption, implied by the elevation of one’s consciousness in recognizing cops, who on many occasions, are also robbers, is explained by Ware-Hill: “Some people take it as if I’m seeing cops and then the Black people are the robbers. But there’s another interpretation: that cops, they are the cops and the robbers. They have the power to be both. They have the power to patrol and police, and also to take.”
Partners Manor and Ware-Hill initially conceived their creation as an animated short designed to drive awareness on social media, but they soon realized something larger was afoot. Backed by recognized Hollywood names — Lawrence Bender (“Pulp Fiction”) and Jada Pinkett Smith — “Cops and Robbers” soon caught the attention of Netflix.
“We never imagined having such a successful release for the film,” exclaimed Manor. “We also had no expectation of monetizing the film but pledged that if any proceeds were to be derived, we would donate 100% to charities and organizations that empower Black lives. When Netflix licensed the film, we were able to realize that promise and offer scholarships to Morgan State and Alabama State Universities, as well as (donate) to several other charities as our giving-back pledge.”
Building on the success and exposure of “Cops and Robbers,” Manor and Ware-Hill made good on their commitment to give back, creating scholarship funds at both Alabama State University and here at Morgan. Little did our SWAN collaborators know that their efforts would eventually seed scholarship opportunities for future students of the screenwriting and animation program. Manor and Ware-Hill endowed a $20,000 scholarship, the Changing (H)Arts Scholarship Fund, for SWAN students to further their commitment to promoting social justice, diversity and inclusion, and to spearhead education initiatives at the University’s James H. Gilliam Jr. College of Liberal Arts (CLA) — the first-ever scholarship funding specifically for SWAN students and one of the largest received by the CLA.
The scholarship will award $1,000 each to 20 junior or senior students, based on academic achievement and demonstrated financial need, for tuition, textbooks and University-related expenses. These students must exemplify the ability to inspire the hearts and minds of others to embrace social justice causes, including civil rights, LGBTQIA+ inclusion, Black Lives Matter, gender equality, immigration reform, etc., through their chosen cinematic art form.
When asked about the future of social consciousness films like this, Manor commented, “I am hoping that this is just the beginning of more projects like this.”