Documenting the Vivacity of Vel Phillips

Written by Robert Trondson, producer/director of the WPT documentary Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams.

I first saw Vel Phillips speak in spring of 2012 …and I was completely blown away.

I had attended a screening of the PBS documentary American Experience: Freedom Riders, after which a panel of professors and activists took to the stage, including a small, elderly African American woman named Vel Phillips. Immediately, she took command of the evening.

Vel Phillips with filmmaker Robert Trondson and his wife Erin.
Vel Phillips with filmmaker Robert Trondson and his wife Erin.

Ms. Phillips captivated me with stories of Milwaukee’s civil rights movement, her exciting friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King and, more than anything, her vivacity. I said to myself, here is a woman that we’ve got to do a documentary on.

Now looking back over almost three years, I can honestly say it’s been a life changing experience. First, there was getting to know Ms. Phillips. She is a wonderful, funny, and smart lady. Still to this day, she calls me on the phone to ask “did you hear about what happened in Milwaukee yesterday?” or “what do you think about Hillary’s chances?” She’s still active and is still inspired to make a change in society. (I sure hope I’m that fired up when I’m 90!)

Also life-changing has been getting to know the people associated with Ms. Phillips’ story. From NAACP Youth Council members and Commandos to former Gov. Patrick Lucey and the home run king Henry “Hank” Aaron; it has been such an honor to record their stories and see them relive the moments when they rose to a challenge and helped change the world around them.

Finally, it’s been an exciting three years filming this documentary for Wisconsin Public Television. This is my first historical biography. The learning curve has been huge, and my ego has been slugged a few times. Fortunately, I was able to work with a great team of writers, producers, editors, shooters, and graphic artists — all of whom I can’t thank enough.

Now, with Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams made available to the public, I feel greatly indebted to the past three years of production, and wonderfully excited for this documentary’s life in the world where it will share the narrative of Ms. Phillips’ life.

Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams airs 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 16 on WPT and Milwaukee Public Television, and is streaming online now.

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