As part of our ongoing COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative, director and producer Deborah Riley Draper recently worked with the Ad Council and JOY Collective to create a short-form documentary that highlights stories from descendants of the U.S. Public Health Services Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. Her film provides the opportunity for audiences to hear directly from the families impacted by the study and explores what current generations can learn from the experience to build confidence in public health within Black communities, especially as it relates to the COVID-19 vaccines.
We spoke with Deborah about her career path, her creative process and the best advice she’s ever received—it’s really great advice.
Lonny Pugh: Could you please talk a bit about your career path and how you came to partner with the Ad Council?
Deborah Riley Draper: I began my career as an account executive in advertising and worked my way up to the vice president level. I had the great honor to work at Omnicom, Publicis, WPP and a few fantastic independent shops over 15 years.
When I was a vice president in the Atlanta office of BBDO, I launched my production company and wrote, directed and produced my first film, Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution. This film centered on 12 Black models who changed fashion shows forever during the notorious runway battle between the French and American designers at the Château de Versailles. It screened at the Marche du Film at the Cannes Film Festival, received an excellent New York Times review and premiered on television following RuPaul's Drag Race on VH1. That was incredible. Then came three films, a 400-page Simon & Schuster book published at the beginning of the pandemic, an Audible memoir of three New Jersey matriarchs, and I also directed and produced a two-episode docuseries on OWN called The Legacy of Black Wall Street that aired earlier this summer.
Then the CEO of JOY Collective reached out to me about working on an extraordinary Ad Council campaign involving the descendants of the men who were involved in the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. It was a rare combination and a magical moment—a Black-woman-owned ad agency and my Black-woman-owned production company collaborating to bring to life a series of content about one of the most referenced tragedies in Black history.
LP: What can you say about the experience of working with the subjects of the short film? What did you learn, or wish to convey, about the link between the study's place in history and potential hesitancy in the Black community about COVID-19 vaccination?
DRD: Working with the descendants of the men involved in the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee was transformative. I thought I knew and understood what transpired, but I didn't.
The study itself was about the "untreated Negro male." I did not know that was the objective of the study from the beginning to the end. The administrators intentionally withheld treatment for syphilis—including penicillin, after it was discovered. These men were denied access to treatment.
I wanted to convey that the circumstances around COVID-19 vaccination are very different and to emphasize the importance of getting all of the facts for yourself from the right, informed sources. I also wanted to stand back and create space for the descendants to freely and authentically share the history of the tragedy—as well as the triumph that emerged from it. This triumph includes informed consent for all, regardless of race and review boards, for every medical research study. The legacy of the Tuskegee study is not a mantle to hang inaction or hesitancy on but a place for action, acknowledging what happened, learning about and from it, and applying the learnings to your situation.
I am committed in my work to telling the intentionally and unintentionally hidden and dismissed stories of the lived experience of people of color in this country, which is incredibly important when we are in the middle of a pandemic that disproportionately impacts people of color. This is when we can really see the power of story go to work.
LP: For your next work with us that targets rural audiences, what is different about your creative process and what remains the same?
DRD: I was born in Savannah, Georgia and my mother grew up in Coffee Bluff, a little community outside of Savannah. Listening is always a part of my creative process, so that does not change. Empathy and cultural sensitivity are essential, no matter who you speak with or where you go.
The stories themselves will inspire how the creative process might vary in terms of the ways into the story, but at our core, we are human.
LP: How do you approach telling such personal, intimate stories to inspire action?
DRD: I create a safe space and I never compromise the trust I share with the owners of these stories. It is a privilege to work with someone to tell their story. I don't take that for granted.
On a more fundamental level, I love listening to people’s stories. We all love stories. We connect through stories, characters and challenges that resonate with us. I am always a part of the audience, even in my creative process. I look for moments that touch my soul and make me laugh, cry and want to stand up for something or someone. When that happens, I know I am on the right track.
LP: How do you know when you're done—when you've accomplished what you set out to accomplish? What do you need from your collaborators to get there?
DRD: I instinctively know when I am done. The work tells me because my tweaks are not improving it. At that point I like to step away and come back—if nothing jumps out at me, I am done.
I love screening content when I think I am close. My trusted collaborators can see what I can't because I am too close to it. I need collaborators, not to try to change my vision but to bring notes that will elevate it.
LP: How has the pandemic affected your professional choices? How has it impacted your creative vision?
DRD: Professionally, I realized it is essential to say no to things that do not serve me or my vision, even in moments of uncertainty. I have opened myself up to the joys of silence and giving myself a space that is suitable for me to create. So many things inspire me, but having time and space to listen to and learn from new people, places and things in my way exponentially impacts my creativity and expands the experiences from which I can draw.
LP: What has been the most meaningful advice you've received, and how did it help you?
DRD: I am both a masterpiece and a work in progress. I can shine brightly and continue to evolve and grow—no one is perfect, and that is perfectly okay.