On Wednesday, Feb. 22, a screening of the documentary “Free Renty: Lanier v. Harvard” took place at Fairfield University. Held in the DiMenna-Nyselius Library auditorium, the screening was followed by a Q&A with Tamara Lanier, filmmaker David Grubin and local attorney Josh Koskoff.
The event was organized by Fairfield University history professor Cecilia Bucki and was sponsored by the History, Black Studies and Peace and Justice Studies departments. The documentary began after a brief introduction from the professor.
The documentary was released in 2021 and is the winner of numerous awards. It surrounds Tamara Lanier, a Connecticut woman and descendant of an enslaved man known as Papa Renty.
“Free Renty” documents part of Lanier’s years-long fight against Harvard University. As chronicled in the film, the university possesses daguerreotypes (photographs) of Lanier’s great-great-great grandfather Renty and his daughter.
The daguerreotypes were taken in South Carolina and commissioned by scientist and Harvard professor Louis Agassiz. The photos were taken as “evidence” to justify the practice of slavery in that period.
“This is an injustice and you need to correct it,” Lanier said of Harvard’s actions.
As shown in the documentary, Agassiz’s daguerreotypes feature Renty, his daughter Delia and another father-daughter pair sitting half-naked in front of the camera.
As she explains in “Free Renty,” for years, Lanier had asked Harvard to give her the daguerreotypes. She wanted Renty’s image to be with her and her family. Lanier also wanted to stop the university from displaying them in Harvard’s Peabody Museum using them for events and promotional material.
Throughout the film, Lanier and her daughters told stories about Renty that had been passed down from Lanier’s mother. Lanier often spoke of Renty’s character, including how he taught himself and others how to read while enslaved, and explained why she felt that Harvard’s possession and use of his image were so disrespectful.
The documentary follows Lanier, her family and her legal team on the journey of building their case against Harvard after Lanier had decided to sue the university for the original daguerreotypes. At the event, audience members sat in suspense as the film walked them through the long process.
“Free Renty” concludes with footage of a virtual trial that was initially postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After four months, Lanier’s case against Harvard University was dismissed.
Following the film screening, Lanier, Grubin and Koskoff rose from their seats in the audience and went to the front of the auditorium for a question and answer period.
As chronicled in “Free Renty,” Koskoff took over Lanier’s case, working alongside attorney Benjamin Crump, after his father passed away. He answered questions from the audience pertaining to the legal battle.
Koskoff updated the audience on the current situation with the case. After he and Crump took Lanier’s case against Harvard to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, it was eventually ruled that Lanier can sue Harvard for emotional distress over the daguerreotypes.
“What resonated with me is that the decision left the daguerreotypes with Harvard,” Lanier said. “And I was disappointed in that. I felt like it was leaving a loved one behind.”
Although this victory is not what Lanier was hoping for, Koskoff emphasized during that question-and-answer moment that this was a legal victory.
“It’s an unbelievable David and Goliath story,” Koskoff said. “First of all, the fact that you [Lanier] were able to convince anybody to take your case. And then to get this far. I mean, it really is, it’s a historic case. And it’s buried because of the disappointment of the daguerreotypes a little bit which would have been more newsworthy.”
While taking questions from the audience, Lanier, Koskoff and Grubin each spoke of their thoughts on the case and outcome. Grubin talked about his filmmaking process and the ideas that the documentary focused on.
“The ideas in the film are at the intersection of institutional racism, white supremacy, sexual violence [and] reparations,” Grubin said.
Near the conclusion of the screening event, the three speakers talked about the future of Lanier’s fight against Harvard and what the future holds. Koskoff explained that the case now involves the present-day, particularly exposing the university’s mistreatment of Lanier.
While the daguerreotypes are still owned by Harvard University, the movement known as “#FreeRenty” has taken off among Harvard students. With more litigation to come, it remains to be seen if the university will be ordered to pay damages to Lanier and her family.