Jelani Cobb and Trey Ellis: What are you working on now?

June 10, 2020

We recently reconnected with Jelani Cobb and Trey Ellis. Cobb is the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism and a staff writer at the New Yorker. Ellis is a Professor of Film and Co-Executive Producer/Interviewer for the Emmy-award-winning HBO documentary feature, King in the Wilderness, which “chronicles the final chapters of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, revealing a conflicted leader who faced an onslaught of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum,” and Executive Producer of True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality


We are so pleased that earlier today, it was announced that True Justice won a Peabody Award. Congratulations.


Tomorrow, Jelani Cobb will participate in the University Life Forum, Black Lives Matter, Protest and Creating Change.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Cabinet Room at the White House, Washington D.C., January 18, 1964 (Courtesy LBJ Presidential Library)
Image courtesy of the Kunhardt Film Foundation.

School of the Arts: What are you working on now?


Jelani Cobb: Summer is when I traditionally do research trips but with that on hold indefinitely I am focusing on projects that can be completed without much travel, including a collection of essays about the historical roots of our current political and social tribulations. 


Trey Ellis: Believe it or not, I'm currently writing a musical about Dorothy Dandridge. I had started working on the project before COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd, and to preserve my sanity it has been important for me to continue writing, at least part of every day. I need to believe that after these long and overlapping national nightmares we will one day gather again and ponder human-scaled tragedies. 



School of the Arts: What are you thinking about now?


Jelani Cobb: Democracy. More specifically, how democracies flourish and how they die. For obvious reasons I've been alarmed by much of what is going on in our country right now and I'm fixating on the fundamentals of civil societies and civic institutions that make democracy possible. It's sent me back to some of the foundational texts—the Federalist Papers, the Lincoln-Douglas debates—and big questions that we have yet to answer sufficiently. 


Trey Ellis: When we only had COVID-19 to worry about I was thinking about how the ugly chaos of the Trump administration had to come to an end exactly like this. I'd been so surprised for so long how resilient our system was to his relentless attacks. Then with the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing outcries I am even more convinced that there is finally in America an appetite for true systemic change. I am hopeful that Trump, a pandemic, and four murderous police officers will make revolutionaries out of us all.


Finally, I have been so moved by how many people, when asked to give a list of films to watch right now to help make sense of how we got here, mention King in the Wilderness and the second documentary I made with Kunhardt Films and HBO, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. Both films are free to stream. 

Jelani Cobb (left) and Trey Ellis (right) at the Lenfest Center for the Arts in September 2018. Photograph by Michael DiVito.

Watch the full video below.