Dorothy Oliver wouldn’t take no for an answer.
In one scene from “The Panola Project,” a short documentary by Somerville filmmakers Jeremy S. Levine and Rachael DeCruz, Oliver pulls up to the driveway of LaDenzel Colvin, a young man hesitant about getting his COVID-19 vaccine. They are in Panola, Alabama, a rural town with an estimated 350 residents, most of them Black. Oliver teases Colvin, reassures him of the vaccine’s safety, and shares the story of her niece who died after being infected by the virus. Eventually, he relents: “You can put me down.”
“When Dorothy says to do something,” Levine said in an interview, “it’s impossible to say no.”
It was her unyielding resolve that got all but a handful of Panola residents their shots in a state where less than half of the population is fully vaccinated. “The Panola Project,” a 16-minute documentary released by The New Yorker last August and screening virtually in the Sundance Film Festival through Jan. 31, charts the efforts of Oliver and county commissioner Drucilla Russ-Jackson to hold a pop-up vaccine clinic in Panola, where the nearest hospital is several towns over. The catch? They must get enough people to sign up.
“Can she keep her community safe? Can she get enough people to sign up to get the shot to bring the clinic there?” Levine said. “There was this very natural, built-in dramatic arc to the story.”
Levine, who is an assistant professor in the communication, journalism, and media department at Suffolk University, and DeCruz, the associate director of advocacy at the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, were living in Tuscaloosa in the spring of 2021 (she was working remotely for BU; he was teaching at the University of Alabama) when they read about Oliver’s work in a New York Times article. The filmmakers, who are also a couple, fell in love with the idea of telling the story of a rural Black community and its resilience. “It was a pretty dark time for us,” DeCruz said. “We knew that there was really important and necessary work happening across the country as it related to COVID, and so we wanted to seek out one of those stories.”
They drove an hour-and-a-half west to the general store Oliver runs to ask her if they could film her work in the community. “When I went to think about it, I said this might be a good thing,” said Oliver, 69, in a phone interview from her general store. “What it might do is help somebody else.”
The filmmakers recorded Oliver cold-calling neighbors and driving up to their houses to ask them if they’d gotten the shot yet. She booked vaccination appointments for people, drove people to the sites, and arranged pop-up clinics in Panola. “She was really a one-stop shop,” DeCruz said. “If people had questions about COVID or the vaccine in any capacity, people knew to go to Dorothy.”
A Motown-inspired score by composer Jermaine “Maineframe” Fletcher punctuates key scenes, like the one where a vaccination pop-up finally arrives in the town. “We wanted it to feel organic to who Dorothy is, and there was that incredible energy with her,” said Levine.
What struck Levine and DeCruz was Dorothy’s patience with people who had concerns about the vaccine, a model of “meeting people where they’re at,” as DeCruz put it, that they think communities around the country should emulate. “She wasn’t at all judgmental. She wasn’t shaming in any way,” said DeCruz, who is Black. “She met any hesitation that existed with love and respect — and it helped move people.”
It’s a strategy that proved effective for Oliver. “You don’t have to get worked up with them. You don’t have to get all upset. Just stay calm and continue [to] let them know how serious it is,” Oliver said.
But it was a systemic lack of access, not hesitancy, that was the main barrier for Panola residents to get vaccinated. Some people didn’t have cars to drive to the nearest vaccination site; others didn’t have the Internet access to book appointments. “We see time and time again women, and especially Black women, picking up the pieces and doing the hard work that’s necessary because our government has been leaving these huge gaps in access and in resources,” said Levine. “It shouldn’t require a hero in a small town in order to get people vaccinated.”
Oliver knew, though, that she had power as a trusted voice in Panola. “People just kind of look to me, because I’ve already done stuff in the community,” she said. “I just keep on doing it because people ain’t got nobody to help them.”
Besides being a selection at Sundance, the documentary won the audience award for best short documentary in the 2021 GlobeDocs Film Festival, and USA TODAY singled out Oliver for its Best of Womankind award in December, earning her a video shoutout from Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“I never expected anything like this,” Oliver said.
Most recently, Oliver has been working on getting Panola residents booster shots and getting newly eligible children vaccinated. Meanwhile, letters from all over the country pour into Panola, thanking Oliver for her work. Levine and DeCruz hope to host future Boston-area screenings of the film.
DeCruz said she hopes the film demonstrates the capacity individuals have to do good, even in the face of overwhelming crisis.
“The sheer persistence that she demonstrates throughout the film — it’s clear that she’s not going to give up,” she said. “She’s going to do everything she can in her power to keep her community safe.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at email@example.com