Who Fights for You?

Maddie Stambler’s first short documentary tells the story of a lifelong friendship. Some might call her bond with her subject “unlikely.” Maddie calls it transformational.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, we published an essay by documentary filmmaker Maddie Stambler about her cross-cultural upbringing and how it led her to study the dualities of the South in her filmmaking. We also presented her film Living Legacy, which dives into the history of the Rosenwald Schools. The product of a partnership between Booker T. Washington and Sears, Roebuck and Company President Julius Rosenwald, those schools educated thousands of Black children in the South during the years of Jim Crow. Today, we present an earlier film by Stambler, Who Fights for You?, which documents a transformational lifelong friendship that began when she was a child.

—Chuck Reece

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I met my lifelong best friend on the first day of kindergarten in Cleveland, Ohio. Darrien and I bonded instantly over our shared, overwhelming fear of our less-than-kind kindergarten teacher.

As a timid five-year-old, starting school was difficult for me, but I found refuge in my friendship with Darrien Fann. At first glance, we appeared to be total opposites. I was a shy, white, able-bodied Jewish girl, and Darrien was an outgoing, Black, Christian boy born with cerebral palsy, a condition that confines his body to a wheelchair.

As we grew up together, I watched as Darrien’s boundless curiosity, unmatched intelligence, and vivacious personality propelled him far beyond the limits of his chair. At the age of eleven, Darrien was ordained as a preacher and eventually a pastor in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically African American denomination whose roots reach back to Reconstruction. I have many fond memories watching Darrien preach at his church every third Sunday. He also became involved in the Jewish aspects of my life. We attended the Jewish Community Center’s performing arts camp together, and he sat in the front row at my Bat Mitzvah. While Darrien explored his fascination with other religions through our friendship, my exposure to Black history began with him.

In elementary school, Darrien’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement enriched my Black History Month lessons. My earliest memories of our friendship are holding hands while singing “We Shall Overcome” with our classmates and watching Darrien belt “What a Wonderful World” on stage at performing arts camp, perfectly mimicking Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice. Over the years, we considered ourselves family. I was enthralled by Darrien’s family lore in the same way my own grandparents’ stories would fuel my desire to learn. His father used to tell us stories of growing up in Kentucky in the 1960s and the discrimination he faced in the segregated South.

I was enthralled by Darrien’s family lore in the same way my own grandparents’ stories would fuel my desire to learn. His father used to tell us stories of growing up in Kentucky in the 1960s and the discrimination he faced in the segregated South.

Hearing these stories as a kid created a vital framework for my understanding of the complicated past of the South. When we reached high school, Darrien and I began discussing our different backgrounds more openly. We would spend hours together on the weekends talking about Darrien’s sermons while I transcribed them for his archive. In college, I produced a short audio documentary in which we discussed the openness and curiosity that our friendship instilled in us.

While Darrien would often preach about our friendship in church and the “common struggle” that made him feel connected to the Jewish people, I decided to honor our twenty-year-plus friendship by making my first documentary short, Who Fights For You? The film is about Darrien’s journey as a disabled pastor. It follows him as he contemplates what independence means to him, how society views him because of his race and his disability, and the obstacles he and his family have had to overcome to help him fulfill his calling to become a pastor.

Darrien Fann and Maddie Stambler as children
Darrien Fann and Maddie Stambler as children

About the author

Maddie Stambler is a documentary director and producer. She graduated from Duke University with a BA in Storytelling, an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, and a Certificate in College Teaching. Maddie's 2021 directorial debut, Who Fights For You?, premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival and was nominated for Best Short Documentary at the BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. The film is about her childhood best friend who is an African American pastor with cerebral palsy. Her 2023 MFA thesis film, Living Legacy, tells the story of the Historic Russell School, the last remaining Rosenwald School in Durham County, North Carolina. Most recently, Maddie co-directed The Unknown Metal Box. The film is a stranger-than-fiction mystery exploring photography, memory, and loss.

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