Spotlight Exclusives

‘In The Bones’: Documentary Tracks the Struggle for Equal Pay in Mississippi

Kelly Duane de la Vega Kelly Duane de la Vega, posted on

When documentary filmmaker Kelly Duane de la Vega heard of the unlikely partnership of then-Mississippi state Treasurer Lynn Fitch, a White Republican, and Cassandra Welchlin, executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, to try to pass an equal pay law in the state, she was intrigued. That curiosity ultimately led to In the Bones, a film that looks at the Fitch/Welchlin partnership as well as the lives of two Mississippi families deeply impacted by the socioeconomic conditions they tried, unsuccessfully, to address. Fitch would go on to be elected the state’s Attorney General and was a key plaintiff in the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision by the U.S. Supreme Court last year that overturned Roe vs. Wade. Duane de la Vega spoke to Spotlight recently about the film; the transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Editor’s note: This post was updated on 8/3/23 to provide a link to In The Bones on Amazon. 

Thanks so much for making the time and for giving us a chance to see the film, which is really powerful. Did I read correctly that you were born in Mississippi or have some connection to the state?

Yes, my father was a civil rights attorney and so my parents moved to Jackson, Mississippi shortly after they got married, around 1964. They were trying to help people who were getting arrested trying to help people register to vote. My father was working as an attorney with a program to help people get out of jail. He worked there and then Albany, Georgia, and then he went to work for a poverty program in D.C.

And what drew you specifically to Mississippi for this project?

Well, after the 2016 election, producer Jessica Anthony and I wanted to do something about the status of women in the United States. And as we normally do when we’re just thinking broadly about a topic, we just started to read the local newspapers and doing some research. And in our research, we saw that Mississippi had the highest female poverty rate, the highest female mortality rate, and a lot of other statistics that pointed to this being a very hard place to be a woman in the United States.

As I said, we had sort of a family connection to Mississippi; I had also traveled there a few times and had a connection to the state. And we read an article about Lynn Fitch and Cassandra Welchlin sort of teaming up to try to pass an equal pay bill. That struck us as interesting at a moment when the country felt so polarized, that this White Republican woman and this African American advocate for low-income women who aligns largely with the Democratic Party were reaching across the aisle to work together for progress. We thought, wow, this is a really interesting place for that to be transpiring. And that’s how the idea began.

And little did you know that Lynn Fitch would go on to be the plaintiff who results in the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

We had no idea. Yeah.

It’s a remarkable punchline for the story.


Tell me how you went about choosing the other families. Were you always looking for geographic representation in the state by having someone from the Gulf Coast and the Delta?

When we first came, we talked a lot to Cassandra and also followed Lynn somewhat. And it became clear that even though there was this bipartisan effort to pass the equal pay bill, not only was it not going to pass, but it also wasn’t going to pass in a very uncinematic way. And so, we started to think, how do you tell this story more broadly? What is this story actually about? In all of our research and our approach to filmmaking, we always go on what we refer to as listening tours, where we don’t have our camera and we just meet people. So, we had spent a good six to eight months just talking to child care providers, to women in shelters for women, to women who worked in politics, both up in the Delta and along the Gulf. We really talked to people across class and privilege and faith. And we started to think, how do you put a face on policy? And we did think it was important to show two different families from two different regions of the state. And we ended up just really connecting with those two families. The trust we were able to build and the way they intersected with a lot of policies that we wanted to explore felt really organic.

And you didn’t know Cassandra, I’m assuming, before you started this project, but what a remarkable person and obviously a remarkable character for a film.

Incredible, and yes, I did not know her. Right after we started filming, I happened to be taking a flight down to L.A. for something, and I sat next to two people, and we all were reading James Baldwin. We started up a conversation and I had said, oh, I just came back from Mississippi. And both of them knew Cassandra, which so was so strange, but serendipitous. She really ended up being an incredible voice for the film and really shows how hard it is to do the work she’s doing, where she’s doing it, and how dedicated she is to working in one of the hardest places in the United States to fight for women.

Both my parents were born in Mississippi and my first job as a reporter was for the Clarion-Ledger during the period when the paper won the Pulitzer Prize. In trying to describe that experience, I often come back to the incredible admiration I have for the people I met, many of whom remain friends, who didn’t leave—people like Cassandra who have stayed and kept at it, even against formidable odds.

I agree. Jessica, the producer I referenced, and I just went back to Jackson to screen the film and we brought our daughters. And we just spent a couple of days with everybody, just spending time and sharing our experiences and showing the depth of these individuals who work do meaningful work. And it blew both of our daughters’ minds. It changed their perspective of the South. It changed their perspective of how you do meaningful work in this country. It was a really powerful experience.

I wanted to ask about Lynn Fitch. You’ve spent obviously a lot of time with her and she’s a complicated character in the film and I’m sure a complicated character in real life. But where do you come down in terms of what her motivations in terms of equal pay or just in general in trying to be a leader for women in the state?

That’s a hard question for me to answer, only because she keeps her cards pretty close to her vest. I think she does care about women’s rights, or at least when a version of women’s rights revolves around equal pay for equal work. I don’t align with some of her decisions, but I don’t want to speculate because in some ways I want to film to speak for itself. I’m sorry, that’s not a very interesting answer.

Understood. I’ll try to come at that in a slightly different way. After your experience, do you see a path forward for a bipartisan form of progress in Mississippi?

I think because the state is so red, for Democrats and people who are working on issues that are geared towards lifting people out of poverty, it has to be bipartisan. The Democrats can’t move anything without making relationships with the Republicans.

Unless you have a transformational voting rights movement that empowers a Black electorate that is nowhere near as powerful as it could be.

Right. And I always have hoped that that would happen. And each time I’m there, that hope swells a little more. But as you know, it’s a deeply divided state and it’s complicated.

You did see that kind of coalition come together on the new state flag.

The flag definitely impeded economic growth in the state, and I think people on both sides of the aisle saw that and I think perhaps that helped motivate people that wouldn’t otherwise have supported it. I’d like to think that it was about something deeper, about social justice, but I think maybe it was about both.

I know that my experience in the state left a deep and lasting impression. Is that true for you as well? It’s a very powerful place.

I agree; it Is a very powerful place. It was definitely a place that made a profound impact on my parents’ psyche, and I grew up with that. My parents had a Mississippi license plate that they put on their car as soon as they got to town, because if they had California plates and they were helping civil rights workers, it could have been dangerous for them. When they left, they kept the plate and my father eventually gave it to me, sort of as a passing of the torch, a symbol of doing work that is meaningful. So, I would say Mississippi is definitely in my psyche and a place that I both deeply love and feel deeply forever connected to, and also feel a great deal of pain about.

Where is the film scheduled to show next?

We did a southern tour, so it screened in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Jackson. It’s going to screen in Natchez, Mississippi, and we have an upcoming screening in Paris. And we also are releasing it on Amazon and iTunes.


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