Collective Thread: Midnight Oil by Bilal Motley

By Tsemone Ogbemi

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

On Monday, June 22, 2020, to mark the year since the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery exploded on June 21, 2019, our collaborative research group, Beyond the Lab, gathered on Zoom to watch Bilal Motley’s documentary, Midnight Oil. Motley was an employee at the PES refinery for thirteen years and was there when the alkylation unit blew up last June, driving almost two tons of hydrofluoric acid into the air. Midnight Oil records the experiences both of the refinery workers and of nearby residents and documents Bilal’s changing views in the aftermath of the explosion. The film prominently features perspectives of members of Philly Thrive, an activist group whose Right to Breathe campaign, launched in 2015, has pointed to the harmful effects of refining on fenceline communities in south Philadelphia.  

Through an initiative called Futures Beyond Refining, the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities is working with south Philadelphians to envision and move toward a fossil-free future. Our Beyond the Lab group will expand Futures Beyond Refining projects this summer 2020. Team member, Professor Bethany Wiggin, had interviewed Bilal Motley in person for an episode of the Data Remediations podcast

Our summer research group can’t meet in person because of the ongoing pandemic and need to work from home, and we are looking for creative ways to connect with one another as a group. So screening the film had a double purpose. It also helped us get to know each other, which we did, at my suggestion, by participating in a collective thread. 

We used Zoom’s chat feature to share our immediate reactions to what we were seeing. Some of us had viewed previous cuts of the film, and others were seeing it for the first time. 

Here are a few of the interactions that I think express how moved and inspired we were by the first-hand experiences of Motley and others in Midnight Oil. They illuminate the utility of a film like Motley’s to a research group like ours that values arts-driven inquiry.  

To footage of the explosion:

13:14:35 From Connor Hardy : Watching this is so, so different than hearing about it in the podcast. I hadn’t seen a video of the explosion before just now.

13:14:40 From Piotr : The way everything turns orange is so horrifying

13:15:00 From danny cooper : I’ve seen this footage so many times and it’s still so shocking every time.

13:15:08 From AlexandreImbot : ^^!!!

To interviews with PES refinery employees about what it was like to work there: 

13:21:47 From Meg Arenberg : these parts are really a reminder how much an intense work environment can be a close community — before this I had never heard a refinery worker talk about their careers

13:21:47 From Isabelle : The destruction of this community is in no small part what lends this film its poignancy

13:21:51 From bwiggin : so much stress on these people’s faces

13:22:26 From Grace Boroughs : Makes me think about the training opportunities that need to be developed for retiring oil and coal infrastructure

To hearing Motley’s experiences of working at the refinery as a Black man:

13:23:09 From Meg Arenberg : ok, some qualifications now on that idea of “community” and “family”

13:23:14 From Tsemone : Absolutely…

13:24:05 From Piotr : !

13:24:17 From danny cooper : ^^^

13:24:21 From bwiggin : he’s spoken before about needing to make himself “small.” helpful also to know that he is very tall

To hearing the perspectives of people who oppose the work of Philly Thrive:

13:26:18 From bwiggin : This is footage from the first community meeting that was hosted by the Mayor’s Refinery Task Force

13:27:01 From Tsemone : I feel so tense watching this part

13:27:10 From Grace Boroughs : I agree with Tsemone. I remember hearing in person how hard it was to be in the space where Bilal was assumed to need to “take sides.”

13:27:32 From Piotr : Yeah this hurts

To hearing Motley speak about why he felt the need to make ‘Midnight Oil:’

13:37:19 From Meg Arenberg : He holds himself up against civil rights leaders, these are the examples he wants to live up to. 

13:37:23 From Piotr : That message to his child in the future ;-;

13:37:32 From Isabelle : I wish there was a way for the refinery to move somewhere isolated and for people to be able to have good jobs- a win-win situation for health and the economy. But there’s no magic bullet-type solution here. 

As a group, our reaction to Midnight Oil was largely positive. After the collective thread, I wrote to Bilal Motley saying so, and then I asked him whether or not that was common amongst people who had watched the film so far. “The general public’s response has been very positive,” he told me. On the other hand, reactions from his former colleagues has not been: “I was labeled a ‘traitor’ by refinery coworkers” which, he said, “continues to be very difficult.” He is nevertheless optimistic that his film will unite people: “I’m confident that both sides of the refinery debate will see my intentions behind the film once they see it.” 

I also sent him the interactions printed above. He replied, “I love the collective thread and all of the thoughtful responses. The filmmaker in me appreciates that you all noticed the subtle messaging I carefully placed throughout the film.” 

Part of Motley’s motivation to get the message out about the PES refinery was his children. He felt the need to acknowledge, on record, the complicated future that they and all of us face in a world that depends so heavily on fossil fuels. “Climate change is the existential threat that will drastically alter their lives.” He told me. “I want them to know what I believed.” 

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