Filmmaker Charles Todd, who grew up in Bellevue and Sammamish, initially had reservations when CNN program development director Alexandra Hannibal brought the nonprofit group Diving With a Purpose to his attention in mid-2020, as a possible topic for his next project.
The Nashville, Tennessee-based organization that started its work in Florida focuses on the protection, documentation, interpretation and submerged heritage preservation of shipwrecks from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Todd is the creative director for Scheme Engine, which describes itself as “a BIPOC-owned creative studio and production/post-production company,” which was teaming with CNN Films on a series of documentary shorts. (BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color.)
“We were trying to find stories that we didn’t feel were properly reflected in the landscape of media,” Todd says. “Within those stories, we were curious if we could find a story that had to do with reclaiming from a Black narrative lens.”
Todd says he was initially wary of making a documentary about Diving With a Purpose.
“It’s tricky, because we are telling a story that involves the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a story that deals with slavery, at a time when there was just so much Black trauma and Black death visualized through the media in 2020,” Todd says. “A lot of Black filmmakers will decline opportunities that deal with Black trauma, and I’ve been one of those in the past, because it’s like, do we want to put this image again front and center when it’s triggering, when it tends to feel like the only expressions of Black identity we have deal with these traumatic moments in Black history?”
But as Todd learned more about the organization, he was persuaded to tell Diving With a Purpose’s story.
“The reason Diving With a Purpose was so unique, interesting, engaging and refreshing for us was because the program has a very sort of reclaimative nature to it,” says Todd, who lives in Brooklyn but is gearing up to move to Los Angeles. “Yes, it is the study and the preservation and the excavation of sunken slave ships [from] the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But it’s also the telling of that story. It’s empowering Black scuba divers to own that space, to feel comfortable in that space, to be leaders in that space. It’s like, we are out here doing something to tell our side of our history. That empowering aspect is what felt most relatable and most exciting.”
The Todd-directed “Lessons from the Water: Diving with a Purpose” debuts on CNN at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 7. After its linear cable premiere, “Lessons” will be available via CNN on demand on cable/satellite services and on the CNNgo app.
Diving With a Purpose formed in 2003 when Ken Stewart, then the Southern regional representative of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, met the archaeologist at Florida’s Biscayne National Park who expressed interest in having divers aid in the documentation of wrecks in the park, according to Ayana Omilade Flewellen, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California Riverside and a Diving With a Purpose board member who is featured in “Lessons.” Stewart then sent out an email to other NABS members, writing, “Tired of the same old dives? Let’s dive with a purpose!”
In addition to chronicling the history of nearly 500 shipwrecks that occurred during the 366 years of slave trade between Africa and the Americas, the group also offers a weeklong maritime archaeology training course that teaches how to perform underwater mapping and surveying of shipwrecks.
Born in St. Louis, Todd moved to Bellevue at age 11 when his father Charles Todd’s job — he worked for McDonnell Douglas before it was acquired by Boeing in 1997 — brought the family to the Pacific Northwest. Todd’s mother, Winifred Todd, recently retired as principal at Seattle’s Dunlap Elementary School, and his father retired from work as a Boeing finance manager during the pandemic.
Todd can trace his career path back to a digital media arts class he took at Seattle’s Lakeside School where he started out making music on a MIDI keyboard. By his senior year of high school, the 2007 Lakeside grad was making “these one-off terrible, terrible — I can’t call them films, we’ll call them creative expressions” that he set to his own music.
After studying business at Virginia’s Hampton University, Todd worked in mergers and acquisitions finance in New York while moonlighting as a music producer before ditching “the suit” to explore music and filmmaking as a career.
Todd started at Scheme Engine as a music composer almost a decade ago and around 2017 moved exclusively into directing, from 30-second commercials to long-form documentaries. He was co-director on PBS’ recent “American Masters” documentary “Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away” about the legendary musician. That film is available to stream at pbs.org/americanmasters and on the PBS Video App through Aug. 23.
For CNN’s “Lessons,” Todd and his film crew traveled to Florida in April to shoot the 25-minute documentary, which also addresses a “layered, complex history as it relates to Black identity and water.” The film juxtaposes baptisms and joyful experiences in the water with images of fire hoses being turned on Black people protesting in Alabama in the 1960s.
Todd did not go diving, leaving that work to a camera operator so he could concentrate on being present and establishing trust with his interview subjects.
Todd hopes viewers, particularly young African American viewers, will see there’s space for them in the field of marine archaeology. He refers to a line in the film spoken by one of the participants: “My ancestors from seven generations ago couldn’t imagine where I am today. And I can’t imagine where my progeny will be seven generations from now.”
“Whether through the work that DWP does, or from a filmmaking sense with the documentary,” he says, “we’re giving future generations a sense of belonging, a sense of understanding, an acknowledgment that you do have a place, you do have history and your history is worth preserving.”