‘The Barber of Little Rock’ nominated for Oscar in documentary category

Arlo Washington is is shown in this undated still from the documentary “The Barber of Little Rock.” The film has been nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary short category. (Courtesy of Story Syndicate/ Christine Turner)
Arlo Washington is is shown in this undated still from the documentary “The Barber of Little Rock.” The film has been nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary short category. (Courtesy of Story Syndicate/ Christine Turner)

"The Barber of Little Rock" has been nominated for best documentary short at this year's Academy Awards.

The short film documents Arlo Washington's efforts behind the barber chair and behind the creation and management of People Trust Loan Fund and Community

"It was news to me because we just told the story," Washington said in a recent phone interview when he learned the film had been shortlisted for a nomination. "We never did it for any type of recognition. To hear that it was shortlisted for an Oscar was just amazing."

The film's directors, four-time Emmy winner John Hoffman ("The Antidote") and Peabody-nominated Christine Turner ("Homegoings," and Hulu's "The 1619 Project") follow Washington and his clients and show that relatively small loans can make an enormous impact on a community.

"We were given the opportunity to really look at the issue of the racial wealth gap in this country. We call ourselves observation filmmakers. We want to let, whenever possible, life unfold in front of the camera," Hoffman said recently.

"One of the only things she thinks the government has done right in this area is the creation of community development financial institutions (CDFI), under the (Bill) Clinton Administration. It's nice when making a film about such a complex problem, you can point out an institution."

CDFIs can help customers that conventional lenders usually don't serve. Customers who have had legal issues or have had low credit ratings have often benefitted from their services. Hoffman explains, "If you use those metrics, you're excluding a huge number of people. CDFIs are, by design, meant to use other ways of evaluating credit worthiness."

"Arlo has a personal relationship with the people he's providing loans to, so he's personally invested in their success," Turner said recently.

According to the film, 95% of the borrowers successfully pay back their loans.

A Zoom conversation with Nicole A. Elam, the president of the National Bankers Association, led the filmmakers to Little Rock, where People Trust had been operating from a converted shipping container. The film ends with People Trust occupying a more conventional storefront.

The market, as is visible in the film, was underserved. The film also shows that white customers have benefited from the services People Trust provides. The film features clients and friends candidly discussing their difficulties with life and the banking system.

Viewers can catch it for free at TheNewYorker.com and the publication's YouTube channel.


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