Monday, June 29, 2020

Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of the late Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki bouki (The Hyena’s Journey) and its seminal place within African cinema. A debut feature made for thirty thousand dollars by a self-taught twenty-eight-year-old director who had previously made only two shorts (albeit remarkable films in their own right), Touki bouki won the FIPRESCI prize at the 1973 Moscow International Film Festival and single- handedly challenged stale critical assumptions that African cinema was inextricably wedded to social realism and immune to experimental narrative strategies. Of course, Mambéty’s film is fascinating for the way it harnesses many of francophone African cinema’s traditional antinomies—the conflict between tradition and modernity, rural versus urban sensibilities, and the ravages of the colonialist inheritance that coexist with the corruption and bad faith of neocolonialism. But the film’s singular accomplishment is its success in recasting and recontextualizing these motifs in a truly startling fashion.

Even the work of a brilliant enfant terrible does not exist in a vacuum, however, and it’s crucial to emphasize that the Senegalese film industry that produced this remarkable talent experienced something of a golden age during the sixties and seventies. With the release in 1963 of Borom Sarret, Ousmane Sembène’s pathbreaking debut short, the former dockworker, union organizer, and novelist began a distinguished career and earned a worldwide reputation as the country’s preeminent filmmaker. Unlike either Hollywood movies or European political cinema, Sembène’s films refused to choose between a focus on the individual and an exaltation of the collective will. This could be viewed as a distinctively African strategy, since the continent’s communal ethos has traditionally nurtured an emphasis on the role of the individual within a greater collectivity. Sembène, the “father of African film,” inspired a vibrant second generation of directors, animated by equally vigorous aesthetic and political ideals. Mahama Johnson Traoré’s films, particularly The Maiden (1969) and The Lady (1970), were preoccupied with the plight of Senegalese women. Moussa Yoro Bathily, who served an apprenticeship as Sembène’s assistant, became known for innovative documentaries.

Yet as Manthia Diawara demonstrates in his book African Cinema: Politics & Culture, this golden age was ridden with contradictions, inasmuch as efforts to forge an aesthetically vibrant and politically acute African cinema were tinged with the same vestiges of neocolonialism that many of the most influential films of the era vigorously critiqued. Since the lion’s share of the most notable Senegalese films of the sixties were made possible by French production money, the government formed the Société National de Cinéma, an adjunct of the Ministry of Culture, in 1973, to nurture local production and subsidize Senegalese filmmakers. But even this organization was marred by the fact that, although it funneled money to homegrown directors, it failed to provide financial support for a local film infrastructure, meaning that the industry was still dependent on France for purchasing film stock and renting equipment, as well as for film processing and editing facilities. Many of these facilities eventually closed—including the one that housed the materials needed for the restoration of this print of Touki bouki—and an important cinematic legacy became endangered.

Given Sembène’s preeminent place within Senegalese and African cinema, it is perhaps not surprising that his legacy has inspired a pronounced “anxiety of influence” among the generations of African directors that have followed him. The key to Sembène’s complex appeal to filmmakers who continue to wrestle with his legacy resides in his dual focus on both the inequities of Western colonialism and the tendency of African elites to internalize the same colonialist mentality, replete with corruption and class stratification, which inspired a wave of liberation movements in the post–World War II era. Even though there are clear affinities between the plight of the eponymous protagonist of Borom Sarret and Antonio’s downward spiral in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Sembène’s tale of a destitute cart driver who loses the vehicle that earns him his livelihood is both more militant and less concerned with life-affirming humanist bromides.

While Mambéty’s equally impressive sophomore short, Badou Boy (1970), is frequently viewed as his personal reworking of Borom Sarret, many scholars tend to pit Sembène, the elder statesman, against Mambéty, the fiery upstart. Film historians continue to promulgate the view that Sembène represents a “realistic” tendency in African cinema while Mambéty’s work embodies a less “analytical,” more “poetic” and modernist strain. Indeed, from a superficial perspective, Mambéty’s experimental style is far removed from earlier examples of African social realism, whether exemplified by Sembène’s ostensible debt to neorealism or Safi Faye’s synthesis of documentary and autobiography. (I made more or less the same assertion in a 1995 article on Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyenas, in Iris.) On closer examination, however, although the stylistic chasm between Mambéty’s and Sembène’s work is still indisputable, I’d argue that the opposition between a “realistic” Sembène and an intransigently “modernist” Mambéty is slightly simplistic.

Sembène’s Xala (1975), supposedly the work of an intractable social realist, includes certain scenes, particularly a bravura finale in which a hapless businessman is spat upon by beggars, that wouldn’t be out of place in a Luis Buñuel film. Conversely, Mambéty shares most of Sembène’s political and social preoccupations. Both directors, whether explicitly or opaquely, recapitulate Frantz Fanon’s belief that decolonization often breeds a paradoxical compulsion to mimic the behavior of the deposed colonizer. This polemical thrust is especially apparent in Mambety’s Hyenas—a film that recasts many of Touki bouki’s themes—highlighting the behavior of avaricious African villagers, whose greed mirrors the economic malfeasance of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

It’s also undeniable that a modernist strain is part of Senegal’s postindependence legacy. After all, Léopold Senghor, who served as the country’s president from 1960 to 1980, was present at the creation of African modernism. As one of the key contributors to the journal Présence africaine, founded in Paris in 1947, he was part of a literary movement that synthesized such European intellectual currents as surrealism and existentialism with Pan-Africanism and a variant of black pride known as Négritude. Ironically enough, Mambéty’s brand of African modernism mercilessly dissects the failure of Senghor’s Senegal to employ an African socialist model to alleviate the plight of the country’s poor.

A heavy drinker with a rebellious streak, Mambéty tried his hand at acting as a young man but was quickly fired after a short stint at Dakar’s Daniel Sorano National Theater. While his films were no less radical than those of his compatriots, literal-minded nationalists occasionally attacked him for a supposed overreliance on Western motifs and source material. Yet Mambéty’s films demonstrate that European modernism and indigenous African modes are not irreconcilable polarities. Hyenas is based on The Visit, Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomedy, and Mambéty was certainly not sheepish about expressing his indebtedness to a European writer; at the time of the film’s release, he proclaimed that “it is a joy for me to pay tribute to Friedrich Dürrenmatt.” Mambéty’s adaptation, however, is more a slyly subversive appropriation of Western modernism than a concession to its homogenizing lingua franca.

Although Touki bouki has been compared to such outlaw-couple movies as Pierrot le fou (1965) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the bare-bones plot, which revolves around the exploits of a larcenous rebel, Mory, and his efforts to flee the country for an idealized France with his girlfriend, Anta, is merely the departure point for a jaundiced look at Senegalese modernity and its discontents. The film’s playful deployment of kinetic, associative editing, accompanied by a frequently poetic disjunction of sound and image, confirms that Mambéty was as inspired by Sergei Eisenstein and avant-garde traditions as he was by post–New Wave road movies. The eccentric spatial and temporal shifts crystallize essentially unresolvable tensions between rural traditions and urban anomie. Even before the opening credits appear, the transition between a pastoral scene in which a young boy, possibly Mory, herds cows and the bloody floor of an abattoir accelerates the contrasts between a premodern agrarian milieu and bureaucratized, industrialized modernity. When Mory finally emerges in Dakar, he’s astride a motorcycle adorned on the front with a steer’s skull and long horns and on the back with a Dogon cross—a symbol associated with Malian religious traditions. The film’s syncretic impulse manifests itself in these images of cultural cross-fertilization, a maneuver that recalls scholar Robert Stam’s memorable phrase “atavistic modernism.”

Touki bouki refuses to endorse either a nostalgic view of the African past or a blinkered enthusiasm for contemporary mores and the ideology of progress. Although Mambéty’s idiosyncratic editing patterns generate a certain amount of head-scratching, the puzzlement is always productive and never gratuitous. A sequence of staggering complexity, in which shots of Mory chained to a truck by Anta’s disgruntled classmates (she is apparently abandoning her revolutionary duties by consorting with him) are intercut with scenes of Anta’s aunt denouncing the renegade as a ne’er-do-well and a shot of the aunt skinning a goat, highlights Mambéty’s tendency to eschew superfluous dialogue and heavy-handed rhetoric. As with most sophisticated examples of montage, the precise significance of this agglutination of images must be determined by the viewer. In general terms, the sequence can be viewed as the director’s backhanded, slightly mischievous tribute to his invigoratingly disrespectful protagonist. Neither a sloganeering pseudo-revolutionary like Anta’s classmates nor a moralistic traditionalist like her aunt, Mory is a shape-shifter whose status as an outsider and an inveterate trickster links him to the hyena (bouki), an animal that in African oral tradition represents wiliness and an ability to both deceive and be deceived.

Like many of his rebellious counterparts in American and European films, Mory’s rampage is fueled by hunger for money and the lure of a false paradise: France, an elusive object of desire throughout the film (evoked repeatedly by Josephine Baker’s paean to Paris on the soundtrack), is, in reality, far from a refuge for discontented youths but rather a country still riddled with racism and colonialist values. (The film’s multilayered soundtrack, a skillful amalgam of ambient sounds, Western pop tunes, African drums, and avant-garde jazz, provides aural commentary on the couple’s oscillation between African values and the West.) But unlike with the outlaw couples in films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands (1973), Mory and Anta’s lust for money is never merely narcissistic; their restlessness corresponds to the fate of countless Senegalese young people who yearn to extricate themselves from poverty, and the encroachments of stifling traditions, but find that exile breeds an even more profound sense of alienation. Mambéty employs dark humor to drive home these quandaries. In a pivotal scene, Mory makes a comical attempt to steal the proceeds of a wrestling contest, earmarked for a memorial to General de Gaulle; when the trunk that supposedly contains the loot is eventually opened, a human skull pops out. Even after Mory successfully snags some cash by robbing a wealthy friend, his European dreams are contrasted with the bigoted chatter of departing French visitors, who cannot wait to flee a country they sneer at as a backwater.

In a fanciful sequence toward the end of the film, Mory and Anta are feted in a parade as they flaunt their newfound wealth in a Citroën emblazoned with the stars and stripes of the American flag. Despite being sullied by these foreign influences, Mory yearns to commune with the drums of a nearby griot. While the griot, or storyteller, has a responsibility to serve as the conscience of a community, Mory aligns himself with this legacy as traditional bonds of communal solidarity are eroding. Mambéty was a staunch admirer of his antiheroic protagonists. As he remarked in one of his last interviews, “I am interested in marginalized people because I believe that they do more for the evolution of a community than conformists. Anta and Mory . . . dream of finding some sort of Atlantis overseas. Following their dreams permitted me to follow my own dreams.” While Hyenas, one of the most critically dissected African films of the 1990s, was sadly Mambety’s final feature, two subsequent shorts, Le franc (1994) and the posthumously released The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999), succinctly encapsulate his tragicomic sensibility. His early death from lung cancer in 1998 was an irretrievable loss for the international film community.

A film long cherished by cinephiles and Africanists, Touki bouki can now be appreciated by a much wider public. The film is lauded in Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a documentary that gently chides film buffs for overlooking the riches of African cinema. The World Cinema Project’s gorgeous new print, which restores the film’s brilliant saturated color scheme, should be an added incentive for contemporary viewers to rediscover a modern classic. --Criterion

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Göran Olsson, 2011)

For three decades, the film canisters sat undisturbed in a cellar beneath the Swedish National Broadcasting Company. Inside was roll after roll of startlingly fresh and candid 16mm footage shot in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, all of it focused on the anti-war and Black Power movements. When filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson discovered the footage, he decided he had a responsibility to shepherd this glimpse of history into the world.

With contemporary audio interviews from leading African American artists, activists, musicians and scholars, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 looks at the people, society, culture, and style that fuelled an era of convulsive change. Utilizing an innovative format that riffs on the popular 1970s mixtape format, Mixtape is a cinematic and musical journey into the black communities of America.

At the end of the '60s and into the early '70s, Swedish interest in the U.S. civil rights movement and the U.S. anti-war movement peaked. With a combination of commitment and naiveté, Swedish filmmakers traveled across the Atlantic to explore the Black Power movement, which was being alternately ignored or portrayed in the U.S. media as a violent, nascent terrorist movement.

Despite the obstacles they encountered, both from the conservative white American power establishment and from radicalized movement members themselves, the Swedish filmmakers stayed committed to their investigation, and ultimately formed bonds with key figures in the movement.

This newly discovered footage offers a penetrating examination — through the lens of Swedish filmmakers — of the Black Power movement from 1967 to 1975, and its worldwide resonance. The result is like an anthropological treatise on an exotic civilization from the point of view of outsiders who approached their subject with no assumptions or biases. --PBS

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Sit-In (Robert M. Young, 1960)

Sit-In (1960) is filmmaker Robert M. Young’ (Nothing But A Man, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez) seminal documentary on how the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students of Fisk University desegregated the lunch counters in Nashville, TN. Produced as part of NBC's White Paper series, the hour long show is a masterpiece of film journalism. Interviewing Nashville citizens on both sides of the struggle, it captures the true spirit of the Civil Rights Movement and marks the very first TV appearance of (SNCC leader and future politician) John Lewis. --Reelblack

Friday, June 26, 2020

Human Zoos: America's Forgotten History of Scientific Racism (John West, 2018)

Human Zoos examines the horrifying history of the American effort to dehumanize an entire class of people in the name of science. In the 1900’s leading men of science from Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia University were stating that Africans were midway between an orangutan and human being, so now 100 years later it should not come as much of a surprise that many people still cling to these racist notions of European superiority and African inferiority.

The film begins in 1859, three months after Charles Darwin published his book The Origins of Species. Here we see how American promoter PT Barnum unveiled a new attraction at his popular museum in New York City. It featured what was described as the “what is it” or “man monkey”. Visitors were told that the creature had been captured by hunters in Africa who discovered a race of beings roving amongst the trees and branches like apes and monkeys. It was claimed that this creature was a connecting link between African blacks and lower animals. However, in reality, Barnum’s so-called “man monkey” was an African American man named William Henery Johnson. Johnson spent much of his life on stage as an evolutionary missing link, and sometimes even in a cage.

In September 1906, nearly two hundred and fifty thousand people gathered to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Here they lined up to see a new exhibit in the Zoo’s Monkey House, but it was no monkey on display it was a man by the name of Ota Benga. Benga was a pygmy from the African Congo and shockingly he was exhibited in a cage alongside monkeys.

As you can start to imagine, these were no isolated incidents of blatant racism but rather just two accounts of people being put on display and touted as “missing links” between man and ape. These public displays were arranged by those of the most elite members of the scientific community and were promoted by the leading American newspapers of the time. In this film, you witness how much of the racism seen in today’s society stems from this shocking past. However, we also hear of the courageous African-American ministers in New York City who tried to stop what was going on.

Human Zoos also attempts to expose how some organizations are still trying to cover up their involvement in what happened and re-write the past. --DH

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Strong Island (Yance Ford, 2017)

On April 7, 1992, in Central Islip, a Long Island suburb of New York City, William Ford, Jr., a twenty-four-year-old man, was shot and killed by Mark Reilly, a nineteen-year-old auto-body-shop employee. Reilly had held onto Ford’s girlfriend’s car for longer than the couple had expected the repairs to take. His tow truck had hit them two months before, and a deal was struck whereby the auto shop would fix the damage if they didn’t file a police report. After an argument over the delays, Ford again went to the auto shop and was killed. The grand jury declined to indict Reilly for manslaughter, accepting the district attorney’s findings that, afraid for his life, he had shot Ford in self-defense. More than twenty years later, the investigating officer on the case assured Yance Ford, the director of “Strong Island,” that he had left no stone unturned at the time; it was just an “unfortunate thing.”

In Yance Ford’s powerful, disturbing, and very personal documentary, details are important. What happened in 1992 was the murder of Yance’s own brother, a black teacher, William Ford, Jr., who grew up in the black enclave of Central Islip. He was shot in the chest with a rifle by Mark Reilly, a young white man. The shop’s owner had a record of running a shady business. William Ford had no record and was about to take the entrance exam to be a corrections officer. Ford’s mother, Barbara Dunmore Ford, an educator who founded Rosewood, a school for women on Rikers Island, says in “Strong Island” that she will believe until her dying day that the grand jury of twenty-three white people did not return a true bill because her son was a black man. As the documentary makes plain, the grand jury didn’t care to find out what really happened. The police and the Suffolk County district attorney’s office shielded the white youth immediately, never doubting his testimony that he was frightened of Ford, a short but stocky young black man. As Yance Ford observes to the camera, William Ford, Jr., became the prime suspect in his own murder.

“Strong Island” is the story of a black family that could not sustain the blow of racial injustice and fell apart. They were doing everything right, and then were destroyed by all the things that they thought they’d left behind in black history. Barbara Dunmore Ford remembers that Yance Ford’s grandmother had been forced to leave school in the fourth grade, in South Carolina, to go to work stripping tobacco. Dunmore Ford was herself a girl when she taught her own mother to read and write. The experience gave her a love of teaching. Her father died of an asthma attack, unattended in the colored section of a hospital waiting room. When Dunmore Ford recalls how much she and her husband, William Ford, Sr., loved New York City, implicit in that is their escape from the segregation of nineteen-sixties Charleston, South Carolina.

William Ford, Sr. had hoped to be a draftsman, but in order to take care of his family he gave up school and became an M.T.A. motorman, working the night shift. He wanted to get his family out of the city, and real-estate developers in Central Islip were looking for black government employees who could afford to be homeowners. Dunmore Ford tells us that she didn’t like it. The elderly Jewish women in Brooklyn had been neighborly; for her, Islip was moving back into a segregated community. “It draws a line around your life,” she says. The children had a good time, while the parents labored to keep them in Catholic schools, because, in reality, the public schools weren’t good enough, although the property taxes were high. “My father just believed in my mother’s ability to do anything,” Yance Ford says, and the children were brought up to believe that “our principal job in life was to love each other.” William and Yance’s younger sister Lauren Ford remembers how protective her brother was, and that she was the first person to tell her that she was pretty.

Since Trayvon Martin’s killing, we have become familiar with the testimony of black parents concerning the talk they must have with their teen-age sons, the one that tries to prepare them as young black males for encounters with the police. It’s a talk rooted in black history, and it cuts across class lines. The generational exchange that was once portrayed in black drama as beaten-down old heads pleading with defiant, reckless youth has been revised as a responsibility of black tutelage, a passing on of necessary survival techniques. Don’t talk back; above all, don’t run. It is heartbreaking to hear Ford’s mother reproach herself for not having had that talk with her older son, for telling her children to judge people by their character, not by the color of their skin. She wonders how she could have been so wrong. “I did William a great disservice in raising him the way we did,” she says. Perhaps she means that she hadn’t warned him about what white people could get away with when it came to their dealings with black people. Her son had become frustrated as a customer, forgetting all about inherited white resentment of black anger.

“Strong Island” tells either of a racist coverup or of the racism that determined which questions the white investigators asked in William Ford, Jr.,’s killing. His friend Kevin Myers, who was outside the body shop when the shooting occurred, was prepared to testify in court that the auto mechanic had had no reason to be fearful during either of his two confrontations with Ford, even though Dunmore Ford herself had been “disrespected” by the mechanic when she and Ford’s girlfriend came by to check on the car. Ford and Reilly were never alone in the shop; Ford was not armed, but during the first confrontation at the business he had picked up and brandished a car door, to some laughter in the shop. Detectives seemed only interested in asking the friend how much he himself weighed, and how much Ford weighed—as if to gauge how much of a physical threat they were. Early on in the film, Yance Ford says, “I am unwilling to accept that someone else gets to say who Williams was. And if you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go.” Racism is character assassination.

The family understood that what a D.A. tells a grand jury is crucial. Outside of the courtroom, they were the targets of intimidation by an unfamiliar car that often parked across the street from their house, and by phone calls in the middle of the night, every night; nevertheless, inside the courtroom they expected justice. What do you do when the system fails you? The tragedy left the Fords in some deep way unable to comfort one another. We get the feeling that parts of them retreated inside themselves, away from family connection. William Ford, Sr., suffered a stroke the year after his son’s killing. He died before Yance Ford began work on “Strong Island,” and his is the other absence mourned in this film. Dunmore Ford died during the making of the documentary, an event that becomes a part of story. Yance Ford’s documentary is about trying to establish what happened the night that William Ford, Jr., was killed, and what happened during the investigation, but also what happened to the Ford family afterward. The easiest way to deal with black people is to ignore them; the easiest way to cope with pain is not to speak of it, even to the self.

The day he was killed, William Ford, Jr., had been a witness at a high-profile trial. A white assistant district attorney in Brooklyn had been shot during a holdup at an A.T.M., and it was William Ford, Jr., who had chased and tackled the gunman. It would be an insult to call this an irony. It’s impossible to ignore who the surviving Fords in “Strong Island” are: Barbara Dunmore Ford, Lauren Ford, and Yance Ford are gripping in everything they say. A summary of the case gives no sense of the experience of watching “Strong Island,” in which the visual narrative, put together with subtlety and refinement, unfolds from the story itself. That story is handed from person to person, tied together by the voice of Yance Ford, who, at different moments in the film, reads from the last pages of William Ford, Jr.,’s journal, and from his autopsy report. Here are home movies, sixteenth-birthday parties or college graduations, and photographs from the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Polaroids that have turned into a family archive. Those are Yance Ford’s hands shuffling the photographs, laying them out, and Yance Ford’s voice interrogating the past, face tightly framed. It would be cowardly of the viewer to look away. The film is a form of justice. “Strong Island” is so quiet, so dignified—if that is not too Booker T. Washington a thing to say. There is no hint of Rodney King or the gangsta rap of that time, 1992, the year of William Ford, Jr.,’s death. Respectful attention must be paid, because grief is in the room. --New Yorker

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files (David Olusoga, 2019)

Historian David Olusoga looks at the background to the 2014 Windrush Scandal, whereby hundreds of people from the Caribbean who had lived in the UK for decades suddenly had their citizenship called into question. In some cases, 50 years’ worth of continuous documentation was demanded as proof of the right to stay. In The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files (Monday, 9pm, BBC2), Olusoga uncovers a story of racial prejudice at the highest levels of government, dating from the moment the Empire Windrush docked. 

It all began with the 1948 British Nationality Act, designed to permit the free movement of citizens of the newly constituted British Commonwealth. Olusoga argues that it was always intended for the benefit of those countries with large white populations, such as Canada and Australia. The influx of immigrants from Jamaica, described as an “incursion” by Clement Attlee, was a wholly unintended consequence of the Act. Olusoga shows how the arrival of the Windrush immediately caused a flurry of anxious interdepartmental documents. It was feared black immigration could damage the “harmony, strength and cohesion” of the nation. “One boat! One boat! It’s not a flotilla,” scoffs historian Dr Denise Noble. 

Arrival documents show that the men on the Windrush were plumbers, machinists, carpenters and electricians, trades desperately needed in Britain after the war. The most shocking revelation contrasts the treatment of the Windrush and subsequent Caribbean arrivals with that of the white European Volunteer Workers, displaced persons from the Balkans and Germany, including prisoners of war. Being white, EVWs were welcomed, even though some were former members of Waffen-SS regiments. Olusoga contends that it was government policy to give preference to men who had fought against Britain over men who were veterans of British forces, “and all because those veterans were black”. 

Former soldiers returning to “the mother country”, such as Allan Wilmot, who can still remember his RAF number, talk about the abrupt change in attitude. He slept in Tube trains, at depots and washed dishes at the Cumberland Hotel. Nevertheless, Olusoga’s interviewees remain a cheery bunch, with many even laughing over their treatment at the hands of the system. But indignation bursts through. One woman recalls a stranger spitting in her face. Another protests: “I’ve paid my taxes and I’ve paid my National Insurance — then I was British, wasn’t I?” 

Olusoga traces the rapidly proliferating legislation that led to the so-called “hostile environment” rules to trap illegal immigrants. He demonstrates that the belief at the highest level that “Britishness was fundamentally a racial identity” existed long before Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. Churchill, for example, warned the Postmaster General that employing too many “coloured people” could cause social friction. The programme has a bittersweet finale as some of the interviewees gain the citizenship they didn’t know they lacked. Their resilience is admirable; it’s a tragedy it needed testing. --FT

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Jim Crow of the North (Daniel Bergin, 2019)

Why does Minnesota suffer from some of the worst racial disparities in the nation? One answer is the spread of racially restrictive real estate covenants in the early 20th century.

Daniel Pierce Bergin’s Jim Crow of the North details how the Mapping Prejudice Project, a public history initiative, is revealing this obscured history of systemic racism. The project’s cutting-edge research is documenting, mapping, and presenting data on restrictive covenants in Minneapolis.

The story charts the progression of discriminatory policies and practices from the advent of covenants after the turn of the last century through to their final eradication in the late 1960s. It also illustrates how African-American families and leaders resisted this insidious practice, and how they built community within and despite the red lines that these restrictive covenants created.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Equality Under the Law: The Lost Generation of Prince Edward County (John Barnes, 1965)

In 1959, Prince Edward County, Virginia, closed its public schools rather than integrate them. White children went to publicly aided private schools while black students went to free schools staffed by volunteers. In 1964, the Supreme Court ordered the schools opened to all, but 90 percent of the whites stayed in private schools. The film shows a whites-only prom off-campus in a private club. Lots of poignant interviews by director John Barnes, with people fearing mixed marriages, etc. The film was co-written by Barnes and Linda Gottlieb. From EB's 'Our Living Bill of Rights' series. --Archive

Sunday, June 21, 2020

16 Shots (Rick Rowley, 2019)

When Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald 16 times in the middle of the street, he couldn’t have possibly known all of the repercussions. After all, before the smoke had really cleared, all of his colleagues were designing a defense of his actions. Before defenders of the Chicago P.D. come raining down on the comment sections, these statements are indisputable. Van Dyke shot McDonald, who was armed with a knife, and who Van Dyke claimed was charging him with that knife. All of the police officers on the scene used the exact same language in their reports (emphasis on the word “attacking” for what McDonald was doing with his knife and body language) and a few of them went to a nearby Burger King and erased 86 minutes of security camera footage. Eyewitnesses claimed then and now that the officers they spoke to that night pressured them into changing their stories. You can say that Van Dyke and his colleagues realized the incendiary times in which we live in terms of police and civilian relations necessitated these actions to control the narrative of a justified shooting. Or you can use the phrase spoken by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and highlighted in Rick Rowley’s “16 Shots,” opening limited today and on Showtime: “Code of silence.”

“16 Shots” isn’t as much about the actual shooting of Laquan McDonald as one might expect. We don’t hear from his family and friends. Instead, it’s about the ripple effect that transformed a city that night. And if you’re not from Chicago, you might think that word choice to be hyperbolic. It is most definitely not. Before the story was even close to over, the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department (Garry McCarthy) had stepped down and the State’s Attorney (Anita Alvarez)—who did not bring the case forward as people thought she should have—was voted out of office in an electoral upset. Most shockingly, Emanuel chose not to seek re-election, and nearly everyone in Chicago believes that choice was a direct result of the fallout from McDonald's death.

On October 20, 2014, police responded to reports that a young man was breaking into vehicles in a trucking yard on the South Side of Chicago. One officer spoke to McDonald, and even walked him toward Pulaski, where other officers responded. McDonald reportedly had PCP in his system (toxicology reports would later confirm this) and was waving a knife as he walked down the middle of the street, away from officers. When Officer Van Dyke arrived on the scene around 10pm, he emerged from his vehicle and shot McDonald 16 times in roughly 15 seconds. We know this not because of reports or eyewitness testimony but because of a dash cam video that makes it disturbingly clear. McDonald was walking away and was not “attacking” anyone. When the video hit the public consciousness, the reaction was instant and angry. Protests began, and the aforementioned political ripple effect started happening, and led all the way up to Officer Van Dyke being convicted of murder as well as aggravated battery for all 16 shots.

“16 Shots” is a very deliberate, ominous documentary, filled with views of the Chicago skyline and a pulsing score, but Rowley makes several smart decisions as a storyteller. First, he presents both sides. McCarthy, Van Dyke’s attorney, Alvarez, and a few spokespeople for the FOP are on-hand to defend their actions and further elucidate on the difficulties faced by police officers in the ‘10s. This is an argument that I’ve personally never understood. One can believe that police officers have difficult, dangerous jobs, and also believe that one committed murder. They are not exclusive thoughts. And yet it’s clear that all of Van Dyke's defenders see an attack on one cop as an attack on all cops. And yet they’re downright offended when the subject of a “Code of Silence” comes up. What’s most amazing is how people can see the video and come out with completely different reactions to it, and Rowley understands that this skewed, protective perception is at the root of so many of the problems between police officers and those they protect. Two people can watch someone be shot 16 times and have completely different reactions. How can we work together when that's the case.

Most effectively, Rowley imbues his film with a simmering undercurrent of anger. He speaks with activists and community leaders, all of whom express doubt that anything would come of this situation, especially not a conviction of an active police officer. After all, cases like these have come up in the past in other cities and no one who pulled the trigger went to jail. Why would this one be different? And Rowley understands that the main reason this one was different might have come down to luck. One of the attorneys for the McDonald family expresses surprise that his subpoena for the video worked, wondering if whomever was in charge that day really knew what they were sending. If that dash cam video doesn’t get out, it’s very likely that this case never gets national attention.

But it did get out. And “16 Shots” feels like an impassioned, intelligent document of a major moment in the history of Chicago. Since the McDonald case, there have been signs of improvement in terms of crime and police relations in my hometown. What people like McCarthy—who can’t finish a thought without reminding you how difficult it is to be a cop nowadays—never seem to understand is that those of us who want justice for McDonald also want police officers to be safe and effective. Blanket condemnation of all police officers is as damaging as believing men in blue can never do wrong. Van Dyke is in jail (although for nowhere near as long as the jury that convicted him believed he should be), and a lot of the major players involved in the case are out of power. The question all of us, on both sides, need to ask ourselves is—what now? --Ebert

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Finally Got the News (Stewart Bird, Rene Lichtman & Peter Gessner, 1970)

Finally Got the News is a forceful, unique documentary that reveals the activities of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers inside and outside the auto factories of Detroit. Through interviews with the members of the movement, footage shot in the auto plants, and footage of leafleting and picketing actions, the film documents their efforts to build an independent black labor organization that, unlike the UAW, will respond to worker's problems, such as the assembly line speed-up and inadequate wages faced by both black and white workers in the industry.

Beginning with a historical montage, from the early days of slavery through the subsequent growth and organization of the working class, Finally Got the News focuses on the crucial role played by the black worker in the American economy. Also explored is the educational 'tracking' system for both white and black youth, the role of African American women in the labor force, and relations between white and black workers. --Icarus