There is an excellent, devastating, and powerful documentary out now in some theaters and on InDemand on cable, called “The Central Park Five.” The film, by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, tells the story of the five black and Latino teenagers who, in 1989, were arrested and charged with brutally attacking and raping a white female jogger in Central Park. News media swarmed the case, referring to the incident as a “wilding” and to the young men as a “wolfpack.” The five young men spent years in prison before the truth about what really happened became clear. Here is a short (2:27) trailer:
Go see it if you can get to a theater, or call it up on your cable TV. Even though this documentary was inexplicably not included in the short list for Academy Awards, I’m certain that this film will be important in college classrooms for many years to come.
As we come to the end of Black History Month, the shortest month made longer by a day this leap year, it seems fitting to talk about this documentary. In this film, Shukree Hassan Tilghman, a 29-year-old African American filmmaker, goes cross-country on a campaign to end Black History Month altogether in his film,“More Than a Month.” This short clip (1:56) gives a brief intro:
In an interview, the Tilghman explains what lead him to make the film:
A growing feeling that African Americans continue to be seen as “Other Americans.” Watching how folks were treated during Hurricane Katrina and listening to pundits refer to those victims as refugees intensified that notion. I thought that this ideal of “other” is reinforced in society by things like Black History Month. That, combined with the new idea that we live in a “post-racial” America, led to an interest in exploring these themes.
Continuing our Black History Month series about documentaries, the recently released “Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975” is an important film that serves as an introduction to the Black Power movement in the U.S. as seen through the lens of Swedish journalists. This short trailer (1:59) explains a bit more about the film:
The film features archival footage from the period with voiceovers from contemporary artists. While I didn’t find that the voiceovers added much of value to the film, some of the archival footage – particularly the clip of Angela Davis responding to an interviewer’s question about ‘violence’ – is compelling and makes the film worth watching.
The film becomes problematic in the last half when it locates the demise of the Black Power movement on the rise of drugs in the Black community, both of which it seems to suggest is the fault of Black mothers. This is a serious misstep on the part of the filmmakers as it feeds into dominant narratives about Black pathology.
An excellent companion text, and one that offers a much more nuanced analysis of the Black Power movement, is Professor Alondra Nelson’sBody and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). While the film brackets the Black Power movement off to a bygone historical era, Nelson’s work extends that lens to the present day and demonstrates how that struggle continues, and does so without resorting to tropes of Black pathology, but instead focusing on empowerment within the Black community in the face of ongoing discrimination.
Independent Lens (PBS) is celebrating Black History Month with a bunch of terrific documentaries, including a wonderful new documentary about Daisy Bates, a complicated, unconventional, and mostly forgotten heroine of the civil rights movement. It was Ms. Bates who led the charge to desegregate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. The film is called “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock.” Here’s a short clip (1:08):
There’s also an interview with the filmmaker, Sharon La Cruise, available here. The film is airing this month on PBS stations across the U.S., so as they say, check your local listings and set the DVR!
As a companion to this film, I’d recommend James Loewen’s Sundown Towns, about the widespread phenomenon of places where African Americans were not welcome at after dark, often noted by a sign that read, “Don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.” While most people associate this sort of exclusion with the Jim Crow South, Loewen demonstrates that in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and other places north of the Mason-Dixon Line, sundown towns were created by waves of white-led violence in the early decades of the twentieth century. As with the film, the book shows how the predominantly white cities, towns and suburbs of today are rooted in historical violence and ongoing discrimination.
Make plans to see this fabulous documentary, which airs on PBS tonight (in most markets), called “Freedom Riders,” about the young people who protested racial segregation by riding buses into the segregated south from May to November 1961. Here’s a short (2:16 ) preview:
There is also a traveling exhibit that includes a detailed narrative of the Rides, illustrated with archival photos and newspaper clippings that document this pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. Look for it in your city.
Transracial adoption is controversial. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a statement that took “a vehement stand against the placements of black children in white homes for any reason,” calling transracial adoption “unnatural,” “artificial,” “unnecessary,” and proof that African-Americans continued to be assigned to “chattel status.” However, a couple of mid-1990s laws prohibit race from determining adoption placement. The Howard M. Metzenbaum Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA), prohibits an adoption agency that receives Federal assistance from delaying or denying the placement of a child on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent, or the child involved. And a 1996 change to MEPA, the Interethnic Adoption Provisions (IEP), forbids agencies from denying or delaying placement of a child for adoption solely on the basis of race or national origin.
Research about how adopted children do later in life, often called outcome studies, pretty consistently show that adopted kids do ok. There’s comparatively little research on transracial adoption, but what there is suggests that these kids do ok, too. One review of a dozen studies consistently indicate that approximately 75% of transracially adopted preadolescent and younger children adjust well in their adoptive homes. (Silverman, A.R. (1993). Outcomes of transracial adoption. The Future of Children, 3(1), 104-118.). A 1996 study found that transracial adoption was not detrimental for the adopted child in terms of adjustment, self-esteem, academic achievement, peer relationships, parental and adult relationships.(Sharma, A.R., McGue, M.K. and Benson, P.L. (1996). The emotional and behavioral adjustment of United States adopted adolescents: part 1. An overview. Children & Youth Services Review, 18, 83-100.)
Still, transracial adoption within a society that is anything but post-racial means that it can be complicated, as Avery’s story in the documentary highlights. For an excellent sociological analysis of transracial adoption that deftly combines personal insight with critical observations, I highly recommend Barbara Katz Rothman’s Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption (Beacon Press, 2006). And, if you’re a parent coming to terms with issues around transracial adoption, I also recommend the blog Love Isn’t Enough.
A new documentary, “9500 Liberty,” offers a revealing look at the battle over immigration in the U.S. through the lens of one place, Prince William County, Virginia. The film has already won several film festival awards, and this is a trailer for the film (4:23) which gives you a sense of it:
9500 Liberty reveals the startling vulnerability of a local government, targeted by national anti-immigration networks using the Internet to frighten and intimidate lawmakers and citizens. Alarmed by a climate of fear and racial division, residents form a resistance using YouTube videos and virtual townhalls, setting up a real-life showdown in the seat of county government. The devastating social and economic impact of the “Immigration Resolution” is felt in the lives of real people in homes and in local businesses. But the ferocious fight to adopt and then reverse this policy unfolds inside government chambers, on the streets, and on the Internet. 9500 Liberty provides a front row seat to all three battlegrounds.
You can find upcoming screenings and theatrical releases here.
Fire up your DVR’s. Tonight, PBS’s documentary series POV is airing “Promised Land” about the struggle over land in post-apartheid South Africa. It should be quite interesting. Here’s a brief synopsis:
Though apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, economic injustices between blacks and whites remain unresolved. As revealed in Yoruba Richen’s incisive Promised Land, the most potentially explosive issue is land. The film follows two black communities as they struggle to reclaim land from white owners, some of whom who have lived there for generations. Amid rising tensions and wavering government policies, the land issue remains South Africa’s “ticking time bomb,” with far-reaching consequences for all sides. Promised Land captures multiple perspectives of citizens struggling to create just solutions.
Enjoy! And, of course, feel free to drop a comment here if you get a chance to see it.
Back in December, I noted the new documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.” about the famous (or, infamous) civil rights lawyer. Now, the film is airing on PBS in most areas of the U.S. on Tuesday (6/22/10). I’m glad to see this film getting a wider audience through its distribution on PBS because I think that it’s a good introduction to thinking about race and institutional racism more critically.
Woven into the narrative about Kunstler’s life and transformation into a civil rights rabblerouser, the film tells a number of other stories. The film provides a compelling history of the uprising at Attica, where Kunstler negotiated on behalf of the (predominantly black) prisoners. And, the film also chronicles Kunstler’s involvement in the seige at Wounded Knee where he served as a negotiator for Native Americans in AIM who were staging a protest there, demanding that the U.S. Government honor centuries of broken treaties. Kunstler was able to help avoid a massacre there and successfully defended Russell Banks and Dennis Banks, two of the leaders of the protest, at their subsequent trial in federal court. Later, Kunstler defends Yusef Salaam, one of the so-called “Central Park Joggers,” who was exonerated, after being incarcerated for many years.
The filmmakers are Kunstler’s two daughters – Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler – and they do a good job of providing a thoughtful portrait of their father as a passionate but flawed man. Their film also offers a much needed reminder of what it looks like to do battle against institutionalized racism.