With Iraq documentaries all the rage, it’s refreshing to come across an old-fashioned nonfiction piece that sets its lacerating sights not “over there,” but right here at home, in the heartland and neighborhoods of America. In another revealing account of racial injustice in the U.S. of A., director Marco Williams (“Two Towns of Jaspar“) investigates the banishment, or to put it more provocatively “racial cleansing,” of blacks from American towns in the early 20th century.
However, the social and ethical meat of the story is not the violent expulsion of families in some distant historical past, but the very contemporary and complex question of reparations: Should the descendents of black families who suffered horribly at the hands of the descendents of white families be given something back? Land or money, or how about at the very least a sincere apology?
Williams journeys to three communities — Forsyth County, Georgia; Pierce City, Missouri; and Harrison, Arkansas (home of KKK leader Thom Robb) — that remain all-white today. Within each town, he chronicles a compelling account of the legacy of racial injustice, and reveals how difficult it is to heal the pain of the past, but also those prejudices that persist today. What emerges is a fascinating double bind: if reparations are offered, how does one present them without creating a deeper divide and further racial resentment?
In Forsyth, Williams introduces us to the Stricklands, whose family burial ground is just a few pieces of rubble in the backyard of a white-owned house. After some investigating at the town clerk’s office, the Stricklands learn their ancestors didn’t sell the land before they left, as they had always thought, but likely fled for fear of their lives. A “bi-racial committee” was established to look into the matter, but as one black member notes with irony, they each filed “segregated reports.” So much for reconciliation.
In Pierce City, Charles Brown Jr. tries to have the remains of his great-grandfather James Cobb taken from the local graveyard and the dark past that still looms over the town. In one of the documentary’s priceless moments, Williams interviews the elderly locals about the black folks that once lived there; one woman tries to describe the people, but just when she’s about to pronounce an “n” word (whether “nigger” or Negro”), she stutters endlessly, haplessly, trying to find the appropriate non-offensive moniker before Williams’s camera.
As a character in the documentary, Williams – with his long dreadlocks and formidable figure – obviously has a place. His very visual presence in an all-white town, or when confronting blatant white racists, offers a few palpable and very effective moments of racial collision. But there are one too many shots of the crusader Williams, either walking down the street or gazing thoughtfully into the distance.
Self-important self-portraiture aside, the film zeroes in on some powerful moments of black vs. white tension; particularly affecting is the relationship between the white coroner in Pierce City who wants to help out Charles Brown. Or when a do-gooding racial reconciliation committee in Harrison, who are doing their best to change the perception of the town, gets this slap in the face from an outsider: “The Klan is here because they’re comfortable here.” The hushed moment implicates everyone in the room. After watching this potent documentary, few viewers will feel free of guilt, either.
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