It seems innocuous enough. The police are trying to solve a crime, the attempted rape of an elderly woman in a small town in upstate New York. The description of her assailant is hazy, the only concrete detail being that he’s a black male with a cut on his hand. But on that Labor Day Weekend in 1992 in the city of Oneonta, what should have been a normal police investigation would spark an explosive racial firestorm and legal battle that would go one for the next twenty years.
On the campus of SUNY Oneonta, 125 black male students were systematically tracked down by police and ordered to either show their hands or face arrest. Later, it would come out that the school’s administration had willingly offered up a list of their names and given police access to their personal information to aid in the investigation. African-American students, disillusioned with an apathetic administration, organized rallies, called the media, and eventually created Brothers of the Black List – a group specifically organized to seek legal justice for what to them was a blatant violation of their civil rights.
In the age of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, “Brothers of the Black List” is a timely portrait of the racial problems that continue to plague America. Director Sean Gallagher tackles the story of what happened at SUNY Oneonta comprehensively – everyone affected by the Black List, from students to faculty to residents of the town, appear to share their own personal observations and experiences.
Some observations are incredibly poignant, like one former student who asks, “if I had said no [to the police], got angry, ran out of pure fear – what would have happened? Two bullets in the back.”
Juxtaposed against the frustration of the students is the frustration of Oneonta residents, many of them white, insisting that the young black men didn’t have their civil rights violated when they were singled out because, “policeman are your friends.” The disconnect, the obliviousness, is almost unreal.
There’s a constant undercurrent of confusion and rage that moves through this relatively placid, straightforward narrative, distilled in several interviews with former SUNY Oneonta professor ‘Bo’ Edward Whaley, whose emotions shift wildly from apathy to anger to despair – at several points he stops the interview, in tears. His pain, the pain of being unable to protect the black male students who looked to him for guidance and motivation, is palpable, and difficult to watch in a way that’s deeply important.
This documentary isn’t perfect; at moments the narrative loses focus, or oversells the idea that Oneonta “wasn’t all that bad” and thus, America isn’t either. But the majority of the observations made, and the entirety of the story told makes the film more than worth a watch.
In light of the heightened emotions around Ferguson at the moment, its a worthy addition to the ongoing discourse on race in America, one that highlights the fact that, it shouldn’t have to take the harassment or the death of black men by police to make us talk openly and honestly about racism in the first place.