Racism in America: best documentaries of the 21st century

Coming Soon: ‘The Struggle for Racial Justice in America: Best Documentaries

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‘I’m Not Your Negro’

Directed by Raoul Peck and written by James Baldwin, 2016

This painful, insightful film shows what it means to be black in America through the words by the writer and activist James Baldwin (1924-1987), who in 1979 began a text (‘Remember this house’) about beign Afro-American based on the lives and murders of three icons and friends of his: Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), Malcolm X (1925-1965), and Medgar Evers (1925-1963), all killed by racist bigots at an early age. The unfinished essay by Baldwin, read by Samuel L. Jackson, is an illuminating disclosure of violent, systemic racism in his country. Racism, as the text and the film manage to show, is not a minor aspect of American history: the story of the negro is the story of America.

Born in Harlem and quickly exposed to racism, Baldwin went to live in Paris when he was 24, with the feeling and conviction that living as a poor (40 dollars in his pocket was his initial budget) anywhere was less dangerous and frustrating than as a negro in the US (he stayed in France for almost a decade). He went back to America when he realized that his accepted destiny was to fight for social justice, desegregation and racial integration.

The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is the price we pay for segregation. That’s what segregation means. You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know. (James Baldwin)

The film is well stuffed with archive images of Baldwin himself (many TV interviews, specially), the three activists he writes about and relevant moments of the struggle for integration, such as the first day the 15-years-old student Dorothy Counts in the Harding High School in Charlotte, North Caroline, bullyed by the harassment of many white people (an episode that prompted Bald’s coming back to America), white supremacist demonstrations against integration (wearing nazi symbols and all) and fragments of films showing an unbelievably harsh racism (from ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ to ‘Imitation of Life’, ‘No Way Out’, ‘King Kong’, or ‘Guess Who’s Coming Dinner’, among many others).

First day of Dorothy Counts in the Harding High School in Charlotte, North Caroline.

Baldwin’s reflections on racism are deep and revealing, show it under a different light. He says there’s no “negro problem”, but a serious “white problem”, because most American white don’t know how to live their private lives and are afraid of their own self, a frustrating expecience that creates hatred against different people, wheter they are Indian or black people. He prompts white people to ask themselves why they need the Negro (because it is a construction), why they needed to invent it. They need to understand it to solve the racial problem: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.”

What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it is necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. (James Baldwin)

Black, gay intellectual and activist James Baldwin has reached popularity thirty years after his death through this art documentary shown in many festivals and theatres. It is packed with good thought, philosophy, psycollogy, and history. And it is very good cinema.

’13th’

Ava DuVernay, 2016

The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population and almost the 25 percent of the world prisoners. This fact is enough, in the first place, to show that it isn’t the freest country. When you know that a disproportionate number of inmates are black, and that one out of four African-American males will serve prison time at one point or another in their lives, then you begin to suspect something is very rotten in America: it has 2.3 million prisoners, and 40 percent of them are black, when African American form only the 13 percent of the whole American population. This film shows, with a disturbing force, that the mass prison complex-industry in America, run by private companies, is a huge business, and that slave work is done inside prisons, mostly by black men. It shows that slavery never disappear in America, but transformed itself, and that modern racism can be seen in the huge numbers of Afro-Americans that go to jail. 

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution, ratified in 1865, which outlawed slavery but with an important loophole. It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” So, slavery was abolished for everyone except criminals, since servitude could be used as a punishment for crime. ’13th’ shows that American prisons are crowded with inmates who work as slaves, and that most of them are black. Since prison labor isn’t covered by the 13th Amendment, mass incarceration has become a new form of slavery.

It shows, moreover, that many -most?- inmates don’t deserve to be in jail, but are there because of minor or trumped-up crimes. That American prison system is a corrupt, extremely lucrative business for some funded companies. There is currently a cash-for-prisoners model that gives millions of dollars for incarceration firms.

’13th’ tells how the slavery system has evolved since the end of the civil war and the supposed abolition of slavery. Segregation and political measures as the alleged war on crime and on drugs (Reagan and Clinton, with his crime bill and three-strikes law) have led to the mass incarceration of black people.

The film is well researched, and has many relevant, first class participants, as Angela Davis and the lawyer and Law professor Michelle Alexandre, author of the book ‘The New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’, in which the film is based in good measure. Dozens of other academics and researchers give insights that convince the viewer about what is being stated.

’13th’ is a must-see to understand how race, history, capitalism, politics and the criminal justice system are inextricably linked in America. Its director, Ava DuVernay, activist filmmaker best known for ‘Selma’, has made an important contribution to the realization of institutionalized corruption and racism.

‘Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992’

John Ridley, 2017

First was the brutal beating of unarmed, defenseless Rodney King by a group of Los Angeles police officers (a beating recorded on tape by a white man who distributed it so as to let everyone to see it) on March 3, 1991; then, some days later, the killing by shooting of teenage student Latasha Harlins by a Korean shop owner over a bottle of orange juice. None of the aggressors of those two black people received a prison sentence. After the second verdict, that acquitted the LAPD officers, a three days upheaval erupted in South Central Los Angeles from April 29, 1992, in which 58 people were killed, 2,383 were injured, more than 11,000 arrested, and roughly a billion dollars in property damage sustained. The racial conflagration shook deeply not only LA, but America on the whole. 

In 2017, 25 years after, five good documentaries were released to commemorate the anniversary of the most destructive civil disturbance in American history: ‘L.A. Burning’, ‘Burn, Motherf**cker, Burn’, ‘The Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots’, ‘Let It Fall’, and ‘LA 92’. The two latter are specially interesting. 

‘Let It Fall’, by John Ridley (’12 Years A Slave’), combines good footage from those days, superbly edited, with contemporary interviews to relevant people, in a way that reconstructs both the events of April and May 1992 and the historical background that allows to understand the outbreak of violence. Ridley surveys the decade that preceded the eruption. He recounts a long, deeply resented history of racism that exploded with the exoneration of the four offices.

Archival footage shows the riots and the looting, the many deaths caused by drug gangs in South Central Los Angeles, worst of all in the African American community, without the police doing anything to mend the dire situation, as well as the fights between Korean and African American communities, in ways that are new and revealing.

Interviews show many perspectives about the racial shocks. We listen to residents, victims, relatives of the victims, police officers, jurors and other participants involved in the events.

‘LA 92’

Dan Lindsay, T. J. Martin, 2017

This film produced by National Geographic is made entirely of powerful archival footage, without voiceover nor interviews nor comments, edited with cinematic smoothness to construct a narrative of the racial conflagration in South Central Los Angeles. The approach works very well: through well-chosen found footage we are told a story of systemic racial oppression and explosion of rage in a way that is more effective, as it works, than if it were conventionally narrated. 

We see the rioting, the looting, the clashes between officers and black disturbers, and all is an image of hell. We understand that racism is a rooted feeling in American life, a system sustained by authorities and its minions. And that its victims, from time to time, explode and react.

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