Going Hyperlocal, Filmmakers Explore the Pain of Racism

A year after racial discontent neared levels not seen since the Rodney King beating case, the country finds itself convulsed by controversies over neo-Nazis emboldened by Donald Trump’s rise to power. Now, a burst of new films, many of them documentaries, are taking a deep look beyond the headlines at the lasting impact that racial schisms and racism have on Americans’ everyday lives.
Cara Buckley
August 25, 2017
Brittany Ferrell and other protesters in “Whose Streets?,” one of several new films examining the country’s racial divide
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A year after racial discontent neared levels not seen since the Rodney King beating case, the country finds itself convulsed by controversies over neo-Nazis emboldened by Donald Trump’s rise to power. Now, a burst of new films, many of them documentaries, are taking a deep look beyond the headlines at the lasting impact that racial schisms and racism have on Americans’ everyday lives.

Among these new nonfiction films are “Whose Streets?,” about activists in Ferguson, Mo.; “Strong Island,” about its director’s brother, an unarmed black man shot to death by a white man in 1992; “The Force,” about efforts to reform the Oakland, Calif., police department; “The Blood Is at the Doorstep,” about the police killing of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee; and “For Ahkeem,” about a struggling black teenage mother in St. Louis and her boyfriend, who, at 17, finds himself on probation for multiple offenses. There is also a new feature, “Crown Heights,” based on the real-life wrongful conviction of Colin Warner, played by Lakeith Stanfield, and John Ridley’s documentary, “Let It Fall,” about the Los Angeles uprising, which is being rereleased in November.

The films differ greatly from one another and do not provide easy answers. Yet they all tell deeply personal, difficult stories from new perspectives that challenge both their audiences and mainstream narratives, which is where much of their power lies.

Many of the directors made their films hyper-specific and intimate, so their broadly familiar narratives feel fresh. “For Ahkeem” seems at times like a young woman’s confessional video diary. In “Strong Island,” Yance Ford focuses tightly on the lead-up to and aftermath of his brother’s death, which devastated and splintered their family. Sabaah Folayan, who directed “Whose Streets?” with Damon Davis, said she sought to avoid numbing audiences with grim statistics to instead plumb the daily lives of a few activists.

“It sometimes seems like all of our political actions are exhausted or have been compromised, and there’s a real pressing sense of the magnitude of the issues, with no clear path forward,” said Ms. Folayan, whose film is in theaters. “I think the way out of that is for us to look around, and in our backyard, and tackle problems in front of us, rather than being consumed in this massive huge story.

A crucial tool sets apart the new criminal justice-related films, which could be grouped in a genre that includes “Fruitvale Station,” Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film chronicling the police shooting of Oscar Grant III, and “13th”, Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary about mass incarceration. Nowadays, raw footage of harrowing police encounters captured on phones, body cameras and dashcams have made age-old claims that African-Americans are mistreated harder to refute or ignore.

“There is a greater awareness of the problem, and I think more black people are being believed about their treatment by the police,” said Mr. Ford, whose film, a Sundance favorite, will debut on Netflix and have a limited theatrical release in September. “Only in America does it take movies to authenticate reality, and not the other way around.”

Peter Nicks, who directed “The Force,” sees these documentaries as part of a bigger cultural exploration of race that includes Raoul Peck’s recent Oscar-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” about James Baldwin, and sly comedic features like “Dear White People” (2014) and Jordan Peele’s smash earlier this year, “Get Out.”

“This is something as a country we’re grappling with,” Mr. Nicks said. “The totality of these expressions is important to us right now, those of us who feel this divisiveness has to be addressed in some kind of way. We can’t continue on toward some apocalyptic ending. It’s not healthy for democracy.”

“The Force,” due in September, is among the films that challenge audiences by trying to jolt them into examining their own beliefs. Mr. Nicks humanizes police officers, and presses viewers to see them as more than two-dimensional aggressors. “A lot of people in the public don’t have the capacity for holding that truth that we as filmmakers saw, which is that very clearly, a lot of positive movements have been made,” he said, “The profound reality is that cops, in their minds, believe they are trying to save black lives.

Mr. Ford’s film will also make some viewers squirm. He very deliberately made “Strong Island” blistering, because he wanted audiences to experience a fraction of the pain his family has lived with since his brother, who aspired to be a corrections officer, was gunned down, and a grand jury declined to indict the man who shot him and argued self-defense. Mr. Ford wants audiences to question shooters’ motives, too, especially in cases that are racially charged or involve the police.

“When people are killed, you will discover anything and everything they did wrong,” he said. “Where is the scrutiny of people who claim to shoot because of fear? Where is the scrutiny of that fear?”

The directors of three of these films are white, which could be the subject of criticism given recent tensions about who should, and can afford to, tell stories of marginalized communities. Native Americans have pushed backagainst non-indigenous filmmakers at Standing Rock and the white director Kathryn Bigelow has come under fire for her depictions of black pain in “Detroit.”

Landon Van Soest and Jeremy S. Levine, the white directors of “For Ahkeem,” said they let their subject, a young St. Louis woman named Daje Shelton, take the lead for much of the film, and regularly sought feedback about their work from black women in her community. Erik Ljung, who directed “The Blood Is at the Doorstep,” said he worked closely with the family of Dontre Hamilton for three years, building trust, in an effort to shed light on a case that was not nationally known. “I wasn’t there to teach, I was there to learn,” he said. (Mr. Ljung covered the story for The New York Times video department; The Times had no involvement in his film.)

Matt Ruskin, who is also white, was inspired to make “Crown Heights” after hearing a story on “This American Life” about Mr. Warner’s wrongful incarceration and his best friend’s decades-long effort to free him. “I’m not an authority on the criminal justice system and all its flaws,” Mr. Ruskin said. “But I got to know these guys really, really well. I do feel like I’m in a position to tell their story in a really honest way.”

It is hard to say whether these films will have any effect. Todd Boyd, a cinema and media studies professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, said that expecting sweeping progress denies reality to a degree.

“It’s not going to be some date five years from now when we’ll be racism-free,” Mr. Boyd said. Instead, he added, incremental changes might be all people should expect.

Inspiring audiences to work for that kind of incremental change is one of the messages several of these directors hope to impart in their films. Mr. Davis of “Whose Streets?” hopes viewers will leave the film intending to get involved in the microcommunities around them, be it by getting out the vote or by tutoring or feeding impoverished children.

“It’s taking it on yourself to do things, and not waiting for a system that never loved you or treated you well to come around miraculously,” said Mr. Davis. “We’re getting to a place where we’re starting to acknowledge that none of us have a cure-all answer.”

The Yale law professor James Forman Jr., who wrote “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” said tackling structural racism has to happen at a grass-roots level anyway, and that recent localized efforts are bearing fruit, despite, for instance, the Trump administration’s move to extend mandatory minimum sentences. Mr. Forman pointed to New York State’s decision to end its practice of prosecuting many juveniles as adults, and, in Philadelphia, the primary election victory of Larry Krasner, who was a defense lawyer for Black Lives Matter activists and is running for district attorney.

“This incredibly brutal system was mostly built locally, so it’s mostly going to have to be dismantled locally, and where most of the activism has to happen is locally,” Mr. Forman said. “The system has to be dismantled on the ground.”

August 29, 2017