In this extended season of slayings of black males—never for a good-enough reason—discussions about race have become common again. From students in school hallways and random pedestrians on the street to protesters in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., and all over our country, the Black Lives Matter movement seems to be making a difference.
When it comes to the everyday, though, what does that look like? I have been asking this question all week, thanks to two documentaries I just saw: I’m Not a Racist … Am I?, produced by Andre Robert Lee; and the HBO film Southern Rites, directed by photographer and filmmaker Gillian Laub and executive-produced by John Legend.
In Not a Racist, a dozen New York City high school students are filmed over the course of a year as they are immersed in workshops, exercises and frank conversations about race, racism and identity. In this film you witness young people grappling with their personal identities as they also experience the in-the-veins prejudices that commonly distort our views of others.
For example, the large, black male teenager Kahleek, who serves, ironically, as the griot of the group, faces and puts into words the crippling reality of his racialized handicap—namely that, by virtue of how he appears, he starts out 10 steps behind. This is frightfully illustrated through a game in which each high schooler literally steps forward or back based on different statements about his or her lot in life, all of which are somehow predicated on the student’s racial, ethnic or gender identity.
Contrasted with him is Martha, the thin, white, blond teen who lives in Harlem in a subsidized condo, and whose black neighbors think her family owns the building (because they are white). Martha feels as if she’s down with black people because she lives in the hood and has a “halfie” boyfriend, her pet name for one who is half-black and half-white. At a pivotal moment, she runs off in a flood of tears because she feels hurt that another black male, Terrence, finds her seemingly unconscious commentary to be offensive.
Most profound in this film is an exploration of the n-word. The students are invited to close their eyes and envision the first thing that comes to mind when they think of that word—whether or not they ever say it out loud. A river of negative images spew forth, including from the outspoken, presumably liberal white male teenager who tells the black male facilitator, who is wearing a suit and tie, “You.”
Watching Not a Racist evokes all manner of emotions. The good news is that in order to see it, you must participate in a discussion afterward with professionals who help to unpack its layers of messages before you walk away.
To watch Southern Rites (which the filmmaker really wanted to call It Was Just a Black Boy) is to be immersed in a slice of American life that it is hard to believe exists in this century, let alone in the here and now. The film begins as a documentary about the tiny town of Mount Vernon in Montgomery County, Ga., that in 2009 was still upholding a generations-old ritual of segregating its integrated high school at the time of the prom. The white prom had occurred the night before the black prom for as long as anyone could remember. When Gillian Laub shared this story with the country in a New York Times magazine photo essay, it prompted such a resounding outcry that the pressure to integrate ultimately prevailed.
That in and of itself is fascinating, even in the South at this time in history. Of course we see both blatant and covert racist acts every day. But what mentality supports such overt segregation in the 21st century? It calls forth an Arsenio moment—you know, one of those things that make you go “hmmm.”
When Laub returns to document the newly installed integrated prom, she learns far more about this town that was begrudgingly being forced to evolve. The ensuing intrigue includes the death of a 22-year-old black man, Justin Patterson, at the hands of an elderly, grizzled white man, Norman Neesmith, in nearby Toombs County and the all-too-common question of why it happened and whether the white man will pay a price for his actions.
On its face, this killing looks like another in the endless litany of senseless murders of black males that go fallow because of apathy, ignorance or too many turned heads. But quickly the viewer learns that the story goes deeper: Two young men—African-American brothers—were having sex with underage girls in the middle of the night, moments before the biracial girl’s adopted daddy woke up and heard that something was going on in his house. When he discovers one of the young men with his pants down and the other sitting on the couch with another girl, he freaks.
What daddy wouldn’t lose it if he woke up and discovered that somebody was hooking up with his teenage daughter in his house? That’s a given. What transpires next has lots to do with whose lives matter. I say this because I know plenty of daddies, including my own, who would have wanted to kill the motherf—ker, but none of them would have followed through on the testosterone-influenced desire for revenge, because the penalties are too high and the action too extreme.
Over the course of a well-paced, tremendously complicated story, the viewer must consider a broad range of subtleties about the key characters and their behavior, as well as about crusty social mores and the repercussions of decades of white privilege that cloud an already unclear view.
For many people in our country, it may be easier to listen to rhetoric or watch lopsided news reports about racial crimes and injustice than to have a bird’s-eye view of what actually happens as people navigate their lives amid socioeconomic and cultural conflict. These two films illustrate how layered people’s beliefs and subsequent thoughts, actions and deeds can be—and what happens as a result.