Better Understanding Ferguson Through Nonfiction Films

By  · Published on December 2nd, 2014

First Run Features

As cable news has been wallowing in shortsightedness and ahistorical thinking in its coverage of the Ferguson grand jury verdict and ensuing protests, the smarter corners of the internet have provided a bevy of useful resources, syllabi, polemics, and essays that have explained, at length and in great context, why the lack of accountability for the killing of a young, unarmed African-American male at the hands of a white police officer warrants passionate demonstrations nationwide. Such tools have been essential for attempting to explain to skeptical ears how institutional racism continues to exercise a disproportionate (and sometimes lethal) affect on the lives of young black men, and how various extensions of state power – namely, police officers – are rarely held accountable for their abuses of said power, which perpetuates a culture of policing that serves the lives of some at the expense of others.

The cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Darrien Hunt and John Crawford are all part of the same elephant in the room that we collectively refuse to acknowledge: a social poison that continues to motivate irrational but deep-rooted fear of black bodies and justify the violence continually leveled against them.

But, as many of the above resources explain, the history that undergirds the present moment runs deep. This history is fully available – not only in written form, but also in many a moving image. Several indispensible non-fiction films have framed histories that echo or have direct bearing on this moment.

While several notable exceptions exist (as evidenced by the ongoing relevance of Do the Right Thing to the power of history repeating itself available in the upcoming Selma), Hollywood has, for the most part, been in the game of soothing us into the insidious narrative that racism is a problem solved by the past, that racism is evident only in its most cartoonishly archaic iterations, and that friendship and football – not a sober look at our history and a complete reimagining of our policies – are its cure. Though narrative films have shown a promising tendency in recent years to forego the Hollywood formula of patting its audience on the back in portraying historical racism, non-fiction filmmaking has far longer acted as the vanguard of representing racism in the United States with nuance, immediacy and artistry.

Such histories have, and continue to be, well documented. And while a simple record may not always prove to be the sunlight that disinfects our ignorance, these films do stand as important witnesses to tragic and under-recognized histories that we seem resigned to repeat over and again.

So here’s a brief viewing guide to a selection of films that contribute some context to the current moment. Please feel free to add any other titles that come to mind in the comments section.

The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)

Vérité documentarian Howard Alk originally set out to make a film chronicling the activities and speeches of Illinois state chairman of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton. And the film does accomplish exactly that, capturing Hampton during charismatic presentations, ideological training and recruitment, and feeding children free breakfast, manifesting a multifaceted look inside the BPP.

But after Hampton was drugged by an informant and subsequently killed during a police raid on December 4, 1969, Alk’s film transformed into a corrective of the dominant but specious narrative told by the Chicago Police Department and regurgitated by the news media: that Hampton was killed after the Panthers fired upon the police. The Murder of Fred Hampton is a raw work of observation and engagement that provides a powerful and convincing case to the contrary. But more than making a case for Hampton, Alk’s film stages an ever-relevant juxtaposition of voices between those for whom a microphone is always assumed, and those who must fight to be heard.

Wattstax (1973)

Years after the August 1965 Watts Rebellion, residents of the Los Angeles neighborhood still faced similar issues that inspired the demonstrations: high unemployment, inferior public schools and aggressive policing of the community. When the 1972 Wattstax concert festival was organized around the seventh anniversary of these events, it wasn’t staged to be a narrative of historical triumph over these still-trenchant issues, but instead provided an affirming demonstration of the power of culture – namely music – to bring a community together under a “soulful expression of the black experience.”

Mel Stuart’s 1973 film intersperses footage of performances by the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes and other mainstays of Stax Records with contemporary fly-on-the-wall testimonies by Watts residents about their past and present experiences. It’s an inspiring glimpse of historical reflection and musical self-actualization with a killer soundtrack and some serious wisdom by none other than Richard Pryor, highlighted above.

The Murder of Emmett Till (2003)

Unwritten laws that maintain white supremacy have enjoyed the full protection of official law throughout American history, and nowhere is this truth so tragically apparent than with the case of Emmett Till, a twelve-year-old black kid from Chicago brutally tortured and murdered by two white men in Mississippi after looking at a white woman. An all-white jury did not convict the men of their crimes.

Emmett Till’s murder is appropriately recounted as an important inciting incident in the mid-century Civil Rights movement, but it should also remain a potent reminder how the machinations of justice have frequently been wielded as a tool for injustice that closes its eyes in the face of a society’s most heinous practices. This 2003 PBS documentary provides an accessible reminder of that very fact.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)

St. Louis has had a deep history of racial segregation, and housing policy has been an important catalyst for this ongoing division. Chad Freidrichs’ overlooked documentary plunges into the story of the city’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project in great detail and with an array of archival resources.

First constructed in 1954 as a means for low-income urbanites to have access to the center of the city’s economy in place of the Dickensian tenements in which poor residents previously occupied, Pruitt-Igoe eventually stagnated as a result of decreasing public support for the housing project and, most importantly, white flight, which left an economic vacuum for these St. Louis residents. Few documentaries have so adeptly covered the long-term process and affects of systemic inequality for which a city’s most vulnerable citizens pay the greatest price.

The Central Park Five (2012)

This rare theatrical release by Ken Burns casts aside the filmmaker’s signature nostalgic romances of American history and realizes an urgent work of investigative journalism in its place. Covering the miscarriage of justice that sentenced five innocent men of color to jail in 1989 for the rape of a jogger in Central Park, Burns’s film adeptly explains how media sensationalism and police profiling converged to steal the lives and autonomy of five young men already assumed by society to be guilty.

While their convictions were vacated in 2002, earlier this year, in a turn of events supposedly inspired in part by the fact that the documentary brought the case back into public knowledge, New York City approved a multi-million dollar settlement in a rare example of a governing body attempting to repair the lives it targets. It’s worth noting, though, that there remains no official admission of wrongdoing on the part of the city.

Let the Fire Burn (2013)

In 1985, the house of the black liberation group MOVE was bombed by Philadelphia Police Department in an attempt to “evict” its residents and bring a long-simmering standoff between the police and the group to a close. The ensuing fire killed eleven residents of the MOVE house, including 5 children and destroyed over sixty surrounding homes. While an investigative committee described these lethally disproportionate tactics as “negligent,” no police were charged for essentially burning an entire city block to smolders, human life be damned.

One of last year’s most powerful and disturbing films, Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn is an astounding record of these events in part because it’s assembled entirely through archival footage of news broadcasts, local access feed of the ensuing hearing, and home video footage. It’s a potent reminder that the moving image alone can be a witness to injustice, but it’s an equally troubling reminder that injustice often occurs out in the open and without reprimand, for all to see and hear.