Doc unveils hidden history
January 17, 2007
According to director Marco Williams, the most dangerous racism is not blatant. The most dangerous racism is subtle and insidious.
In his Sundance Film Festival documentary, "Banished," Williams investigates a largely untold chapter in the history of U.S. race relations: towns whose populations remain white-only due to a violent expulsion of their African-American citizens nearly a hundred years ago.
Cox News Service journalist Elliot Jaspin uncovered a dozen communities in the United States whose census records indicated a sudden change in population from 1860 to 1920. In a short period of time, the records showed that suddenly the entire African-American sector of several towns had been eradicated. Upon further inquiry, Jaspin learned that these towns had consciously and often brutally ejected neighbors because of their race.
Williams is a Sundance veteran, having come twice before for his films "Two Towns of Jasper" in 2002 and "In Search of our Fathers" in 1991. The Center for Investigative Reporting approached him about making the film. The Center is also partly responsible for Jaspin’s book, "Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleaning in America," which will be published by Basic Books in March, 2007.
Williams says that while Jaspin’s book is predominantly historical, his film has a specific message.
"I took the general idea of the forced expulsion of black communities and decided to investigate this phenomenon with an eye towards how do we redress the past," Williams explains.
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"Banished" confronts three of the communities Jaspin uncovered including Forsyth County, Georgia, Pierce City, Missouri and Harrison, Arkansas. Cameras follow an African-American 93-year-old matriarch back to a family burial plot in Forsyth, two African-American brothers from St. Louis, Missouri who discover their great-grandfather’s burial site in Pierce City and a task force of white citizens from Harrison attempting to deal with their town’s racial history.
While the towns received Williams and his crew "cordially and with respect," Williams observed a mechanism of defensiveness about the them. There was an element of discomfort, he says.
"I always entered the communities with some degree of trepidation," Williams, who is African-American, admits. "I always had this feeling of looking over my shoulder I was in a place that has been all-white or virtually all-white for one hundred years and the reason for it was that black people were kicked out violently that always made me wonder if there was some element like that still in the town."
Williams says though he never received any audible threats, the residue of racism was evident in some of the towns. As an example, one town continues to fly the Confederate flag in front of their Chamber of Commerce as a nod to its past. While the Confederate flag certainly isn’t as dangerous as a gun, Williams argues it achieves the same purpose.
"If I were driving there looking to see if I wanted to live in that town and I pulled up to the Chamber of Commerce the emblem of ‘welcome to our community’ and saw a Confederate flag, I probably wouldn’t stay there," he says.
A citizen of that town, however, insists the town has changed in the last century when it comes to racism, and that the flag flies next to old Spanish and French flags and other countries and people who ruled the town in the past, reports Williams.
"The most dangerous racism is insidious," he claims. "In many cases, it’s not the avowed racist, because with the avowed racist you know what to expect. It’s the white liberal that you’re not completely certain of."
The towns are familiar with their history in a qualitative, selective-memory fashion, so that the questions Williams’ posits do not necessarily surprise them. He interviews several journalists who have dug up information regarding the towns’ pasts. However, Williams considers the focus of Banished to be the larger questions of reparations and reconciliation to the families that were driven out by lynching, by gunfire or by dynamiting or burning their property.
"In the film, I present a lot of opportunities for audiences to engage how these communities might reconcile their past," Williams says. "Anything from an apology to a monument, to a scholarship, to some form of reparations, to returning the land."
For the family members who return to towns on behalf of their past, bitterness remains. Though the Georgian family is not overtly angry, Williams describes a scene from "Banished" he filmed as particularly emotional, when the family, led by their 93-year-old grandparent visit their family burial plot in Forsyth to clean it. They later discover their family’s property was likely stolen once they left town, meaning that the family had no chance to sell the land and turn a profit.
"They are more confused and frustrated than they are angry," Williams says of the Georgian family. "The property that once belonged to their family is now worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars and they don’t know quite what to do."
On the other hand, Williams says the brothers from St. Louis feel resentment.
The brothers found out on their own that their family had ties to Pierce City and along the way they learn their great-grandfather is still buried there. They ask the town to disinter his remains, because they don’t want their relatives to be buried in a town where their family isn’t welcome.
The third story that "Banished" is about the town of Harrison as it attempts to remedy and redress its past, but as Williams notes, the town also has to deal with its more current history of intolerance. As the task force plots their return to a more racially balanced community, the fact remains that the community is also the location of a branch headquarters for the Klu Klux Klan and that racists decide to retire there, because of its white homogeneity.
Williams would ultimately like audiences that see his film to walk away with a willingness to engage the complicated question of redressing atrocities, but in many ways, Williams says it’s a lot like searching for a way to find a solution for the race problem in America, a concept he says he’s not convinced is possible yet. His film is just the start.
"Documentaries show us people who are just like ourselves and we come to realize if they can do it, we can do it. Documentaries become a much more explicit mirror back onto ourselves," he says.
"I think that when we see ourselves and we see what others like ourselves are doing and succeeding at [in documentaries] or not doing and not succeeding at, we realize what our potential is I gotta say I’m always inspired when I see a documentary."
"Banished" will premiere at The Sundance Film Festival at 9:15 p.m. at Holiday Village Cinema III in Park City, Utah.