Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Banished": American apartheid, long after the death of Jim Crow

Andrew O'Hehir in Salon

When the aging retiree in Harrison, Ark., welcomes filmmaker Marco Williams into his home, it seems almost like the setup for a Hollywood comedy. With his mismatched outfit of high-water trousers and flannel shirt, crusty old Bob Scott seems like the irascible geezer who might just have a heart of gold; in his T-shirt, jeans and flowing dreadlocks, Williams seems every inch the big-city African-American intellectual. They sit down at Scott's table and have a pleasant conversation about life in Harrison. Scott likes living there because people are friendly, the cost of living is low and the Ozark scenery is lovely. But one factor was even more important to him and his fellow retirees, he says: "No blacks."

It is not just historical accident that Boone County, which includes Harrison, has only 40 or so African-Americans among its 34,000 residents. Nor that Forsyth County, Ga., Washington County, Ind., Pierce City, Mo., and dozens of other counties and municipalities in the Midwest and South are nearly or totally all-white today. From the end of the Civil War through the 1920s, many rural communities systematically purged their black residents, driving them out with implicit or explicit threats of violence. Sometimes these blacks were allowed to sell their land, albeit under duress and at discount prices. Often they were simply driven off, forced to abandon homes and land and flee for their lives.

Hardly anyone now living witnessed these events, but as Williams' film forcefully demonstrates, the wounds have nowhere near healed. Descendants of displaced African-Americans have passed the stories down as formative family legend, and while whites are far more eager to bury the past, many remain uncomfortably aware that something unsavory lingers at the farthest edges of community memory.

Williams focuses on three areas with distinct and disparate histories: Forsyth County today is a bedroom community on the outer suburban fringe of Atlanta, anxious to present itself as part of the tolerant New South, unshackled from the past. Yet Forsyth was the site of one of the most extensive ethnic cleansing campaigns anywhere in the country; as recently as 1987, a multiracial Martin Luther King Day march was viciously attacked by an angry white mob. Meanwhile, the descendants of black landowners driven out in 1912 have begun to seek restitution or reparations for land that was apparently stolen from them, a movement vigorously resisted by white legal and political authorities.

In Pierce City, Williams follows the painful quest of James and Charles Brown, two St. Louis brothers who discover that their great-grandparents were driven out of town in 1901, to find and remove ancestral remains from the local graveyard. Awkwardly and uncertainly, Pierce City's coroner and former mayor begin to help the Browns, and to approach their own sense of communal responsibility. But when the Browns demand that Pierce City pay for the exhumation and relocation, the tentative sense of brotherhood falls away. Why should we offer reparations, these well-meaning white citizens demand, for something we didn't do?

Back in Bob Scott's Arkansas town, the racism is more overt than in other communities. Williams has a surprisingly polite conversation with Thom Robb, head of the local Ku Klux Klan, who amiably tells him that cross burning is an ancient Scottish rite (not, of course, an act of racial hatred) but that on the whole he thinks Harrison is better off as a white town. At the same time, Harrison's white residents have done more to confront the problem than anyone in the other two areas: Local preachers have held days of prayer and atonement; volunteers helped renovate a black church in a neighboring county; a scholarship was established for African-American student-athletes from other towns.

"Banished" offers a startling tour into an unforgotten history that remains invisible to most Americans, with the erudite Williams, who is simultaneously polite and confrontational, as our host. It would be ludicrous to suggest that he doesn't take sides: Williams clearly believes that a major historical crime has been swept under the rug, and his film is loaded with moments of understated emotional power. When the black Strickland family of Atlanta find a neglected and overgrown family burial ground on white-owned land in Forsyth County, and kneel there in prayer not far from the current residents' Confederate-flag-bedecked pickup, all the legal questions and ethical quandaries fade into the background.

All the same, Williams never shies away from his film's unanswerable questions. Much as I longed for the Brown brothers and Pierce City officials to find some agreeable middle ground, both remain prisoners of history. James Brown springs his demand for reimbursement on the coroner who has befriended him, just after the latter has shipped and reinterred his great-grandfather's remains. In response, the town fathers retreat into specious and sentimental rhetoric (and refuse to answer Brown directly). Someday, perhaps, these century-old crimes will be forgotten and black people will move into places like Pierce City and Harrison, not knowing or caring about what happened there. But not yet, and not for a long time to come.

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The Price of Sugar

Andrew O'Hehir in Salon

As I write this, it's still difficult to find accurate information about where and when Bill Haney's profoundly disturbing documentary "The Price of Sugar" will be opening commercially in the United States. Partly this is because the Vicini family, sugar barons of the Dominican Republic, have hired Patton Boggs, a major Washington law firm, to try to halt the film's release, or at least paint it as slanted and defamatory. Narrated by Paul Newman, Haney's film follows an Anglo-Spanish missionary priest, Christopher Hartley, as he tries to bring some justice to the slavery-like conditions under which Haitian immigrants cut sugar cane in the Vicini fields.

As Hartley remarks in the film, Americans may be dismayed to learn the true cost of the sugar they put in their morning coffee: Haitian workers are routinely imprisoned by armed guards and underpaid (or go unpaid for long periods), and those who run away or try to insist on minimal legal rights frequently disappear. While Hartley and Haney have succeeded in focusing international attention on the Dominican sugar fields, both the Vicinis and the Dominican population continue to insist that nothing is wrong. Hartley has been reassigned to Ethiopia by his church superiors, and public screenings have reportedly been interrupted by counter-demonstrators. (Scheduled to open Sept. 28 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities.)

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(The Price of Sugar)

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BANISHED -- When Jim Crow Came to Town, With Eviction Notices

MANOHLA DARGIS in The New York Times

There are ghosts haunting Marco Williams’s quietly sorrowful documentary “Banished,” about the forced expulsion of black Southerners from their homes in the troubled and violent decades after the Civil War. Dressed in what looks like their Sunday best, in dark suits and high-collar dresses, they stare solemnly into an unwelcoming world. A couple ride in a cart along a pretty country road, and others stand awkwardly before houses with peeling paint. There are few smiles. Photography was then a serious business, though being a black landowner, part of a fragile, nascent Southern middle class, was more serious still.

It’s stunning how loudly the dead can speak, and with such eloquence. I couldn’t help comparing these images with those in one of my own photo albums of a large family of stern-looking Midwesterners dressed in what looks like their Sunday best. The rough, ill-fitting suits and somber dresses look similar to those in the documentary, and the simple clapboard house looming behind this family recalls comparable homes in “Banished.” There are, once again, few smiles, though in one photo my grandfather, then around 12, looks as if he’s trying to keep one in check.

Unlike the young men in Mr. Williams’s documentary, my grandfather raised a family and ran a business not far from where his photographs were taken — an upstanding white citizen in a nearly all-white land. The young black men in “Banished” never had the chance to take root. Some were falsely accused of molesting white women and were lynched. We see a few of these dead in other photographs, hanging from trees and lampposts, their bodies sometimes surrounded by a visibly excited white crowd. (A crude sign under one corpse warns not to wake him.) As Mr. Williams explains, his measured voice-over calm as ever, lynching was an instrument of terror, used against blacks as a means of control and “racial cleansing.”

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