Across America, there is a battle being fought in state houses and school boards over the future of our society, and whether we will continue to build on progress to be a diverse and inclusive nation or if we will allow ourselves to revert to being a society that discriminates on the base of race and sexual orientation. Foundations can and should do more to advance the case for policies that counter our deep history of racial injustice and defend the human rights of all people.
One of the most effective ways for funders to support a critical examination of America’s dark history of racial inequality and the slow march toward equity for all classes of excluded people is by supporting documentary films, especially now that so many films are reaching millions of homes on an increasing array of digital streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime.
A great example of this is the new film, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” a Sony Classics film currently on view at Netflix and other digital platforms.
“Who We Are” is a film about former criminal defense attorney Jeffery Robinson’s lifelong crusade for racial justice, beginning as a child marching on behalf of sanitation workers in his hometown of Memphis – the events that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the place where he was assassinated. In the film, Robinson blends personal reflections with historical analysis of the sweeping history of 400 years of anti-Black racism rooted in America’s history of slavery. And he shows how discriminatory practices and state-sanctioned brutality have continued long past emancipation. Going beyond the film, Robinson has established the Who We Are Project, a nonprofit organization supported by the Far Star Action Fund, among others, which is designed to continue public education efforts across all platforms, within educational institutions and where that is not legally possible in public forums and through community outreach efforts.
In a packed room of colleagues at the United Philanthropy Forum’s annual conference earlier this month, Robinson repeated a quote from George Orwell from his landmark novel, “1984,” on the dangers of authoritarianism: “Whoever controls the past, controls the future.” And in a statement about the film, Robinson added, “A false narrative about the role of white supremacy and anti-Black racism in America has led to our failure to make significant, lasting progress on the issue of racial justice.”
In this, and many other documentary films, philanthropy has an opportunity to support the development of stories that offer a counterweight to the current assault on truth being led by politicians.
Efforts to Erase the Past
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has promoted new laws that will allow students and employees to sue schools and businesses that make them feel “discomfort, guilt or anguish” as a result of instruction on race.
In Texas, a new law intended to limit how schools can teach race-related subjects has created fear and confusion in the state’s classrooms, as teachers and administrators work to comply with the new rules. As one administrator infamously advised teachers, “And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing—that has other perspectives.”
According to PEN America, advocates for freedom of expression since 1922, educational gag laws were proposed in 24 states in just the first nine months of last year. And the pace of censorship has only increased since then.
The most prominent target of these punitive efforts has been The 1619 Project, originally a special report in The New York Times and ultimately published as a best-selling book, written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and colleagues. Published in August 2019, to mark the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship in colonial America, The 1619 Project “reveals the hidden truths around our nation’s founding and construction—and the way that the legacy of slavery did not end with emancipation, but continues to shape contemporary American life.”
For nonprofits and philanthropic donors who care about defending freedom of expression and social justice for diverse communities, there are many ways to engage.
Indeed, students and teachers who want to incorporate the 1619 Project into their curriculum can draw upon lesson plans developed by the Pulitzer Center, a nonprofit news organization supported for this initiative with funds from Humanity United, Open Society Foundations and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, among others.
And there are many other academic organizations and nonprofit publishing houses bringing the books and lessons that will open young minds to the sometimes brutal reality of history, as well as the full range of human potential of people from all races and sexual orientation, that some craven political leaders and misguided activists are trying to quash.
While it is tempting to meet the political assault on education primarily in the schools and in state capitols, this attack on progressive ideas of racial justice and a more diverse and equitable society is part of a larger culture war that also needs to be met with robust philanthropic support for stories that reach beyond the classrooms and into millions of homes.
But it’s a war that’s muddied by political correctness gone overboard. In the battle over free expression and over the proper balance of what is and is not acceptable language, some will argue that progressive political correctness in academia and elsewhere threatens to stifle critical inquiry. And it has to be acknowledged that there is some truth to this.
Every time we insist on using the term “Latinx,” even while only 4 percent of Hispanics prefer this term, we undercut our credibility in defending the interests of people we claim to serve. When a Yale professor tweets that “POTUS working while having covid infection epitomizes white supremacy urgency in the workplace,” the overreach in anti-racism would be comical if it were not also seriously problematic. Overuse of anti-racist rhetoric undercuts the need to highlight true cases of injustice.
Progressive advocates of social change should have an open and honest debate over terms and perhaps be a bit more flexible in what is acceptable speech and policy. But excesses in the faculty lounge are nowhere near as dangerous as the authoritarian assault on the true history of racism in America.
And documentary film is one of the best ways to expose that history. This year’s Sundance Film Festival presented several such examples:
“Descendant” is the gripping story of Black Americans in the Africatown community, just outside Mobile, Alabama, who are descendants of the Africans aboard the Clotilda, the last slave ship to sail to America, in 1860, long after it was illegal to import humans into bondage in the United States. Winner of a Sundance Special Jury Award, the story of “Descendant” is a microcosm of our tortured history with slavery. The story of the Clotilda has long been known, but obscured from the start. Immediately upon arriving on American shores the ship’s captain burned the vessel and sunk the hull in shallow waters, to hide the evidence of his criminal transport. Ultimately, in 2018, a mixed team of reporters, divers and historians was able to discover the remains of the Clotilda and reveal, once and for all, the sad destiny of this haunted schooner.
The film goes beyond the historic crime that brought these unfortunate Africans to America and reveals their heroic effort to create a self-sufficient community in Africatown, complete with mesmerizing footage from the 1920s of interviews with Cudjo Lewis, one of the last survivors of the Clotilda, recorded by a young Zora Neale Hurston. In “Descendant,” we see the residents of Africatown continuing to this day to be victimized, with elevated rates of cancer and other illnesses tied to the massive industrial facilities nearby spewing toxic chemicals into their air and water. As bleak as some of the film’s themes are, it is also an uplifting story, when we see the citizens of Africatown working to control the future construction of tourism facilities that are expected to accompany the historic discovery of the Clotilda. The film was produced by Participant Media and recently picked up for distribution by Michelle and Barack Obama’s Higher Ground film company, to be shown worldwide on the Netflix viewing platform.
“Aftershock” is another new Sundance Award-winning film, which explores the tragic – and unequal – experience of maternal mortality, the death of a mother during or soon after childbirth. Across the board, maternal mortality is much higher in the United States than other developed nations. But Black mothers perish at a rate nearly three times higher than other women. Currently available to view on Hulu, “Aftershock” is an emotionally devastating film, seen through the young lives lost and the fathers and families who remain. It also reveals the history of unequal treatment of Black women, rooted in the barbaric treatment of enslaved women, including medical experimentation in the development of modern obstetrics. “Aftershock” was produced with support from the Ford Foundation’s Just Films program, as well as the International Documentary Association’s Enterprise Documentary Fund.
Among this year’s nominations for the Academy Award for documentaries was the grim and gripping film “Attica,” by master filmmaker Stanley Nelson. As always, Nelson takes a familiar piece of history—the siege of Attica played out over several days on the nightly news—and unpacks it in a way that rips the scales away from our eyes. Through never-before-seen footage from inside the prison and direct eye-witness interviews with participants on all sides of the event, Nelson reveals the stark and deadly reality of events, when New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered law enforcement to retake Attica, resulting in the death of 29 inmates and 10 hostages. Recorded conversations between President Nixon and Rockefeller reveal the political pressure that led to the decision to take the prison by force. And the resulting carnage, fueled by racial animus, was a massacre that took the lives of inmates and guards, indiscriminately.
A common thread among all of these films is that they do leave you with feelings of discomfort and anguish. But these are appropriate feelings when confronted with much of our history. Along with heroic chapters of courage, bravery and sacrifice, there are many events in America that reveal corruption and injustice. Nobody doubts that there are chapters in American history that can foster pride in our nation. By the same token, any fair student of history can also acknowledge the dishonor that attaches to our nation’s failures. The pride and shame that we may feel in equal measure does not imply guilt or credit to any of us alive today. We each have to earn our place on that ledger.