By Jade Burroughes (London)
Roberto Minervini’s recent documentarian instalment provides an intimate, empathetic and very necessary meditation on the state of race relations in the American South and the detrimental byproducts of centuries matured racism. Even with its deployment of monochrome aesthetics the documentary successfully grants a visceral and incredible powerful insight into the lives of a marginalised community under threat of racial violence, gentrification, crime and the raw difficulty of making ends meet. The documentary hones in on a time and place specific focus, recounting events occurring in Louisiana and Mississippi in the summer of 2017, following a string of brutal killings of African American men- Alton Sterling, Jeremy Jackson and Phillip Carroll- and the fiery community reaction to this. However, this doesn’t deter its wider applicability and relevance.
The themes Minervini explores within this focused framework easily transcend the time and place of the film, projecting a pretty grim picture of the state of wider American race relations. Issues of Police brutality, the difficulties faced by grass roots activists and the socio-economic disenfranchisement of African American communities function as permeable themes that can easily translate into the wider race struggles occurring nationwide. Minervini’s almost non-existent focus on the official investigation process into the killings of the men and instead his intimate pivot around the community healing process successfully brings to fore both the inaction of officials and the resilience of communities for whom violence and injustice is becoming a near constant reality.
The documentary’s depiction of a repeated and almost ceaseless cycle of brutal killings followed by a determined community reaction, necessitated by the inaction of state and federal authorities, is becoming a sadly familiar story within modern America and one which initiatives such as Black Lives Matter seeks to cease. The documentary comprises of 4 narrative strands, each providing its own unique angle on the threats facing African American communities. The narrative focused around two half-brothers Ronaldo King, 14 and Titus Turner, 9 acts as an effective insight into the fear dominated and necessarily cautious everyday existence of African Americans in the South.
The notion of fear as central to the African American experience is overtly highlighted in the motherly interventions conducted at the hands of Ashlei King, who anxiously attempts to navigate and guide the boys in a system set against them. A conversation about setting curfew, which on the surface initially appears to mimic the mundane practice of a mother disciplining her sons, quickly becomes qualified as a life or death situation- when the recent shootings in the neighbourhood are evidenced as the stimulus for enforcing a necessary curfew. Ashlei’s discourse soon makes evident that the boys conduct in the outside world will ultimately decide their fate, namely if they remain free and alive into adulthood.
There is a sense of optimism in the brother’s presentation, as Minervini documents them participating in adventurous fun, jumping onto moving trains and riding their bikes seemingly carefree through the neighbourhood. None the less, this presentation of the boys, as youths seeking to take the world as their own, is bittersweet. This hyperawareness of their environment, inevitably entailing an awareness of the pertinent dangers of being an African American and the structural constraints in them achieving the kind of autonomy they desire. The practice of slicing apart scenes of boyish fun with cold reality culminates in a scene where Ronaldo is teaching Titus to fight. Ronaldo makes clear that this is not a leisure activity but a way for Titus to defend himself which is disturbing enough.
However, what is more disconcerting, is that a matter of lines later Ronaldo comes full circle claiming that in a sense even this is futile since ‘people don’t fight anymore, they like to shoot’. This astute observation from Ronaldo, at the young age of 14, seems to point towards a fine-tuned awareness of the grim realities of American society, an awareness which is continually sharpened throughout the documentary by his interactions with his mother who warns against the corruptive influences of society including drug abuse and crime which she emphasises has landed a number of Ronaldo’s family, including his father, in prison. Minervini thus sets up a view of a world which is pitted against African Americans from their youth, pivoted around a scarily familiar fate of incarceration or death, one which the youth are cautiously warned against and must filter their existence in order to avoid.
The second prominent narrative strand is that of Judy Hill, a bar owner and victim of sexual abuse and drug addiction. Judy’s narrative provides examples of coping mechanisms, developed in communities as means to navigate the turmoil’s of institutionalised racism. Her ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ bar acts in a dual capacity as both a social safe space and also a cultural hub and consciousness raising centre, where concerns can be voiced among the local African American community in meetings and events. Judy utilising her sharpened understanding of the legacy of discrimination, devotes her life to inspiring hope in others.
The documentary features insights into the meetings staged at her bar, which demonstrate an undefeated resilience among community members, whose spirits are obviously thrive in group situations, a powerful metaphor encompasses this claiming that the whole fist is harder to cut off than a single finger. The relentless determination of Judy’s narrative is sheering, as an individual that has kicked her drug habit and now devotes her life to helping others, she also continues to pursue this fight for social justice while struggling to keep possession of her bar in the face of unjustified threats of economic repossession. Thus, her narrative not only highlights the way in which community based activity can act as a precondition for social resistance but also inspires great admiration for its advocates who, parallel to this fight for justice, struggle with various socio-economic structural constraints.
A less personalised but helpfully informatic insight into the endemic racism in America is offered by the narrative centred on the efforts of the New Black Panther party for self-defence. It provides an example of an organisation trying to tackle the problems alluded to in the other two narratives, through utilisation of ideology, ‘civilian investigation’ and aid to the poor. The national chairwomen, Krystal Muhummad dominates this narrative, and throughout the documentary is seen to organise black power rallies and engineer projects to raise awareness of the recent killings and injustices. Their efforts are underpinned by a desire to rectify the shortcomings of local authorities and official investigations. They more than any of the other narratives explore the irony of the problems which exist in the ‘greatest country in the world’, including a large portion of time devoted to the widespread issue of homelessness.
The group pinpoint these ironies on the white power they consider inscribed into the legislation and institutions of America, in a visceral statement they claim that the groups who were ‘on our ancestor backs’ did not disappear, they are still here just now they wear suits and act as governors. The editorial style of the documentary is most significant here since every time the narrative returns to the Black Panther strand, the group are demanding justice for a different name, highlighting the almost everyday reality of violence within the African American communities and in the view of the party, necessitating their efforts to secure justice where the system fails to.
The fourth narrative strand of the documentary, focusing on the Mardi Gras Indian movement, has been dubbed in many reviews as a minor strand due to it being left relatively unexplored. However, I think the role of the Mardi Gras narrative exceeds a ‘musical interlude’ and can instead be seen as a poetic metaphor. Though its interventions are intermittent and relatively unexplained, with just occasional glimpses of creating decorative costumes and making music, the clips bind the other narratives together in way that can be seen as highlighting the way culture binds communities in times of healing and inspires a sense of belonging, a cause to fight for. Therefore, although more exploration of the Mardi Gras cultural practises would be insightful, perhaps from an angle alluded to by Chief Kevin Goodman who expresses concerns about cultural practises being under threat in the modern age, I don’t think it’s fair to coin it a case of neglect at the hands of Minervini nor a minor strand.
Overall, the documentary strikes a clever balance between inspiring a sense of urgency and dread, while simultaneously giving an account of an undeniably disadvantaged but ultimately resilient community fighting for dignity, justice and respect. This balance ensures that the problem of race relations in America is still viewed as a persistent and monumental issue yet the cause for equality is not presented as a lost one. Minervini thus provides a necessary account of the American dream gone wrong. Revealing the detrimental underbelly of those continually excluded from its glory and inciting justified indignation among its viewers, who are left with both shock at the atrocities still plaguing the American south and a reinvigorated admiration for the grass roots advocates of social resistance, who remain stealthily optimistic in the face of setbacks at the hands of a system engineered to ensnare them.