Guest post by Joel Pulis
Last fall, I saw Harriet in the theater. (Remember going out to see movies?!?) It’s the extraordinary story of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and her leadership in the Underground Railroad movement in the 1850s. The depiction of Tubman’s faith and learning how she sought practical, mystical instructions in leading her missions was new to me. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out.
In the opening scene, Harriet is reflecting back in a dream upon a traumatic memory: the moment her two sisters were torn from her and sold away to owners deeper in the South. Cut to a black minister preaching a sermon on the steps of a plantation house. The reverend uses (misuses) the Bible to justify slavery and to encourage (threaten) obedience to masters. Upon the conclusion of this religious indoctrination, Harriet and John, her free husband, seek to present a rightful and legal claim of freedom to her master. Ignoring the order, the enslaver rips up the document in their presence and declares, “You belong to me…for life. Your babies belong to me, and their babies belong to me.”
Whenever I watch historical representations of slavery such as this, I am horrified. My heart hurts and I tear up. Owning humans, destroying families, defending evil by perverting scripture. Mercy!
How could this have happened?
Last month, Deborah and I finally got around to watching Just Mercy, the 2019 movie based on Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling book. Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama, that advocates for criminal justice reform and racial justice for some of the most vulnerable people in American society today. His book and the movie are powerful reminders of the continued inequities facing African American people in our country.
The movie focuses on the story of Walter McMillan, a black man living in Alabama in the 1980s. Two minutes into the movie, McMillian is arrested for a murder he did not commit and put on death row without a trial. At the 6-minute mark, we see Stevenson visiting another prisoner (Henry) on death row to deliver the news that his execution has been postponed for a year. Sensing the relief that floods over this inmate at this moment of reprieve choked me up. In less than 10 minutes, tears and indignation had welled up in me by these portrayals of injustice.
How could this still happen?
As I watch, am touched, and am challenged by these films, here’s what horrifies me…
- Racism didn’t end. We’ve come to a place where such a basic assertion needs to be made. We are told by some that we live in a post-racial, colorblind world. “I am not a racist” is an almost constant refrain (Quoting Shakespeare, “[Thou] doth protest too much, methinks”). But the continuous record of prejudice, discrimination, and violence directed against African Americans in this country, borne witness to in our movies, challenges these untruths. Racism is with us and must be faced.
- Progress has been made on two fronts. We undoubtedly need to celebrate the progress that has been made in terms of racial justice. Harriet was freed. Jackie integrated baseball. Dr. King’s dream has been realized in ???? ways. But just as antiracism efforts have made progress, so too has racism. The continuous history of offense and inequality bear witness to this fact.
- Why am I entertained? How many times have I seen a film and remarked, “That was a good movie!” While I’ve been formed by the viewings, I’m now struck by a few questions: What has kept the experience primarily in the realm of diversion or distraction? How could I have been touched so many times and yet remain unmoved? “This is still happening?” is evidence of my white privilege – isolation from the pain, and surprise at the existence of ongoing racial injustice. This was and is the lived experience for many black people. I refuse to be part of a generation that ignores this, watches a movie, and goes on with my business.
- We move forward in fits and starts. The movies we love create a timeline of our racial history. 250 years of American slavery and a bloody Civil War (1619-1865). 100 years ignoring the constitutional rights afforded to the formerly enslaved (1865-1964). A massive civil rights movement that demanded adherence to the laws of the land (1954-1968). Since then, 50 additional years of progress and setbacks. As I look ahead to the second half of my life, I hope that 25 to 50 years from now I will be able to watch movies that depict the great steps and strides of this period (2020-2045). But what will I look back on and grieve not taking action on? Let this be a moment to take a leap forward.
A month ago, I saw another movie. Its runtime was a mere 8 minutes and 46 seconds. But it stuck with me. Ever since, it has played on auto-repeat, looping again and again in my head and heart. On May 25, George Floyd was murdered. Have you seen the movie?
And how about the new releases in June – Rayshard Brooks, Javier Ambler, Antonio Valenzuela, and the list goes on. And who knows what’s upcoming or in the works. Coming soon to a street near you. (see https://bit.ly/RayshardB, https://bit.ly/MoreShootings, https://bit.ly/PoliceDatabase)
This is still happening!
Now is the time. #repentancebeginswithme
Repentance Begins With Me: This post is one in a series of conversations developed as a shared initiative between Visible Unity and Body Oak Cliff. Be sure to check out the attached reflection guide to engage deeper. See https://bit.ly/WhenDidRacismEnd-Reflection
Check out these other films that depict different eras of our nation’s racial history:
- ??????? & ??? ????? ??? (????-????): Amistad, 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln, Glory
- ?????????????? & ??? ???? (????-????): Where are the films that depict the failed promises of the Reconstruction period?
- ????? ???? ??????? (?????-????): To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Mudbound, 42
- ??? ????? ?????? ???????? (????’?): Selma, Malcolm X, Mississippi Burning, Hairspray, Hidden Figures
- ???????????? (?????-???????): When They See Us, BlacKkKlansman, Fruitvale Station, If Beale Street Could Talk, Do the Right Thing, The Hate U Give, Moonlight
What’s missing from the list?