HBO’s Watchmen may have helped raise public awareness of the Tulsa Race Massacre that killed countless Black people and burned the Oklahoma city’s Black Wall Street to the ground, but that only means that we have more learning to do—and not just about Tulsa. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote that “the level of reader familiarity with the country’s history of racial pogroms was much lower even 8 or 9 years ago,” and a string of new documentaries are aiding in that ever-increasing historical literacy. Director Jonathan Silver’s Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten airs on PBS a hundred years after the racist act of domestic terrorism, tracking the effort not only to understand the event but to canonize its history.
The burning of Black Wall Street—like so many unsavory events, people, causes and motives—was buried by those conservative and white powers that be who set the past in stone. Controlling school textbooks means the proliferation of Lost Cause narratives. “Genocide” was not a term used for what settlers did to Indigenous people. As Rob Alex Fitt puts it, “Malcolm X was included, but only so he could be shown to have been assassinated.” So of course, a distilled microcosm of all that this revisionism wants to hide would suffer the same obscured fate, but without even the dignity of an alternative narrative. “We had to take Oklahoma History and Geography,” one interviewee says of the Massacre. “None of those things were ever mentioned.” I took those same classes, and I didn’t hear about the Massacre until I went to college downstate in Norman. Good luck if you’re out of state.
Composed using The Washington Post’s DeNeen L. Brown’s reports, The Fire and the Forgotten responds to this informational void with context. The Massacre itself is explained—and, I’m sure to some, proven—as the narrative reveals its bevy of archival photographs documenting the grisly aftermath. But it’s not until Brown begins touching on the modern efforts to spotlight the Massacre that the doc grows beyond its newsy trappings.
Oklahoma, and Tulsa in particular, has been oh-so-hesitant to discuss its history of racism. Why bother in a state that’s certainly not trying to change anything anytime soon? Graphic footage of police, acquitted of murdering Terence Crutcher, shooting him down in the street, asks that question well enough. Tulsa was the first city to remove a Black Lives Matter mural after the murder of George Floyd. As armed alt-right militia members show to up to BLM protests, you see the contents of PBS’s American Insurrection from earlier this year bleed over—an inevitability as white supremacy continues to be one of our most predominant cultural forces. But thanks to the efforts of protestors, preachers, historians, activists and archeologists, the government has started the slow process of legitimizing the Massacre’s place in state history.
Silver deploys moving archival interviews from survivors who were spoken to in 1999 when a state commission began researching and documenting the event. Nebulous reparations were its potential endpoint. They never came. But its efforts still kicked off something important, as the film emphasizes the burial, uncovering and rediscovery of this event—and of the country’s history of racial pogroms in general. This national amnesia, convenient and selective, is debunked as the intentional hoax it always was thanks to the memories of these men and women. Following these testimonials, further examples of the historical cover-up underline the institutionalized cruelty that continues to permeate it to this day. A decision by the Tenth Circuit court as they determine that no reparations are due to the descendants of Massacre victims from the state that sanctioned it explains that “there is no comfort or satisfaction in this result.” No kidding. Power continues to suppress and those underneath do their best to avoid being smothered out of existence.
Contextualizing this central event while diagnosing the modern manifestation of a chronic national sickness, The Fire and the Forgotten can be understandably unfocused as it tries to do so much in its 90 minutes. Losing itself in the interconnected malaise, and a bit jarring as it attempts to tie the historical quest for acknowledgement and justice—uncovering mass graves, distributing reparations—to the modern search for a better Black Tulsa—one that could offer reasons for its residents to stay rather than flee for better opportunities. The former is more compelling than the latter, mostly because its mix of archeology and morality is conveyed with such grim and emotional physical detail. And in case you needed more evidence that history repeats itself, look no further than the shots of masked excavators trying to determine if a mass grave was from the killing of Black people or the last great viral pandemic that afflicted our country.
It’s these moments of depressing deja vu and the well-reported doc’s passionate treatment of its source material that move you despite its repetition and formal dryness. A few flourishes—a delicately framed singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and a long, lovely shot pulling back from a recently restored graveyard—supplement the straightforward collection of talking heads, newsy sequences watching pastors and protestors speak, and B-roll of folks walking through exhibits or near pertinent Tulsa locales. It feels like work, an assignment we must learn and memorize so neither it nor its memorial efforts are forgotten. But it makes its case thoroughly and reminds us that an understanding of history is of grave importance to anyone hoping to move themselves or their countries forward.
We see the effects not just of the Massacre, but of unpunished state-sanctioned racism, on the Tulsa, and the America, of today. As its place in fiction has recently shown, the Massacre’s brutal and simple evil created a pure symbol that can represent the myriad ways the white establishment has oppressed Black people in America—from the immediate and obvious violence of murder to the sinister economic undermining of communities and back again. While Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten makes these connections as well, its strongest moments take the event as more than a symbol—its victims more than numbers; more than reflections of the modern day. Its dedication to the Massacre on a journalistic, human level makes the documentary a worthy look at the burning of Black Wall Street. Hopefully it will help remind us that other historical wrongs shouldn’t have to wait a century to be remembered, let alone be righted.
Director: Jonathan Silver
Release Date: May 31, 2021 at 9 PM on PBS
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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