Seeing these movies we awoke abruptly from that illusion that was the Obama era, a time when we believed that the first African American president in history had finally changed things. The abrupt awakening, however, has put us in front of a hallucinating situation. African American people in today’s United States don’t live much better than the years when the Ku Klux Klan terrified America, those of racial segregation, those where Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement fought for equality . It seems to have remained sixty years ago. And not surprisingly, if many American denunciation films are set in the present day, others go back in time. To tell us that nothing has changed. Or to talk about the past to tell the present, as Dante Alighieri did with the Divine Comedy. The election of the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama, has served no purpose. If a policeman stops a black man and fears that he is armed, he shoots him. If he stops a white man, he simply says “hands up”. American cinema is telling us all this today. The honeymoon with its politicians is over, the Obama era is over where cinema tried to convey hope, even in the stories of African Americans. The darkness in which America is plunging with the Trump administration is giving life again, as it was in the Bush era, to a fight cinema.
The illuminating film, the one to be seen at all costs before all the others is the documentary “XIII Amendment” (2016), by Ava DuVernay (available on Netflix), which tells us how the American system, in fact, continues to perpetrate slavery after having abolished it for centuries. The key is all in that clause of the XIII Amendment of the American Constitution, which prohibits keeping people in slavery, except as punishment for a crime. And this punishment for crimes has been used as a key by the establishment to continue to enslave the world of African Americans.
The United States of America is the country that has 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s inmates, 1 out of 4. Historians interviewed in the film then explain to us that slavery, in many states, was a economic system. When four million slaves were freed they began to be arrested for small crimes in order to keep them enslaved, to still have the workforce. Thus began the process of criminalization of blacks. The African American rapist of “Birth of a nation” by David Griffith, from 1915, is an example of this process. That will go on, over the years, between violence, criminalization, segregation. African Americans have always had to struggle to be considered full-blown human beings. A struggle frustrated by a policy that, from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton, it replaced the concept of crime with that of race.
Continuous drug-fighting policies, such as those on public order, have done nothing but fill prisons and continue and define blacks as criminals, to such an extent that they themselves feel they are, and have become a community continuously under under surveillance and under control. There is a presumption of danger who follows them wherever they go. In a legal system like the American one, where wealth is more important than guilt, more and more African Americans declare themselves guilty even if they are not, because otherwise they risk remaining in jail even longer. But those who have been in prison are deprived of many rights, from work to mortgages for homes, and in fact, once the debt has been paid with justice, citizenship is denied.
In the United States, African Americans are 6.5% of the population, and 40% of the inmates. If 1 in 17 white people are likely to end up in prison, for blacks the percentage is 1 in 3. What happens between the police and black people is the result of a centuries-long trial. Police violence is not a limited system, it is the reflection of a wider and more cruel system of racial control and social called mass incarceration, and which authorizes this violence. Ava DuVernay also shot the miniseries “When They See Us” (2019, on Netflix), on the case of the Central Park jogger, who was attacked in 1989: five young men, including four black and one Hispanic, were convicted and then exonerated following the confession of the real culprit.
The courage of truth
In “XIII Amendment” dozens of cases of police violence are mentioned, which leave you speechless. One of these, that of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African American killed by a policeman after he was stopped because a car stop did not work, was the starting point for “The courage of truth” (2018, streaming on Sky On Demand and NOW TV) by George Tillman Jr., film adaptation of the novel “The Hate U Give – The Courage of Truth”, of 2017, written by Angie Thomas. Castile’s story joins a status of rapper Tupac Shakur, THUG LIFE, that is “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody” (It is the hatred we give to children to fuck us.) It’s a perfect phrase to tell the spiral of hatred that permeates the lives of African Americans in the United States: a hatred that children breathe from an early age, and which end up returning once adults. Khalil, the boy at the center of the story, says these words to Starr, a friend of his since childhood while, returning from a party, they are listening to Tupac in the car. Shortly after the two are stopped by the police. And, by a misunderstanding, Khalil is killed. We had seen Starr and his brothers, a few years earlier, listen to a Black Panthers decalogue from Father Maverick, who had been in a gang and had decided to leave, explaining what to do in case of police detention or abuse. Because, as we said, if a policeman stops a black man and fears that he is armed, he shoots him. If the same thing happens with a white man, he shouts “hands up”.
If the road could speak
“If the road could speak“(” If Beale Street Could Talk2, from 2018, streamed on Sky On Demand and NOW Tv), by Barry Jenkins, Oscar winner for “Moonlight”, is set in the 1960s, in Harlem, Manhattan, but we could also be at the present day, those of Khalil and Starr. It is a love story between two young African Americans, Tish and Fonny: he is in prison, awaiting trial, for a crime he did not commit, which happens very often. Their story is told in a calm, mild tone, for the topic it tells. It is as if the characters who move in the film have understood that the battles against injustice and that white man who often perpetrates them against the African American community are taking place loving and supporting each other, rather than battling angrily against a system you’re going to lose against. “The relationships that make up the core of the film are characterized by that enchanting poetry of interrelational exchanges that, for black people, acts as a bumper making existence worthy of being endured, making the broken promise of the American dream worthy of the necessary efforts in his pursuit, ”Jenkins had written.
Look to the past to tell the present too “Detroit” (2017, streamed on Netflix), by Kathryn Bigelow, who takes us in the midst of racial riots in Michigan’s motortown in 1967: one evening a shot of a toy gun attracts the police to Motel Algier; they look for a culprit, and they don’t leave until they find him. The result is three black boys killed point-blank. We are in those sixties, in Detroit, where the Motown soul was born, and African Americans, with their celestial voices, were becoming the new stars. But for most Americans they were still the “niggers” and, as we have told you, potential criminals. Detroit wants to tell us that nothing has changed, which reminds us that, in Trump’s America, every person of different ethnicity is a potential enemy and thus treated regardless, with a presumption of guilt that is far from any civil law.
From Michian to Louisiana
The champion of civil rights, when it comes to American cinema, is Michael Moorethe Robin Hood in baseball cap who was one of George W. Bush’s fiercest opponents. In his “Fahrenheit 9/11“(2018, on rental on TimVision, Rakuten TV, Google Play and iTunes) a pamphlet on the rise of Donald Trump, told us about a specific case, that of Flint, Michigan, where a polluted water fault has poisoned with the lead more than 10 thousand children. The affected area was one of the poorest in the city, the one inhabited by African Americans, by the poorest, those who always have the worst when things go wrong, which are never considered.
Another documentary, “What to do when the world is on fire?” (“What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire”, 2018, for hire on Miocinema) by Roberto Minervini (which we told you about here), an Italian author who has been telling about the poorest areas of America for years, takes us to another hot area. It was shot between Baton Rouge and Jackson, Louisiana, in 2017, when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were recently killed by the police. Through a series of tales of various people, women, men, children, a fresco emerges in which everyone experiences prison as something inevitable, of inevitable, a fate sealed. Prison, crime, violence are the guiding threads of the film, they recur in all speeches, continuously. People talk about it painfully but naturally: entering and leaving prison is the norm. It is another document of that criminalization process we are talking about.
The right to object
From Louisiana we move to Monroeville, Alabama, the place where Harper Lee wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird”, that is, The Dark Beyond the Hedge. Neither “The right to object” (2019, for rent on Infinity, Chili, TimVision, Rakuten Tv, Google Play and iTunes) by Destin Cretton, referenced several times, the Harper Lee Museum is also referred to as a “civil rights milestone”. Yet locals don’t seem to have learned much from the story of Atticus Finch, the poor black man who hadn’t gotten justice. He talks about that story with pride, but remains indifferent to that of Walter McMillian, who in 1987 was sentenced to death for killing an 18-year-old girl, despite clearly non-existent evidence and a series of evidence confirming the opposite. To defend Walter, to the surprise of everyone and the condemned himself, is Bryan Stevenson, a young graduate in law from Harvard. Why do you do it? Because, when he was still an internship law student, on death row in the Georgia state prison he met Henry Davis, a death row inmate. Henry was like him, same age, same origins and same passions, music and singing. And so he realizes that in his place he could have been there himself, he remains shaken, and decides that he will dedicate his life and work to people like Henry. It’s a movie proudly anti-Trump: The moment when, in his harangue, Bryan appeals to the jury and wonders if he is deciding on the basis of fear and anger instead of the law, it is a stab at the current American administration.
The end of the Obama era
The Obama era is over and seems very far away, and it seems that things have worsened since the end of his presidency, and that his election has led to a resurgence of racism. On the occasion of the release of the film “What to do when the world is on fire”, we had the words of Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize winner, a former correspondent on the national territory and a reporter for the New York Times. “After these cases, black parents are again in the position of having to protect themselves and their children from the violence they suffer in unprecedented proportions at the hands of the authorities, who would have the task of protecting them. They find themselves reciting again the same speech that their ancestors made to their children in the old South: you have to answer Yes sir and No, sir, and be careful how you behave with the upper caste and the police.
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