African-Americans make up more than 54 percent of the population in the South, but many towns in the region remain all-white to this day. From 1864 to the 1920s, white Americans forced entire African-American communities off their land and out of their homes through lynchings and intimidation. Marco Williams’ film Banished takes a look at this buried chapter of history through the histories and present-day stories of black families whose lives and land were stolen, in areas such as Forsythe County, Georgia; Pierce City, Missouri; and Harrison, Arkansas—the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan.
Documentary caught up with Williams in New York for a conversation about the documentary, which airs in February as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series.
Documentary: This is a very emotional and provocative story. What kind of response have you received from the towns and people featured in the film?
Marco Williams: The majority of the people featured in the film have seen it. The black families—the Stricklands and the Browns—felt good about the film. The Stricklands expressed gratitude and gratefulness that their story was told. The Browns, particularly Charles, were satisfied that Pierce City was exposed.
Murray Bishoff and Carol Hirsh of Pierce City were less than happy with the film, although publicly they talked glowingly about it and how fair it was. They also expressed frustration that the film did not show the good that they are doing; they were quite defensive. The best way to describe their attitude was one of protectiveness of their town.
The three who viewed the film from Harrison also spoke flatteringly about the film. They too had some reservations—again, principally concerned with their town’s image. But unlike the Pierce City representatives, Harrison’s folks elected to put the film to work. In the past six months, they have had several public screenings for members of the Task Force on Race Relations, members of the clergy, teachers at the high school and community leaders.
D: There’s a scene where members of the Brown family attempt to persuade the Pierce City community to help with the reburial of their great-grandfather. It is quite a dramatic and intense scene. Do you think your camera influenced the outcome at the gravesite?
MW: I am often asked this in all the films that I make: Did the camera influence reality? I always cite the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: In any real-world measurement, there will be additional uncertainties created by the non-ideal and imperfect measurement process. In my opinion, what influenced the outcome at the gravesite was James Brown giving a copy of the St. Louis Post Dispatch––with the headline telling of the expulsion of blacks from Pierce City––to Don Lakin, the coroner. In my view, it is one of the most persuasive moments in the entire film. We see Don move from trying to put off the Browns to changing his position, revealing his core humanity.
D: The whites in this film seemed reticent to acknowledge the past. Do you think you elicited truth from them via the camera, or did they obfuscate the truth because of the camera?
MW: Without sounding egotistical, I like to think that I had something do to with eliciting truth from the whites in the town. I feel that I created a non-confrontational setting for them to share their thoughts and feelings about the subject at hand. Their obfuscation is more of a factor of who they are and their unwillingness to face and accept the truth or facts of their town’s racial legacy. Denial allows one to avoid the challenges that the truth compels.
D: You put yourself in the center of all-white towns with a checkered racial past. Was it difficult for you to remain the impassive observer during emotionally charged scenes, such as the meeting with the KKK leader?
MW: I spent over two hours with Thom Robb, the head of the KKK. I had never sat with a Klan member. My charge in this film was not to put forth my own personal feelings but rather to create a space for everyone that I spoke to or documented to feel comfortable with expressing their viewpoint. Both Robb and Bob Scott are critical to the film. They represent, for the members of the task force, the cause of their town’s negative image. For me, they represent the failure of the town to fully address their racial legacy. But, yes, it was a challenge to remain an impassive observer.
D: This is a documentary that could have easily been a series. Is there anything on the cutting room floor that you wish was in the film? Will it be on the DVD?
MW: I’m not a big fan of DVD extras. However, there was a scene in the Harrison High School that I really wish I could have found a place for in the film. Charles Brown’s letter to the city of Pierce City is unexpectedly eloquent. He shared it with members of an African-American genealogical society. I was not able to include it, but it’s on my website, www.banishedthefilm.com.
There was also a white woman in Forsyth who spoke to the complexity of the situation of whites living on stolen black land. She questioned if she should be penalized for owning land that might have belonged to a black who was banished from Forsyth. She explained that she purchased her land legally and fairly and that if it is land that was stolen, she did not steal it and further she was not aware that it was stolen. She asks, “What should be done?”
Her comments helped me to consider a creative solution to the question of how to redress these atrocities—a creative form of reparation. I propose that a reparation tax be assessed on all Americans for the specific intention of redressing the stolen land of blacks. When a person living on these stolen lands elects to sell, the first people who have a right to purchase are the descendants of the blacks expelled. The buyers must purchase at market rates. If they are unable to afford the market value, they can access the reparation fund.
This would insure that those presently living on this property are not penalized for their prior purchase; it would also begin to reintegrate these communities.
D: Is there anything else that you would like to address to the documentary filmmaking community?
MW: This is what I tell my students: Don’t censor yourself; let others censor you.
Former Documentary editor Kathleen Fairweather has discovered that she’s not in Kansas anymore; she’s in Arkansas. You can reach her at email@example.com.