History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived.
But if faced with courage, it need not be lived again. Maya Angelou
Two monumentally important documentaries about what it means to be black in America have turned up like proverbial buses. There’ll be a third one along any minute, probably.
Although we don’t need a third new one. We already had 2012’s The House I Live In, a formidable film about ‘the war on drugs’ and America’s prison system. The film documents their cumulative effect on America’s black male population.
So that’s three must-watch documentaries in the space of five years. Enough to be going on with.
Particularly since the latest is nearly eight hours long. O.J.: Made In America is a phenomenal exercise in knitting together footage of O.J.’s career, from college football to movie star to disgraced coke fiend. Weaving through all of this are the parallel black politics – the Civil Rights Movement, Muhammad Ali, the Black Panthers, all the way through to O.J.’s probable release from jail any time now.
In fact, it opens with a parole hearing from 2013, which is brilliantly staged to look like the real thing. Its only problem is that the actor playing O.J. looks nothing like him.
But – deep breath here – it really is the real thing. That guy who looks nothing like O.J. is, in fact, O.J.
Now I know, as a white European, English-speaking male of a certain age, I’m not supposed to have an opinion about all this. Or if I do, I’m supposed to keep it to myself. Well, just so we’re straight – screw that.
Time to be ‘critical friends’
So I’m just going to put my white European male cards on the table and say: the politics of victimhood, so roundly supported by political elites, is preventing black Americans from gaining their rightful place in the world as valued, respected and accepted.
And before you reach for your bile-filled green pens, or denounce me on Twitter, or troll me off social media all together, I challenge you to Google ‘Victimhood and black America’. You will find tens of thousands of videos (let alone written pieces) by black people – mostly male (including some very funny stuff by Chris Rock) – of sometimes magnificent eloquence and persuasiveness.
So you’ll have to forgive me for refuting accusations of racism on my part. Otherwise, you’re gonna have to label thousands of black people racist as well. And don’t give me that ‘well, it’s ok for them to say it, but not you’. If white people are holding black people back, maybe part of the problem is because we show too much empathy with things we can’t possibly understand, whilst avoiding being critical friends.
Not letting facts get in the way
The documentary which ploughs this particular furrow is 13th. Young people of my acquaintance are very excited by this film. It seems to them to be irrefutable proof that the plight of black males in America is the result of a political and economic conspiracy dating back to Richard Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’.
The film certainly has its thesis and marshals its evidence in support of the thesis. And that is where, for me, it comes unstuck. If you want to find the truth of anything, as Bertrand Russell said, ‘look only at the facts’. What he didn’t say was, ‘look only at the facts that support your case’; (you shouldn’t have ‘a case’ to start with). And he certainly didn’t say, ‘look only at information which, though untruthful, you can present as fact in support of your case’.
My problem with 13th is that its story is shocking, whichever way it is told. And it is a story which needs to be told – like the story of the Holocaust – again and again so we never forget.
But if you have a shocking story, why embellish with spin and dubious ‘proof’?
O.J. Simpson: Made In America, by contrast, is exemplary in laying out a narrative from which we can all draw our own conclusions.
After the parole-hearing opening, we see film of O.J. playing college football, and talking as a young student. We see Muhammad Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam. “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger”. We see talking heads, then and now, commenting on events. We see Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics, and being sent home for the outrage.
OJ’s dream is white
And gradually, through all these different narratives, the story is allowed to emerge. And the story is complex. O.J. refuses to see himself as black. He is O.J. He lives the dream, and the dream is white.
Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown are putting their careers and their earning potential on the line, supported by Martin Luther King and other black leaders.
It’s a stunning juxtaposition, and as the story moves forward you begin to see the complexities emerge. The contrast between events 60 years ago, encompassing dignified men and women, demanding their rights as ‘equal under the law’ and now (as portrayed in 13th) is stark.
A victim mentality, overlaid with the worst excesses of the hip-hop culture, has erected a barrier to real progress. I think we can be sure that where we are today is not what Martin Luther King had in mind.
So when 13th portrays Richard Nixon’s war on drugs as a war on the black community, it is not just making stuff up; it is promoting the very victim mentality that has brought almost to a halt all the progress that great Americans like James Baldwin, King himself and Ali fought for, alongside Toni Morrison, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, Andrew Young and Langston Hughes.
Nixon allocated a half billion dollars, mostly to be spent on treatment. He considered drug addiction a rising epidemic, and that the addicts themselves needed treatment. Police and the FBI were already in place to deal with law-breakers.
Depending on a liar
But 13th tells none of this. Instead it relies on John Erlichmann – apparently without checking – in a now-discredited CNN interview. For anyone sentient during the 60s, he is plainly lying when he suggests that the Nixon White House waged war against ‘hippies and blacks’ through ‘criminalising marijuana’ (get the hippies) ‘and heroin’ (get the blacks).
John Erlichmann was a liar. John Erlichmann was a crook. John Erlichmann went to jail for 18 months for his part in the Watergate affair. He always felt Richard Nixon had thrown him under the bus, and Nixon’s failure to grant him a Presidential Pardon was a blade to the jugular. Why would any documentary maker use such an unreliable witness to shore up their case?
But the lies of this unreliable witness, and the corruption of Nixon’s intent with his ‘war on drugs’ supplies the backbone of a film and allows it to carry the victim mentality along on a wave of ‘evidence’.
The truth is a lot less simple. I urge you to go to YouTube and see what articulate (ordinary) black people have to say about all of this.
And while you’re doing that – oh, look, here’s that third documentary, just pulling in now! Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (BBC iPlayer: Imagine). Here’s a woman who suffered the outrages of southern American racism, and a lifelong exposure to the subtle and not-so subtle abuses meted out to black people.
And yet she rose, dignified to an exceptional degree, articulate and talented, to the status of beloved, muse of two Presidents – Clinton and Obama.
She has left behind a legacy that shouts from the rooftops, “We can be better than this!” It’s the Maya Angelous and Toni Morrisons and James Baldwins of this world we should be celebrating, not the thug culture and bling of YouTube videos.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (available for 20 more days)
O.J.: Made In America (available for 12 more days)
13th is on NetFlix