In 2020, documentarian Dawn Porter explored two very different political figures via her films John Lewis: Good Trouble and The Way I See It. The first followed Congressman and activist John Lewis, who passed away in 2020, while the second followed former Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza. Each film explored its subject through the lens of history and Porter’s latest project, Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer, does the same in examining and illustrating how time not only doesn’t heal all wounds, but can create fissures that do little more than fester unless treated. Here, the documentary is led by journalist DeNeen Brown, formerly of The Washington Post, as she discusses the events in the United States over several years which lead to a period of race riots in various cities across the county in which members of the Black community were massacred without a modicum of protection from the U.S. Government. Using the largest and yet least well-known massacre in U.S. history, the Tulsa massacre, as the focal point, Porter, through Brown, examines several of these events, presenting hard-to-believe facts that can crush the spirit, yet are shared in such a way that hope remains unextinguished.
October 20th, 2019, HBO’s limited series Watchmen kicked off its tale of an alternate global history including many of the cast of characters featured in the award-winning comic from creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons with the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. For a series that contained fetal squids falling from the sky, this opening might seem exploitive, yet it set the stage for an exploration of race relations that, within the fictional world, were still under scrutiny. The truly upsetting thing about this opening sequence? So many, this reviewer included, were shocked to discover the event presented in the opening moments of Watchmen very much happened. That over a two-day period, from May 31st, 1921 – June 1st, 1921, members of the Black community in Tulsa had their homes looted, burned, and then bombed by airplanes. Members of the community had to choose between remaining hidden in their homes and burning alive or taking their chances of fleeing only to possibly be shot by people on the street or by planes flying overhead. Too few in the United States learn about the Tulsa Massacre and, if you pay attention to the discussion of hot-button topic “Critical Race Theory” in the current news, it will not surprise you how events like these would remain hidden from history. But the truth has a way of coming out, with time, extraordinary patience, and relentless effort. As explained in the documentary, a 1999 state commission in Tulsa conducted interviews with living survivors and conduct as much research as possible, and were responsible for discovering the possibility of mass graves in a cemetery. The opening of Rise Again shows that ground is finally broken in 2020 — almost 19 years after the publishing of the report — to see what history can tell us.
Given the subject matter, one might expect Porter’s Rise Again to be dour, methodically slow, or even hopeless. Surprisingly, despite the horrific truths awaiting the audience, Rise Again is filled with optimism. Consider the title “Rise Again” and what these words imply. It can be taken to mean that it’s a story of a people who rose, fell, and have risen or will rise once more. Porter tells us that post-World War I, in Tulsa especially, there was a vibrant and successful Black community of businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, and more. They had achieved the kind of success that the tropes of their people, cultivated and propagated by White Supremacists, implied they could or should never reach. There’s dread in this information as the audience knows the basic idea of the documentary from the title. And yet, there’s something in the editing, the presentation of ideas and history, which doesn’t linger on despair. Much of that positive energy comes from Brown herself who is presented as someone whose passion for the truth radiates from her. We, the audience, end up feeling protected by her light whether she’s walking us through historical details she’s discovered or is serving as our surrogate with professors, historians, or researchers while going to different places to look at primary evidence (photos, landmarks, etc.) of Red Summer. Brown is our guide, but Porter also uses other sources to supplement the talking head interviews she does with Brown or to offer insight that the people Brown speaks with don’t have. It may be Lisa Hicks Gilbert, founder of the group Descendants of the Elaine Massacre of 1919; Reverend Doctor Robert Turner of Tulsa, whose story of accidental activism is quite moving; or snippets from previously recorded interviews with survivors telling their stories. Piece by piece, person by person, Porter weaves a tapestry of trauma that continues to wrap our country. Examining the tapestry — each thread, each knot — in the face of so many who would deny its existence or underplay responsibility for its creation and continued hold brings hope of emotional restitution, or, as the title implies, understanding so that community as a whole can rise again.
There’s only so much that editing or scoring can do to insert an air of positivity within a subject matter that is, at its core, horrifying. Yet, even in the emotional moments, Porter’s subjects are presented as persistence personified. Over 400 years of subjection by oppressors and yet the anger within those featured in the documentary does not consume them. Not once is there discussion of blaming all of one group. Instead, there is acknowledgement of where the fault specifically lies. There is anger that the individuals responsible for mass deaths were never held to task. There is anger that the loss of financial status by way of land or property was never restored. There is anger that, while restitution is deserved, it is more often deemed too much of a burden and not one current generations should have to address. In one scene, current Tulsa Mayor, G.T. Bynum, acknowledges he’d never heard about the Tulsa Massacre until someone asked a question about it during a campaign Q&A he was supporting and, upon learning about it, supported the push the uncover whatever details the town could. In another, Bynum clearly states that the current generation of Tulsa residents did not take part in the event, so they shouldn’t have to bear any financial burden to make it right. Except, as pointed out by a few interviewees, they have. This is a blistering statement, yet Porter treats it matter-of-fact, an aspect which runs consistent throughout the documentary. Porter doesn’t intentionally provoke with her information, her organization, or presentation, she merely presents the it as her interviewees provide it, leaving the audience to take up the questions she leaves hanging so that they might ask them themselves. For instance, as the interviewees explain the evidence of property ownership, offering item after item that show how one can trace property, land, or any development of the Black-owned Tulsa businesses in 1921, Porter allows the audience to arrive at their own conclusion that anyone who wanted to could actually determine who has profited off things unlawfully taken. It certainly prompted this reviewer to immediately wonder how many lawsuits have been filed and won over lost wages due to mistreatment, abuse, or neglect, and contemplate how this is any different. For instance, Rise Again doesn’t press or challenge Bynum in any way; rather, it allows his words to linger, allowing the audience to decide for themselves whether the mayor is an ally or political opportunist.
Perception is, as always, key. This is why Porter spends time exploring the justifications for the race riots of 1921. Black workers were “taking jobs” from White workers. Black families were creating jobs, unionizing, and establishing families in places where they hadn’t before. It was, from one perspective, a threat to the way of life so many had enjoyed. It’s a way of thinking which allows, nay, uplifts the notion that one group of people is better than another, that one group of people is more deserving than another. As presented within Rise Again, even after surviving generations of enslavement, many of the able-bodied members of the Black community joined the military in World War I because they believed so much in the country despite how it abused them at every opportunity. They believed in the possibility of improvement, of rising once more above the station members of the White community literally placed them in chains to hold them in. They, somehow, possessed an optimism that the government, which proclaims in many halls to be “For the People,” might one day consider them among “The People.” Truth and perception are a matter of perspective and positioning to events, but facts with context are inarguable. Where it might be easy to insert your own politics into Rise Again, through Green, Porter’s use of first-hand testimony, bountiful evidence, and the hunt for hidden burial remains, an argument worth hearing is presented.
Porter’s Rise Again is all about that hope, but it’s also realistic in presenting the history in a manner which is truthful without sensationalism. Rise Again is not a battle cry, but is a plea for equity. Considering the current state of our nation, we would all do well to consider what we don’t know and look to the darker corners for answers about who we are. Until we face that, rising again is all but impossible for anyone.
Premieres at 9pm ET/PT on National Geographic June 18th, 2021.
Available to stream on Hulu beginning June 18th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.