‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ doesn’t tell the whole story of HBCUs, but it’s a start Documentary on PBS is the equivalent of an introductory survey course

A new PBS documentary about the nation’s historically black colleges and universities might just provide the best argument for a multihour, Ken Burns-type epic exploration of the subject.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities will air as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series on Feb. 19. Directed by Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution), Tell Them We Are Rising goes broad but not particularly deep as it attempts to recount the history of black higher education from slavery to the present day in an hour and 25 minutes.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics. The documentary arrives at a time when the future of many HBCUs is uncertain as schools face the compounding weight of decades of financial strain, growing competition for students and pressure to keep tuition costs down.

Tell Them is at its best when delving into the birth of the institutions, many of which were established with the help of government land grants after the Civil War. Nelson outlines the philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and briefly touches on the fact that in their infancies, many HBCUs were run by white presidents. While Nelson outlines the story of Fayette McKenzie, the Fisk University president who tried to ban any sort of social interaction between the sexes in 1924, he neglects to follow the legacy of McKenzie’s thinking, which shows up in the visitation policies on many a modern HBCU campus.

There are so many valuable, urgent story lines worth mining, and Tell Them simply doesn’t have the time to do them justice. The tradition of activism on HBCU campuses, which resulted in the creation of African-American studies programs and the de-Anglicization of many HCBU liberal arts programs also resulted in a deadly crackdown at Southern University. There’s the role fraternities and sororities such as Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Omega Psi Phi played in creating influential networks of black professionals. The legacy of protest hasn’t evaporated from modern HBCU campuses, but Tell Them falters in connecting past narratives to the present, whether it’s Howard University students protesting the George W. Bush administration or students nationwide criticizing their administrators for meeting with President Donald Trump. So much is curiously absent from the film, such as an exploration of the role Morehouse College played in shaping Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries in the civil rights movement. Mary McCleod Bethune, the founder of what’s now Bethune-Cookman University and one of the chief architects of black higher education, is an afterthought.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with HBCUs or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics.

Tell Them functions as an outline for what ought to be a deep-dive serialized documentary. Such a format would offer more opportunity to address questions such as what to make of the controversial legacy of the nation’s first black president when it comes to federal treatment of HBCUs. What challenges do they face from a current presidential administration that so far only seemed interested in convening the presidents of those institutions at the White House to use them as props? What are the modern issues students are facing at HBCUs, whether it’s the fight for queer visibility or addressing a national dilemma of campus sexual assault that presents unique challenges for HBCUs and their students?

Still, it’s understandable why we haven’t seen a splurge on such a subject. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and there are only a couple of networks (TV One and BET come to mind) that might be interested in the sort of exhaustive research I’m suggesting, and even then it’s a stretch. Maybe Netflix, with its seemingly endless pool of programming funds, would be willing. Maaaaaaybe.

Tell Them We Are Rising introduces the idea that HBCUs are under threat, and it certainly seems to support the idea of their continued existence. But aside from a broad history lesson, it stops short of offering much else.

What does it mean to be black and play sports? It’s a question that demands you consider athletes in full, starting with their intellect

Two years ago, I interviewed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the main stage at the National Book Festival before an appreciative crowd in the nation’s capital. We were backstage waiting to go on, and Kareem, an introspective man not known for small talk, -surprised me by asking where I was from.

Reflexively, thinking he meant my professional home, I began to tell him what I did at The Undefeated and before that at The Washington Post. He cut me off.

“No, where are you from? Where are your people from?”

I explained my Wichita, Kansas, roots and my dad’s decision to move the family to Washington, D.C., during the early 1960s to pursue a career in geology. This piqued Kareem’s curiosity, as he understood the barriers countless African-Americans have faced in so many professions and how often sports and entertainment have defined our achievement.

Kareem is well-read, the author of 14 books and numerous insightful columns, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient whose interests range from World War II to the Harlem Renaissance. He is an exemplar of the most unexplored and underreported dimension of black athletes: their intellect.

Interviewing Kareem on The Daily Show recently, Trevor Noah remarked: “It’s almost like NBA all-time leading scorer is No. 6 on your résumé. You have lived quite an accomplished life.”

We are proud at The Undefeated to collaborate with ESPN The Magazine on this special issue, State of the Black Athlete, a glimpse into the creativity, struggles and brilliance of African-Americans in sports. We understand these athletes’ quest to be seen and comprehended beyond high-flying dunks and celebratory end zone dances, to have their minds considered fully.

Consider John Urschel, with expertise in spectral graph theory and high dimensional data compression, deciding to retire from the Baltimore Ravens at age 26 to complete his doctorate in math at MIT. Or Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics, who taught himself to play piano, learned the Arabic alphabet and quotes parables from David Foster Wallace to reference Martin Luther King Jr., as he recently did in an interview with Donald McRae of The Guardian. Look at Venus Williams, who hasn’t just won 49 singles titles but fought for pay equity in her sport, including lobbying the British Parliament for equal prize money for male and female players at Wimbledon.

We are witnessing an extraordinary period of activism in sports, one driven by black athletes, but we also are watching some of the greatest sports stars on the planet show off their most undervalued asset: their minds. They’re tackling public policy issues, trekking to Capitol Hill, producing documentaries and books, and otherwise engaging in thoughtful contemplation about how best to use their influence.

Sometimes size or height, athleticism, poverty or just the limitations of your dreams propel you into a life of sports. The thrill of competition enlivens you, the cred you generate in your community empowers you. Athletic success opens doors that never seem to close—and you become defined by your physical skills. The world engages you through highlights and sound bites, and your Twitter feed. The rest of your genius—your tastes, passions, eclectic interests—the world sometimes misses. Or, sadly, just ignores.

I love the photos that French-born basketball veteran Boris Diaw posted on Instagram from the Grand Canyon, with his personal espresso machine resting on rock, the sun rising across the darkened sky. The lives of today’s black athletes are filled with experiences hard to imagine when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was coming of age, or when Paul Robeson was excelling as an actor/singer/scholar/athlete/20th-century Renaissance man while being hounded by racism.

One of the most unheralded tales of black athletic triumph is the story of the 18 black Americans who made the U.S. Olympic team in 1936, captured in Deborah Riley Draper’s brilliant documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. Everyone has heard about Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in Berlin during the height of Nazism. But there were 17 others on that team, including Ralph Metcalfe, who later was elected to Congress, and two women, sprinters Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes.

Both black women also had made the 1932 U.S. Olympic team but were treated harshly by American teammates and never competed in the Los Angeles Games. They were replaced by whites on a relay team that won the gold—a rebuke that devastated them. Pickett went on to become an elementary school principal, and Stokes founded the Colored Women’s Bowling League—both saddened but unbeaten by the prejudice they encountered.

But what more could they have become?

I couldn’t help but think, as I was interviewing Kareem, that black athletes are having a great moment—on the rise in power, influence and confidence.

Had he been a foot shorter, Kareem says, he might have been a history teacher trying to figure out life after retirement. Instead, he has spent the three decades since he stopped dropping skyhooks on centers who couldn’t guard him crafting a vital second career: as an intellectual, an activist and an inspiring role model to black athletes interested in exploiting their brilliance. We’re all better off that Kareem grew that extra foot.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

New documentary shows us that Lorraine Hansberry of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ was one tough-minded woman ‘Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart’ portrays a ‘left-wing radical’ who spoke truth to power

Here’s a phrase I bet you thought you’d never read: Be prepared to fangirl over Lorraine Hansberry.

Told ya.

Friday at 9 p.m., PBS is airing Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, a documentary on Hansberry, whose life story has been collapsed into a criminally incomplete Black History Month tidbit. She wrote A Raisin in the Sun, and then Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee starred in the movie adaptation. At some point you watched it in middle school one February and didn’t pay much attention because it was in black and white. Or someone in your class cracked a joke about Poitier always being ashy.

But Hansberry was so much more. As Dee says in an interview in Sighted Eyes, “She seemed to know something about everything. She was a profound thinker.”

Thank goodness for director Tracy Heather Strain, who committed years to research and gathering the funds and archival footage necessary to make Sighted Eyes. The film transforms the memory of Hansberry from that polite woman who wrote one really important play to, as Hansberry’s friend Douglas Turner Ward deemed her, a “left-wing radical.”

I first saw Sighted Eyes at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and about 20 minutes into it I scribbled in my notebook, “I think I love this woman.”

Hansberry had a wit that would have fit perfectly in today’s times, examining the traps of respectability politics and sending them up. Toward the end of her life, she bought a bucolic compound in a predominantly white area of upstate New York and winkingly named it Chitterling Heights. It was a nod, I think, to the efforts of her father to integrate Chicago’s then-white neighborhood of Woodlawn when she was 7. One of the formative experiences in Hansberry’s life was when a crowd gathered outside the Hansberry house in Woodlawn and someone threw a piece of mortar through their front window that just missed her head. What better way to throw a middle finger to white supremacy than to move into a neighborhood and give your house the blackest name you could think of?

Lorraine Hansberry surrounded by clapping African-American teens at Camp Minisink in upstate New York.

Courtesy of Gin Briggs/Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust

Let’s not disregard the significance of A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry crafted a play in 1959 about a family living on the South Side of Chicago that dared to show black people as, well, people and not buffoons, and she wrote it by drawing from her own experiences. But Hansberry was also a fearless agitator for civil rights, a feminist inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which she said “might very well be the most important work of this century,” a nervy woman who had mapped out a plan for her life by the age of 23 and miraculously stuck to it. She was privately queer and unapologetically black, and undoubtedly someone who would have transformed American culture even more had she lived past the age of 34 (she died of pancreatic cancer). Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a producer and champion of her work, in 1953. He left his white wife to be with her, and he was so devoted to her and in awe of her that even though they divorced in 1962, Nemiroff publicly served as Hansberry’s beard for many years.

Hansberry began her writing career as a journalist for the black newspaper Freedom, which was founded by Paul Robeson. She began writing about racism, sexism, poverty and imperialism, which caught the negative attention of one J. Edgar Hoover. Even as civil rights agitators were being identified and surveilled by the FBI, they persisted in their work, and Hansberry was one of them.

She bought a bucolic compound in a predominantly white area of upstate New York and winkingly named it Chitterling Heights.

Lorraine Hansberry holds hands and sings with singer Nina Simone and other activists at a pre-benefit gathering for the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in June 1963 in the home of activist/singer/actor Theodore Bikel.

Courtesy of Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust

A group of black activists and artists assembled by James Baldwin to meet with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy included Hansberry, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. The May 1963 meeting was meant to pressure the Kennedy administration on civil rights or, at the very least, gain its sympathy.

Baldwin wrote about how frustrating the meeting was because rather than listen to what black Americans were enduring, particularly in the South, Kennedy became defensive, insisting that the Justice Department supported the civil rights movement. There was an undercurrent to his words intimating that those gathered who did not agree with him were ungrateful for the administration’s (frankly, rather meager) efforts.

Jerome Smith, a CORE activist who had been attacked and thrown in jail for protesting in Mississippi, bitterly recounted his experiences and refused to dress them up for the attorney general. He decried the Justice Department’s lack of action as activists were being beaten, arrested or worse.

“Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you and your brother,” Smith said. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.”

Hansberry also refused to cower before the face of the American government. She didn’t worry about alienating what the group hoped could be its most powerful ally. Instead, Sighted Eyes recounts, she, too, gave Kennedy a piece of her mind.

“You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General,” Hansberry told Kennedy. “But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” she said, referring to Smith.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.”

Sighted Eyes is part of a trifecta of recent documentaries that have given us colorful new insights into the lives of those we often see in black and white. With What Happened, Miss Simone? and I Am Not Your Negro, about Baldwin, directors Raoul Peck and Liz Garbus produced chapters of an anthology about black intellectuals and artists who were contemporaries and friends. These directors give us insight into how the lives of Hansberry, Baldwin and Simone bled into each other, how their friendships provided solace and comfort to each other, how they lived as members of a community and not just as singular figures. They come alive.

Hansberry’s experiences, often told in her own words, come to life in Sighted Eyes thanks to voiceover from actress Anika Noni Rose reading from Hansberry’s journals and other archival material.

Strain, an experienced documentary filmmaker (I’ll Make Me a World, Race: The Power of an Illusion) and professor at Northeastern University became interested in Hansberry after seeing a community theater production of Hansberry’s play To Be Young, Gifted and Black in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The play, assembled from Hansberry’s own words after her death, shares its name with the Nina Simone song, which Hansberry inspired Simone to write.

With Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, Strain has created a portrait of Hansberry that’s as complete and well-rounded as the portrait of black family life that Hansberry captured in A Raisin in the Sun. In doing so, she’s transformed Hansberry from more than just a pretty young playwright who died tragically young. She’s rightfully preserved her place in American history.

Recy Taylor, subject of new documentary about the rape of black women during Jim Crow, has died 97-year-old was at a nursing home in the same Alabama town where she had been attacked

Recy Taylor, the subject of the new documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor, died Thursday morning at a nursing home in Abbeville, Alabama. She was 97.

Her brother Robert Lee Corbitt, 81, confirmed her death.

‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ explores the little-known terror campaign against black women

Taylor was one of countless black women who were raped by white men during Jim Crow. In 1944, when she was walking home from church one evening, she was kidnapped, blindfolded and assaulted by six white men. Rosa Parks, working as a local NAACP official, came to Abbeville to agitate for the prosecution of Taylor’s attackers. None of them was ever indicted.

In addition to being the subject of the Nancy Buirski documentary, which debuted this year at the New York Film Festival, Taylor was a central figure in a book by historian Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. McGuire’s book traces how anti-rape activism in the South helped fuel the civil rights movement.

After the attack, Taylor spent most of her adult years in Winter Haven, Florida. Her family moved her back to Abbeville when she was 93 because she began to suffer from dementia.

“She was a Christian all of her life,” Corbitt said by phone Thursday afternoon. “She kept us in church all that time. I live about 500 feet from the church where she was going that night, and I’m also a deacon of that church.”

The church, which in 1944 was called Abbeville Holiness Church, is now called Abbeville Memorial Church of God in Christ.

Taylor raised Corbitt and five other brothers and sisters after their mother died when Corbitt was an infant. She is survived by Corbitt and her two remaining sisters, Mary Murry, 90, and Lillie Kinsey, 94, one granddaughter and several great-grandchildren. Her only daughter, Joyce Lee Taylor, died in a car crash in 1967.

Taylor, Corbitt said, “had a very good life,” but she never recovered emotionally from the attack that took place when she was just 24 years old.

After he retired from working as a building maintenance official in New York, Corbitt said he moved back to Alabama to research what happened to his sister and attempt to obtain some measure of justice for her. Corbitt is one of the primary sources for Buirski’s film. Though she was alive during its filming, Taylor only appears near the end, when Corbitt, whom she called “Baby,” went to visit her in her nursing home.

“She would only talk to me,” Corbitt said. “That’s why I dug at it so hard. After I retired, I devoted myself to getting something done about it. We did get an apology from the state of Alabama.”

‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ explores the little-known terror campaign against black women Just as black men were lynched, black women faced systemic sexual violence under Jim Crow

For Southern black women, the era of separate but equal was also a decades-long reign of white sexual terror. If Southern trees bore strange fruit, the homes and streets they shaded contained secrets that until recently have largely been swept over and ignored.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, a documentary that opens in New York theaters Friday, concentrates some much-needed sunlight on this period of American history and the women who lived through it. Directed by Nancy Buirski, the woman behind both the narrative film Loving and the documentary The Loving Story, The Rape of Recy Taylor brings attention to a little-discussed but common reality for black women in the Jim Crow South: racially motivated rape by white men.

Taylor lived in the small town of Abbeville, Alabama. In 1944, when she was 24, Taylor was walking home from church when she was kidnapped, blindfolded and raped at gunpoint by six white men. Forced to beg for her life, Taylor promised to stay silent so she could go home to her husband and 9-month-old daughter.

But Taylor wasn’t silent. Left on the side of a dark country road, Taylor walked home and told her family about what happened. Rosa Parks, who began her career in civil rights as an anti-rape activist, came to Abbeville to agitate for the prosecution of Taylor’s attackers. For their troubles, Taylor’s home was firebombed, forcing her and her family to move in with relatives. When the family turned to the police, they found no refuge. Rather than pursuing justice, Abbeville’s sheriff circled the home of Taylor’s relatives, eventually stopping to drag Parks out and threaten her with jail if she did not leave town.

It’s a horrifying account, made worse by two startling facts:

1) Taylor’s rape was not an exceptional occurrence. It was part of a continuous campaign of terror that was just as much a threat to women as lynching was to black men.

2) The history of black women as victims of white terror has largely been ignored, silenced and minimized, even as their quest for safety fueled their pursuit of civil rights as far back as the 1890s.

What happened to Taylor and countless other black women and the obscurity of their story within the broader narrative of American history is emblematic of the way black women’s trauma is repeatedly given short shrift even today. The absence of black women from the spotlight of #MeToo has historical roots that predate Taylor’s rape. Taylor’s story isn’t just about her. It’s about thousands of women just like her whose stories we may never know, who were victimized and brutalized without recognition or recompense for their injuries.

A campaign of terror

Buirski’s documentary focuses on Taylor’s life and the devastation that followed her attack: Her marriage fell apart, she was unable to have more children and her only child died in her early 20s in a car crash. The book that inspired the film is far more expansive and devastating. Historian Danielle McGuire spent a decade researching At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. She writes of more than 40 separate cases but insists there are far more stories that went untold, calling her work “the tiniest tip of the iceberg.”

“Between 1940 and 1965,” McGuire wrote, “only 10 white men were convicted of raping black women or girls in Mississippi despite the fact that it happened regularly.” It was rare for white men to be arrested for attacking black women, and even less likely for all-white grand juries to indict them. Convictions were even rarer.

“These are not just bad apples,” McGuire told me during a recent interview. “This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In one chapter, McGuire detailed an attack against Melba Pattillo, a 12-year-old Arkansas girl. A white man chased her into the woods, tried to pull off her underwear and rape her, and yelled, “I’ll show you n—-s the Supreme Court can’t run my life.” The attack happened on May 17, 1954, the afternoon the Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

In the same chapter, McGuire recounted the story of Annette Butler. On Mother’s Day 1956, four men in Tylertown, Mississippi — Ernest Dillon, Ollie Dillon (his brother) and their friends Olen Duncan and Durora Duncan (who were cousins) — went searching for a black woman to rape. Armed with a shotgun, they entered the house of Stennis Butler, a black sharecropper, and took his 16-year-old daughter, Annette, holding off her mother at gunpoint. The men drove her away deep into a swamp, raped her, then left her to find her own way home. They were charged with “forcible ravishment and kidnap.” Ernest Dillon pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other three men served no jail time for rape. One pleaded guilty to kidnapping, another was acquitted despite a confession and the third had his charges dismissed after his trial produced a hung jury.

At best, white law enforcement officials were lackadaisical about investigating sexual assaults on black women. At worst, they were perpetrating such assaults, not only on public streets but also in jails.

“These are not just bad apples. This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In March 1949, Gertrude Perkins, 25, was assaulted by two Montgomery, Alabama, police officers. She was walking home in the dark when they stopped her, accused her of public drunkenness and forced her into their car. They drove, McGuire wrote, to the edge of a railroad embankment and raped her at gunpoint.

Even if men were convicted of rape, the political system found ways to excuse them. According to Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Cole Blease, the governor of South Carolina from 1910-14, made prolific use of his pardoning powers, issuing 1,700 during his tenure. Blease pardoned both black and white men who had been convicted of attacking black women and girls. In an official pardoning statement, Blease stated, “I am of the opinion, as I have always been, and have very serious doubt as to whether the crime of rape can be committed upon a negro.”

McGuire details how rape was used with lynching to terrorize and subjugate black people in the years leading up to and during the civil rights movement. Other historians, such as Darlene Clark Hine, have stated that the onslaught of interracial sexual violence visited upon Southern black women during Jim Crow was just as much a motivator for the Great Migration as lynching was.

“If you have a slave culture for hundreds of years, what happens when slavery ends?” McGuire said. “Does the culture change? That was part of my question doing this research, and the answer was of course it didn’t. White men were raised to believe that they could do whatever they wanted to do to black women and there would be no punishment, and when they did whatever they wanted to do, there usually wasn’t a punishment. These are lessons handed down from grandparents and fathers, uncles. They were encouraged to get a black woman for their first sex act so that they could practice … in the ’40s, they just picked them up on the side of the road just like Recy Taylor.

“It happened all the time.”

Disappearing history

If the violation of black women was so widespread that it contributed to one of the most monumental migration patterns in American history, why don’t more people know about it? How did our understanding of black women and interracial rape begin with slavery and end largely with the conclusion of the Civil War?

There are multiple reasons for this absence: Race men like Booker T. Washington didn’t think civil rights organizations had a role to play in protecting black women from rape. White women’s organizations were equally reluctant to acknowledge that their husbands and sons were attacking black women. White women like Rebecca Latimer Felton, America’s first female senator, not only ginned up fear that black men were raping white women en masse, they sucked away attention from the real epidemic of rape that was actually occurring.

Furthermore, the documentation of abuse was limited. Often, stories of abuse were passed down orally by grandmothers and mothers. Even now, it’s difficult for historians to find detailed, written accounts of these attacks. McGuire referred to it as “detective work.”

And these threats weren’t memorialized in song, as was lynching in Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit.” If there were references, they were so oblique as to require their own decoder ring.

Even in places dedicated to telling the story of black American history such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., or the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, there is limited acknowledgment of interracial rape during Jim Crow, and certainly not as a reality endemic to black Southern life.

The Blacks in Wax Museum has an entire room dedicated to the horrors of lynching, which includes a re-creation of the murder of Mary Turner and her 8-month-old fetus in Brooks County, Georgia, but nothing specifically about the rape of black women during Jim Crow. The Blacksonian does include displays of news clippings about the assaults on Taylor in 1944 and Perkins in 1949. And it also produced videos that include quotes from Ida B. Wells and Dorothy Height about the threat black women faced.

While black women such as Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Anna Julia Cooper were all devoted to mobilizing to secure black women’s safety from sexual violence in the 1890s, they’re remembered chiefly as anti-lynching activists or as buttoned-up practitioners of respectability politics. The same goes for their ideological sisters who came later, like Parks and Height.

In her speech as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrell addressed their estrangement from the rest of society.

“We wish to set in motion influences that shall stop the ravages made by practices that sap our strength, and preclude the possibility of advancement,” she said, referring to rape by white men.

Cooper bitterly implicated black men in black women’s victimization. “It is absurd,” she said in 1892 in A Voice From the South, “to quote statistics showing the Negro’s bank account and rent rolls, to point to the hundreds of newspapers edited by colored men, and lists of lawyers, doctors, professors, D.D.’s L.L.D.’s etc. etc. etc while the source from which the life-blood of the race is to flow is subject to the taint and corruption of the enemy’s camp.”

While the national office of the NAACP was working to dismantle separate-but-equal, the organization determined that any mention of interracial marriage or sex would derail its efforts. “Everything had to be as asexual as possible,” McGuire said. “Working on rape cases of black women who had been assaulted by white men would screw that up.”

There is so much photographic evidence of lynching, in part because it was a public spectacle, complete with photographers who profited from the murder of black people the way modern artists might sell concert posters. Genitals and other body parts of black men were preserved in jars and kept as mementos. Their charred bodies, hanging from trees, served as ominous warnings to other black people that they best remember their place.

But there is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children. In The Rape of Recy Taylor, Buirski offers these images as a small record of an enormous epidemic.

We use art to document and memorialize the human condition. But the art that preserves the experience of black women during Jim Crow is limited and often deliberately opaque. The race films of the early 20th century are among the few remaining cultural artifacts that re-created black women’s experiences under threat from white men. Buirski employs their footage in her documentary.

But, by and large, the work of tracking and quantifying interracial sexual assault is difficult for historians. The language referring to such attacks in first-person accounts is often not explicit, although news clippings from the black press were clearer. Furthermore, there was a concerted effort to silence and discredit black female victims. That silencing was often twofold: first in the primary documents, such as white newspapers and police reports, and then again by white historians and archivists who may have deemed such accounts unworthy of preservation. In Taylor’s case, her attackers slandered and dismissed her as a prostitute whom they paid.

There is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children.

“There wasn’t a good uniform record keeping of these kinds of assaults, largely because of racist police forces that didn’t take black women’s stories seriously, and also because a lot of these assailants were police officers,” McGuire said. “Sometimes within their own community there would be perhaps shame and silence in coming forward for a crime like this just because of the gender politics of the time, which were not limited to racial groups.”

When sexual violation was recorded, survivors often recounted their experiences through allusion. A woman might not say she was raped, but that a man “talked under my dress” or “played with my body.”

While “Strange Fruit,” the dirge made famous by Holiday, is the most recognizable protest song of the lynching era, there is no such work from the era that deals so explicitly with the threat of rape. Instead, in the same way historians must read between the lines of slave narratives, oral histories and other accounts of rape, so too must those examining art of the era. And so songs such as Nina Simone’s chilling rendition of “Pirate Jenny” and Aretha Franklin’s “At the Dark End of the Street” take on more sinister undertones when interpreted through this lens. They’re both songs appropriated by black women to tell different stories from the ones they were originally telling. The difference in tone, phrasing and the style in which these songs are sung is designed to evoke a dark, unsettling horror.

That sort of opaque doublespeak was another form of self-preservation. Anything other than silence could be punished with death. Remember, Taylor’s attackers firebombed her home because she told her husband what happened to her. Just as it was de rigueur to ignore that slaveholders owned fair-skinned children who bore their features and mannerisms, it became standard to look at black women during Jim Crow and ignore the obvious source of their lighter-skinned children.

Modern implications

There are through lines from the epidemic of sexual assault during Jim Crow to our modern era. The most obvious may be the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma police officer who sexually preyed on poor women of color with criminal records. His predation was directly connected to the way law enforcement made black women’s lives worse. If black women weren’t directly victimized by police, their assaults weren’t taken seriously, which is why white men were so rarely prosecuted for them.

Even the current #MeToo moment is different for white and black women.

“I think the floodgates have opened for white women,” actress Gabrielle Union recently told The New York Times about #MeToo. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.”

The Equal Justice Initiative is behind the national lynching memorial that will open in 2018 in Montgomery. An official from EJI told me the organization has plans for “an entire section dedicated to the sexual exploitation of black women, including Ms. Recy Taylor” in its Legacy Museum, which will open on April 26. But it doesn’t appear that there are plans to include sexual violence against black women in the lynching memorial, which will exist alongside the museum.

“I don’t think they need to be separate because, again, it’s part of the same terror structure, systematic terror against black people,” McGuire said. “Part of the issue that I’ve always had with cold case civil rights investigations and even in some ways the Equal Justice Initiative’s focus on lynching is that it becomes heavily gendered and is another way of kind of disappearing black women’s experiences under a regime of white supremacy and American apartheid. By focusing on those kinds of cases only, we’re not getting a full picture of the reign of terror that existed and that was inflicted upon black communities and black bodies. It ends up focusing on what happened to black men.”

Even as she was decrying lynching, Wells made a similar point in 1900 to a crowd gathered in Chicago.

“The negro has been too long associated with the white man not to have copied his vices as well as his virtues,” Wells said. “But the negro resents and utterly repudiates the efforts to blacken his good name by asserting that assaults upon women are peculiar to his race. The negro has suffered far more from the commission of this crime against the women of his race by white men than the white race has ever suffered through his crimes. Very scant notice is taken of the matter when this is the condition of affairs. What becomes a crime deserving capital punishment when the tables are turned is a matter of small moment when the negro woman is the accusing party.”

The way these stories were silenced reinforces a social hierarchy that contends black women should be grateful for attention from white men, even if it’s unsolicited or unwanted. Worse, it tells the world that black women and the assaults on us simply don’t matter. Ignoring this area of history has enormously harmful consequences, feeding into how we process accusations of sexual assault from black women today.

The rape of Recy Taylor and so many other unnamed, unrecognized and unheard black women reminds me of Cooper’s words from 1892: “Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole … race enters with me.’ ”

Oscar winner John Ridley wants us to keep asking questions about the L.A. riots The writer-director — ’12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Red Tails,’ ‘American Crime’ — tells truths via fiction and nonfiction

If you’ve been paying attention these past few years, you see exactly what John Ridley is trying to do. The Oscar-winning filmmaker — he earned Hollywood’s biggest prize for writing the adapted screenplay of 2013’s 12 Years a Slave — has been working on projects that entertain and educate. When you experience a John Ridley project, you end up ordering a book or going down a Google rabbit hole. You figure out a way to learn more. He challenges his audience to think more deeply.

His latest project is documentary Let It Fall, which was released in New York and Los Angeles theaters earlier this year (a shorter version ran on ABC). The film documents the mood and events that led to the Los Angeles riots, which happened 25 years ago in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. Like most of what he does, the work is rich. And now his name, once again, is being whispered in Academy Award circles.

Why do you gravitate toward the kind of work — statement art — that you do?

I started in a space where much of the work that I did was self-expression. I started as a novelist, and the first novel I wrote was made into an Oliver Stone film, U Turn (1997). And with Three Kings (1993) and Undercover Brother (2002), [they] were about me trying to speak to people. That was good, and I think I was successful to a degree. But it was a time in my career where things shifted, and I was very fortunate to be involved in stories that were less about me and more about who we are. And where we came from, and representatives of, I’ll say, our community — certainly in our country, and in general. People of color who, against all odds, and without a desire for much recognition of self, just work to achieve, and to be, and to excel.

So you do things like Red Tails and get involved with the Tuskegee Airmen, and you do things like 12 Years a Slave, or American Crime, which were fictionalized stories but real human accounts. We spent so much time with people, listening to them. Their stories and their struggles. Their hopes, their dreams and their desires. People compliment me on my work, and I go, ‘Look, I don’t know that I’ve gotten better over the years as a storyteller. But I think the stories that I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in, they are more potent and they are more emotional. And they touch people in a greater way.’ I’m absolutely attracted to those kinds of stories.

“These individuals, who on the surface have no connectivity, will forever be connected by a very particular tragedy.”

Let It Fall certainly falls into that. Why did you want to document this horrific moment in American history?

There were so many very personal stories, very personal narratives, that were beyond the narrative. People called it a ‘riot.’ ‘The Rodney King Riots.’ Rodney King didn’t start it; the riots didn’t start right after the arrest. There were so many incidents … that led to these tragic events. They affected many different communities and many different kinds of people. One of the reasons I wanted to tell the story was I thought it deserved to be told from multiple perspectives, and over time. These different points of views, and these different neighborhoods, and these different individuals were given equal weight and equal measure … a tapestry was being woven. One can do that and not obscure a central point that we’re all sharing these spaces. If we don’t see the commonality that we have, on an everyday basis, we will end up seeing it in a shared way, and usually with a shared tragedy. It shouldn’t come to that before we see ourselves in other people.

So much rich material is coming out of the documentary space right now, and black directors and creatives are telling these stories — look at the Oscars documentary category last year.

There are moments in Let It Fall, … [where] I don’t think I could create characters or moments or emotions that are as strong as they are in reality. I also think now is a very good time for telling documentaries because there are so many platforms that are very supportive of the documentary space, and audiences no longer have to go to an art house or see them in a movie theater. You have these great stories, you have audiences that are now being cultivated — and you have artists, whether it’s Ezra Edelman, whether it’s Ava DuVernay — who want to tell stories.

The L.A. riots happened 25 years ago, but so much of what was happening then feels very contemporary. What surprised you most when putting this together?

How raw some of the subjects’ emotions remained, even 25 years later. The stories they’re telling, it’s like they happened yesterday. The sharpness of their pain, or their loss, or their regret, things they wished they could do differently. Things that they wish they could do again. These individuals, who on the surface have no connectivity, will forever be connected by a very particular tragedy. That was my strongest takeaway … just the rawness of the emotions.

What would you hope audiences take away from this doc?

It’s wrong to put something in front of people as though I have the answers and I have the solution. I think people need to be continuing to ask questions. Questions about their environment, questions about how they interact. What would be my decision? What would be my choice? What would I do in a similar circumstance? Or more importantly, what can I do now so that I can avoid ever having to make a choice like that? There’s far too much of that going on right now, people being told what to think. But not enough of us being inspired to ask more questions, dig more deeply and upend expectations.

Let it Fall is available on ABC.com and Netflix.

HBO’s ‘Baltimore Rising’ shows a city stuck after Freddie Gray’s death An instant-message conversation about the documentary’s portrayal of a community and police department struggling to find solutions

A better name for Baltimore Rising, the new HBO documentary on black life in the city after the death of Freddie Gray, might be Baltimore Stuck. To characterize the city as rising, as director Sonja Sohn does, might be a reach, given the deeply entrenched problems of its poorest residents.

Baltimore Rising attempts to highlight ways community leaders and the Baltimore Police Department are addressing the divide between police and the citizens they’re supposed to protect. It’s a refrain that’s all too familiar: A young black man dies at the hands of police and his community reacts with anger, frustration and contempt for a criminal justice system that appears heavily tilted against them. By the end of the film, which airs Monday night on HBO, there’s not much of a resolution. The city’s problems of joblessness, drugs, violence, racism, structural inequality and intergenerational poverty seem far too complex for one documentary.

One of us (Fletcher) has lived in Baltimore for 36 years and once worked for The Baltimore Sun. When Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police, he wrote an essay about the many circumstances that converged to lead to Gray’s death. He’s also written about Sandtown, the neighborhood where Gray was from, and the parallels in the lives of Gray and William Porter, one of six officers charged after Gray’s death.

We shared our observations of Baltimore Rising in an instant message conversation that has since been edited for length.

Soraya: What did you think of the documentary overall? I felt it wasn’t able to get a granular focus on the historical causes behind eruptions like the ones after Gray’s death.

Michael: I really like how it started. I like how the focus immediately went to the roots of the uprising. It raised urgent questions. Why did this happen? Why do we tolerate entrenched poverty? But, in the end, I’m not sure it answered those questions.

Soraya: It says this tension between the community and the police started when cops began driving their beats instead of walking them. I was a little skeptical of that. Does that ring true to you?

Michael: It is one of those convenient things to say. Like when everybody talks about the good old days when neighbors would discipline kids. I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold. Back when cops patrolled the streets on foot in Baltimore, the city was hypersegregated. For years after they introduced patrol cars, black cops in Baltimore were not allowed to use them. The roots of the problem are so much more complex than the lack of foot patrolmen, or footmen, as some say in Baltimore.

Soraya: Right. I feel like this could easily be a documentary series, broken up into episodes. That would allow for an opportunity to look at everything with more detail and nuance.

Michael: That’s it. Just to linger on the police for a moment, you often hear things about policing such as cops should be from the communities they patrol, as if that would be some panacea. But here in Baltimore, where more than 40 percent of the cops are black, many officers are from the neighborhoods they patrol. Some of that is captured in the doc. But the tensions and distrust persist. Why? You could do an entire episode on that.

I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold.

Soraya: You mentioned in your essay that Baltimore’s policing problems aren’t necessarily about race. So is it class? Is it just abuse of power? Given the Fraternal Order of Police’s reaction to any sort of community oversight, it seems like there’s just way too much concentrated power. And that always ends up screwing over the people with less.

Michael: Probably a bit of both, along with a lack of empathy. I am often struck by the disdain some cops display to people they are sworn to protect and serve, just as I am sometimes appalled by the lack of respect some people accord to cops. Add to that what I think is Baltimore’s biggest problem, the tens of thousands of people addicted to drugs, and you have what you have. Not to be too cynical, but I think you could staff the cops’ trial board with nothing but ACLU lawyers and the city would not be much better off. The issue is attacking poverty. We have to figure out how to do it as a society, and we haven’t.

Soraya: I kept thinking as I was watching that you have to address the social issues that lead to crime in the first place: namely, poverty. And Genard Barr, one of the community organizers working with the cops, said that too. When police commissioner Kevin Davis is asking him what’s needed to prevent another uprising, he’s like, ‘Jobs.’ He seems to have the most realistic perspective on what’s needed. And that’s not something that can be solved overnight.

But I was also frustrated with Davis. Because if you know that’s so much of the problem, is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

There’s this line in the movie where Davis is meeting with cops and community members and someone says that they want residents to ‘value [their] city.’ But it doesn’t seem to value them. And they know that. How are you supposed to feel ownership over something that’s not really yours, that really wasn’t built for you?

Michael: Exactly. And we have to be clear-eyed about the investment that takes and the frustration that is involved. And it is more than jobs, per se. We have to get people ready to work. National coverage sometimes creates the impression that Baltimore is an economic wasteland. It is not. I looked it up: Baltimore’s official unemployment rate is 5.2 percent (however flawed that number is). Yet, it is more than double that figure for African-Americans. And this city has had black leadership for more than a generation. But walking around town, you see ads for $13-an-hour jobs at the Amazon warehouse, for decent-paying jobs in restaurants and the tourist trade. So it’s all very complicated.

Soraya: So we’re also talking about specific neighborhoods within Baltimore, not the whole city, right? Is that because of redlining?

Michael: It is partially because of redlining. It is partially because of middle-class flight. It is partially because of the rise of poverty in some areas, and all that comes with that: disinvestment, crime, drugs, the disintegration of community and even many families. These issues plague huge swaths of West and East Baltimore. But there also remain many strong black working-class communities populated by teachers, bus drivers, postal workers, etc.

Is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

Soraya: The film focuses on the neighborhood of North Penn, although Freddie Gray was from Sandtown.

Michael: They are basically adjoining neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Very similar too. Thurgood Marshall is from over there. Billie Holiday, and many other legends, performed on Pennsylvania Avenue during its heyday. Interestingly, the young activists we meet in the film seem to be from the ‘other,’ more prosperous (but still black) Baltimore.

Soraya: Let’s talk about them for a bit. Sohn [who played police Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire] focuses on three main characters: Genard Barr, Makayla Gilliam-Price and Kwame Roseborough. Makayla was a high school senior, and Kwame was 21 at the time this was filmed. It’s that age when you see things that aren’t right and you want to protest them. It’s always young people who are on the frontlines of that. Genard’s a little different, though. He’s a former gang member whose father was a cop.

Michael: They added an intriguing element to the film. To my mind, Genard — who works at a drug treatment center and has connections with gang members, and works to get the formerly incarcerated into the workforce — is the one most deeply immersed in the hard realities of Baltimore. The others, as you say, are committed, bright and passionate, but young. I found the conversations between them and their parents especially illuminating. At one point, Makayla is reading an autobiographical piece and her mother basically tells her she doesn’t recognize the person described in the essay. I found that fascinating. Kwame’s brunch with his parents, who are at best ambivalent about his choice to quit work to be an activist, was also interesting.

Soraya: Their parents seem much more pragmatic. And they’re side-eyeing their children’s idealism a bit. The parents are like, ‘Get your education so you can do something substantive about this.’ And the activists are like, ‘We have to raise our voices about this RIGHT NOW,’ which I can understand. When you see someone your own age or younger be killed, and no one faces any real consequences for it, I imagine that’s incredibly galvanizing. And also scary.

I wish the film, again, had a little more focus. Because Makayla actually seems to have a bit of a journey from when we first see her. By the end, she’s talking about recognizing that protest by itself doesn’t bring about change. I’ve said this about other documentaries, too, not just this one, but I always find myself wanting to know more about policy and what can be done to change people’s lives. I want to see illustrations of the way structural racism or bad policy is baked into governing and how that ends up resulting in black death, mass incarceration, etc. I don’t think we got enough of that. Though, given the FBI’s targeting of ‘Black Identity Extremists,’ I do think it’s important to include how modern protesters and organizers are targeted for retaliation. I had questions about Kwame, in terms of where he fits within Campaign Zero or other Black Lives Matter orgs that funnel money to protesters for bail funds, legal assistance, etc. Is he outside of that network? What’s going on there? I wish Sohn had spent more time on the Justice Department’s findings from its investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and tying that back to Gray’s death, and others.

Michael: I agree with all of that. And here’s maybe my bottom line on the film: If all I knew about the state of Baltimore police-community relations was what I saw here, I’d be confused. As portrayed here, the police are the only ones really getting their hands dirty dealing with Baltimore’s harshest realities. Talk about black death: The city has already seen more than 300 murders this year, as it did last year. The cops we see: commissioner Davis, Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, Detective Dawnyell Taylor, are shown on the street fighting what looks like an unwinnable fight.

There is no mention of the cops on the city’s gun squad indicted for stealing drugs and reselling them. Or the cops accused of planting evidence on suspects. Or the millions paid out to brutality victims. There is a backdrop of injustice, as we hear about the cops charged in the Freddie Gray case acquitted one by one. It feels infuriating, because Gray’s case is so stark. He is arrested, put into a police van and comes out with his neck broken.

But as someone who followed the trial closely, I can tell you that the evidence was thin. The presiding judge (who was the decider, as these were all bench trials) was a black man who formerly prosecuted bad cops for the Justice Department! I say all that to note that there is so much more to explore.

Soraya: Oof. I’m not sure, if you do a deep dive into all that, that you can still call the movie Baltimore Rising. It doesn’t sound like an accurate name. What I see is a city that’s stuck. And I just don’t think things like football games between gang members and cops fixes that. It’s a tiny, tiny Band-Aid.

Michael: At first, the football game came off to me as almost trivializing the deep issues the film raises. But its one virtue is that it humanizes people on all sides. Perhaps that is the only hope here: if we can see the humanity that exists behind these labels we all use — gang member, cop, ex-con, poor person.

Obama’s foreign policy comes alive — really! — in ‘The Final Year’ and a venture outside the festival zone Day 3 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — So far, my schedule at the Toronto International Film Festival has been heavy on documentaries, including ones on Grace Jones, André Leon Talley and Vince Carter.

I spent Saturday morning enmeshed in the brains of a bunch of foreign policy wonks while watching The Final Year from director Greg Barker. The film follows former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes and former Secretary of State John Kerry as they try to implement President Barack Obama’s foreign policy goals in his final year as president.

The premise sounds about as dry as it gets. But The Final Year turned out to be an interesting film, and not just because of what was happening on the screen. TIFF really is an international festival: I’ve had conversations with journalists from Russia and a Ugandan-born Brit, and it’s not unusual to hear people speaking multiple languages. So it’s also an opportunity to hear what other people are thinking of Americans right now. And that definitely came through in the screening for The Final Year. Barker introduces the Obama administration’s foreign policy team with a stylized presentation that makes them seem like the world’s nerdiest Justice League. When President Obama appeared on the screen the audience here clapped, and at the end they did it again. This never happens at press and industry screenings, as they’re called, where journalists typically refrain from any visible reaction to the films they’re watching. Politics and the 2016 election are clearly still on people’s minds. Even The Gospel According to André opened and closed with scenes from the 2016 campaign and election aftermath.

Barker ends on a hopeful note, echoing the tone that Obama always tried to take. Rhodes, who was speechless after the 2016 presidential election, has had time to collect himself. And he falls back on all the soft power diplomacy that Obama conducted, recalling all the bright, young people Obama met who will, decades later, likely become leaders of their respective countries. Rhodes seems to be trying to reassure us, and himself.

“I think the pendulum will swing back, and I think we have the template for when that happens,” he says.

Barker cuts to Power. “We’re in this for the long haul,” she says.

At the end of the film, there was quite a bit of sniffling. Tony Gittens, the director of Filmfest DC, reached across a chair in the dark and took my hand. The Final Year had triggered a state of mournfulness, and the two of us walked down the stairs and out of the theater, hand in hand.

Neighborhood hopping

Film festival life can be harried. You’re hopping from event to event for roughly 12 hours a day, which means you’re mostly confined to the neighborhood where the festival is taking place. The pace has its benefits — the single pair of pants I brought are now too big. Mostly, you’re running on coffee and grabbing a bite when you can remember to do it.

TIFF is based in Toronto’s entertainment district, which is filled with restaurants, theaters and sports arenas. It’s home to Ripley’s Aquarium and the CN Tower, the most recognizable building in the Toronto skyline. There’s a distinct mix of people, including Blue Jays fans; locals who are annoyed because their daily routine has been upended by street closures; and festival attendees, who are easy to pick out because most of us are wearing branded lanyards or bags. There are artsy types with blue or pink hair, lots of oxford shoes and tons of motorcycle jackets.

Celebrities such as Grace Jones, Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie show up to promote their films, but they stay hidden away until it’s time to go to work. But I did run into Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me, on the sidewalk today. He’s here to present his sequel, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!

On Friday evening, I decided to venture away from the entertainment district to the neighborhood of Harbord Village. Anyhow, I moseyed — OK, taxied — there on a feminist pilgrimage of sorts to Good For Her, a toy shop that has sponsored Tristan Taormino’s Feminist Porn Conference, which also takes place in Toronto. Harbord Village is an eclectic, charming ’hood that reminds me of Little Five Points in Atlanta, filled with little shops, restaurants and yoga studios.

On my way back, I walked through Chinatown, which was comparatively younger and browner. I was surprised to spot a Popeyes chicken place, along with marijuana dispensaries (cash only) and an array of tattoo and piercing salons, which, rather strangely, closed at 8 p.m. Fine. No septum ring for me this trip.

Grace Jones, Andre Leon Talley and a chance to see people of color in all your movies Day 2 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — For a person of color, looking for yourself in major box office releases can feel like a frustrating series of one-offs, each with impossibly high stakes. Film festivals can offer a different experience, especially since there’s no box office pressure at them.

One of my favorite things about film festivals is the way they create a temporary, friendly, idealistic, artistic bubble. The audiences, Blackstar and other minority-centered fests notwithstanding, can be overwhelmingly white, and their reactions can offer a skewed perception of films. (See Dope and The Birth of a Nation, both of which were Sundance darlings that didn’t live up to box office expectations. Crown Heights found itself in a similar position.)

But festivals also offer a great opportunity for people to see film after film starring or about people of color. The first time I went to Sundance, I was astonished to see multiple feature films by or about Native Americans. This year, Columbus and Gook, both from Asian directors, made big splashes at Sundance.

So on Friday morning, a day after seeing Mudbound and The Carter Effect, I found myself immersed in the world of fashionable, brilliant black people with screenings of two documentaries: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami and The Gospel According to André.

The similarities in these two people seem obvious at first glance. Jones is 69 and Andre Leon Talley is 67, and they’ve both established careers in fashion by being intriguing, unique individuals who are impossible to ignore.

But something deeper and more soul-stirring connects these two individuals to many black people of their generation. Jones and Talley both soared to tremendous heights, Jones as a model and singer and Talley as a Vogue editor and arbiter of taste in the fashion world. As they’ve reached the top, they’ve taken the pain of their earlier lives with them. Sometimes it’s creative fuel, but in one way or another, everyone has to wrestle with the demons of their younger selves.

For Jones, it was the cruelty of the man who raised her, simply referred to as Mas P, who terrorized Jones and her siblings with beatings and offered scant gestures of love. Jones became notorious for her temper after she slapped television host Russell Harty live on the air in November 1980.

Jones is up front about her penchant for striking people. “I always warn them first,” she says.

In Bloodlight, directed by Sophie Fiennes, Jones says that she struggled to channel her anger as an adult. Rather than talk to a therapist, Jones worked through her anger in one-on-one acting classes and revealed that her acting coach would have to hypnotize her to draw her out of her uncontrolled fury.

Fiennes captures footage of Jones visiting family and friends in her native Jamaica, and it feels like the audience discovered a decoder ring for the woman behind images such as the Jean-Paul Goude photograph that graced the cover of Island Life.

Jones tells her origin story through her song lyrics. She bounces all over the globe, code-switching from Jamaican patois to accented English to perfect French. But everything comes back to Jamaica. Frankly, Bloodlight and Bami is an unstructured mess, but it does a fair job of contextualizing Jones’ art through her Jamaican roots. The things and the place that are a source of so much of her anger still fill her with joy, love and artistic inspiration. She’s not just a curiosity — everything she does, everything she wears, including her extravagant performance headdresses, has a purpose and an origin. We see Jones bring her mother a hat that’s a variation on one she wears onstage. On Jones, coupled with a black velvet leotard, makeup and 6-inch heels, the hat is an avant-garde statement. On her mother, offset with flowers and a church dress, it’s a crown fit for sharing a rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

Bloodlight and Bami does not yet have a distributor, though I suspect it will find one, if the masses lined up for a glimpse of Jones at the Thursday night premiere of the film are any indication.

The Gospel According to André

As black people, Jones and Talley came of age at a time that allowed them to take advantage of the tremendous changes taking place in the world. The documentaries about them aren’t just about the costs of being trailblazers. They’re more personal than that. Instead, they’re about the traumas people carry with them, and the way they infect and influence those around them.

André Leon Talley

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

With Talley especially, it became apparent just how much his blackness was a part of that trauma, and how much he’s held it in service to a bigger vision. As a Vogue staffer responsible for assembling and conceiving fashion editorials, Talley had the rare power to make something like Scarlett in the Hood happen. Scarlett in the Hood was a magazine spread that offered Talley’s commentary on Gone with the Wind. Talley selected Naomi Campbell to play Scarlett O’Hara, and he placed white designers around her dressed and cast as slaves. The price for being in a position to do that, however, was that Talley had to keep mum about the microaggressions directed at him by the industry he loved.

The hurt Talley carries from having stones thrown at him by white boys when he would visit Duke University’s east campus as a teen, simply to buy the latest issue of Vogue, is the same hurt he carries from colleagues in the fashion industry accusing him of sleeping with every designer in Paris and playing the role of black buck for curious whites. Talley tears up at one point, recalling a colleague he was too much of a class act to name, who cruelly referred to him as “Queen Kong.”

Over and over, fashion industry figures such as Marc Jacobs, Valentino and Tom Ford remarked to director Kate Novack about Talley’s “childlike” qualities. The takeaway from all of them was that the intangible that makes Talley such a talented curator stems directly from the same wonderment he felt as a teen flipping through the pages of Vogue. Somehow, even as an adult, he kept it. For Talley, who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and attended the segregated Hillside High School, Vogue offered an escape from that reality. His talent and his hurt are inextricably linked.

‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ is a tale of fame, money and selfish enablers Documentary about Whitney Houston is also a romantic tragedy

Whitney: Can I Be Me, the new documentary about the beloved singer who drowned in her bathtub at the Beverly Hilton after overdosing on drugs, is full of little moments that squeeze at your heart. There’s footage of Whitney Houston ecstatic after giving her all during a performance of “I Will Always Love You” and early interviews in which Houston is still earnest, bashful and innocent.

Then there’s the whammy.

In 1995, David Roberts, who served as Houston’s bodyguard for seven years and was the inspiration for her hit film with Kevin Costner, sent Houston’s family and business partners a report on her health and well-being from her latest tour. It was not good. Houston, Roberts said, was heavily dependent on cocaine and marijuana. Her voice was deteriorating. She was not in good health and needed to enter a rehabilitation facility.

They ignored him.

“If anyone had listened to or acted on my report, she would now be alive,” Roberts says in the film.

Under the direction of Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal, Whitney: Can I Be Me functions as a psychological autopsy for the woman known simply as The Voice. The documentary airs Friday at 9 p.m. EST on Showtime.

An opening voice-over proclaims that Houston didn’t really die from a drug overdose. “She actually died from a broken heart.” Houston had been divorced from Bobby Brown for five years when she died on the eve of the 2012 Grammys at age 48. This wasn’t the broken heart resulting from a soured romance, but one stemming from living most of her life with split identities. The Whitney Houston whom America fell in love with was not the real Whitney Houston, Broomfield and Dolezal argue.

“If anyone had listened to or acted on my report, she would now be alive.” — David Roberts, Houston’s bodyguard

For Houston to rise to pop stardom in the 1980s the way no other black woman before her had done, there were rules:

Don’t be ’hood.

Don’t be too black.

And certainly don’t be queer.

And Houston, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, before her family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, after the 1967 riots, was all of those things. So it was up to Arista Records superproducer Clive Davis to erase them. Davis had wanted to turn Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick into crossover stars, but they were too established in their careers for such a pivot to work. Then, “along comes Whitney, who was so moldable, and she was the perfect vehicle for his foolproof vision,” former Arista executive Kenneth Reynolds says in the film.

And so Houston’s sound was pop instead of R&B or funk.

“Whitney’s voice broke barriers,” Pattie Howard, a backup singer who sang bass for Houston, explains in the film. “We didn’t have Beyoncés. And any African-American female artist that can now be at the top of a pop chart — that absolutely was not going to happen before Whitney Houston. It had not happened before Whitney Houston. She changed history for us. And she paid a price for it.”

Whitney confirms much that had previously been rumored: that Houston began doing drugs as a teenager and that her brothers would procure them for her — and that she was, in fact, bisexual. When rumors about her longtime relationship with her friend, lover and employee Robyn Crawford began to surface, she breezily blew off Katie Couric in a televised interview. Couric had prodded, in the most polite way possible, about the fact that Crawford presented herself as a butch lesbian. Houston, smiling all the while, responded by saying Crawford was simply a very “tall,” very “broad” woman who played basketball better than a lot of men.

“Whitney’s voice broke barriers. We didn’t have Beyoncés.” — Pattie Howard, one of Houston’s backup singers

For years, Brown was blamed for turning Houston into an addict, but that wasn’t the case. These revelations may not come as a surprise to consummate Whitney Watchers. But for casual fans, the documentary provides credible sourcing on what Houston’s family tried so desperately to conceal. Houston’s estate sued Dolezal to try to stop the release of the film and lost.

Whitney doesn’t exonerate Brown from responsibility. He didn’t introduce her to drugs, but he also wasn’t a fan of her plan to get clean. He was jealous and abusive, and he and Crawford were constantly in competition for Houston’s affections, to the point where they came to blows.

Whitney follows the typical conventions of a music documentary, like those Andy Samberg so expertly parodied in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. The never-before-seen concert footage was shot by Dolezal after Houston commissioned him to do a tour documentary. It’s interspersed with talking heads from various parts of Houston’s life.

The difference, of course, is that this documentary is deathly serious. It’s about how Houston went from being one of the most celebrated voices of a generation to a woman whose backing band had to lower her own songs two registers because her voice had deteriorated so much.

Those who were shaken by the revelations Amy produced about the life, demise and death of Amy Winehouse will feel similar sensations watching Whitney. They both tell stories of clever, charming, talented women surrounded by enablers, not all of whom were invested simply in their well-being. In both cases, those enablers included their parents.

In a way, this film is an argument for minority artists to have more control over their careers. The record company apparatus is still necessary for many artists, but it needs to adapt to fit the needs of talent instead of making the talent adapt to its moneymaking ambitions. In the long run, that’s better for both parties.

Whitney lets us know: The demand for sanitized, postracial soothsaying from black stars as the price for success is more than detrimental. It will slowly, softly kill you.