Looking at the
Community Cinema Series Explores
Community and Social Issues
By Keri O’Brien, Associate Editor, Missouri History Museum
|Archival photograph from "Banished," a documentary about racial cleansing in America from the 1860s to the 1920s. Courtesy of Georgia State Archives/ITVS (Independent Television Services).|
A partnership between the Missouri History Museum (MHM) and KETC/Channel 9—in collaboration with Independent Lens, ITVS (Independent Television Service), and FOCUS St. Louis—is giving St. Louisans the opportunity to watch sneak-preview screenings of thought-provoking documentaries before they are broadcast on the Emmy Award–winning PBS series Independent Lens. The program—known as the Community Cinema Series—was begun in January 2007 to provide free showings of documentaries at the History Museum that encourage discussion of community and social issues.
The documentary schedule runs September through May, according to Alex Detrick, assistant director of Community Education and Events for MHM, with one documentary shown at the Museum on the second Thursday of each month. After the screening, panelists participate in a discussion of the film, followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience.
Attendees were encouraged to look at the photographic displays that related to the documentary. Photograph © 2008, Missouri History Museum.
The range of topics has included violence and hip-hop culture, fair trade in the coffee industry, deportation, Navajo culture, stem cell research, and Liberia’s first freely elected female president.
One topic—the banishment of African American populations in dozens of counties arcross America—recently brought in a record crowd for the Community Cinema Series. From the 1860s to the 1920s, Pierce City, Missouri, was among the dozens of towns and counties across America that violently expelled entire African American communities, forcing thousands of families to flee their homes. Consequently, more than 100 years later, these towns remain all white. The documentary Banished, directed by Marco Williams, explores the tragic aftermath by visiting several small towns where these expulsions occurred.
For many who attended that screening on January 10, it was eye-opening. As attendee Jacky Day Harris put it, “You can’t believe things like that happened until you see it.”
Approximately 550 people attended the screening, which had to be shown simultaneously in two rooms to accommodate the crowd.
Detrick attributes the overflow attendance to the film’s subject matter and geography. “This was first documentary [in the series] that specifically featured Missouri,” she said. “It was the perfect blend of reasons—the local connection as well as issues that have been in the news.”
|Panelist Charles Brown Jr. poses by a montage of family photographs; his ancestors were banished from Pierce City, Missouri. Photograph © 2008, Missouri History Museum.|
To best represent the various perspectives on these issues, each panel is carefully assembled from many groups in the St. Louis region. “I try to balance perspective with involvement,” Detrick said. Therefore the Banished panel consisted of Murray Bishoff, managing editor of The Monett Times; Charles Brown Jr. a descendant of a landowner who was expelled from Pierce City; Denise DeCou, from the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference Institute; Redditt Hudson, racial justice manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri; and Gary Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
|Panelists discuss the documentary. From left to right are Murray Bishoff, Denise DeCou, Redditt Hudson, Brown, and Gary Kremer. Photograph © 2008, Missouri History Museum.|
Three of the five panelists also appeared in Banished. For example, the film documents Brown’s quest to relocate his grandfather’s remains from a Pierce City cemetery to one in Hazelwood, at Pierce City’s expense. He sees it as a way for the city to make reparations for the land his grandfather was forced to give up in 1901.
It is a sensitive topic, and moderator Jim Kirchherr, from KETC, led the panelists in a passionate discussion about the documentary. Asked his impression, Kremer said, “If you ask Missourians where do African Americans live today, they say St. Louis, Kansas City. One place they never say is the Ozarks…. The reality is that there were once black communities in those areas…. This film documents the reality.”
This photo collage depicts the many generations of one African American family who lost their land, homes, and part of their history after being banished from their hometown. Photograph © 2008, Missouri History Museum.
The panelists also took turns weighing in on audience members’ questions that dealt with who is morally and economically responsible for reparations, and how we can recognize our history and the loss of homesteads for many African Americans.
And although the panelists may have agreed to disagree on some of their views, DeCou provided a comment that they could all agree on. “I hope people are willing to learn more so that we can come together to play on a level playing field. Never believe that one person can’t make a difference.”