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Hate Crimes in the Heartland

2015
Distributed by Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th Street, New York, NY 10016; 202-808-4980
Produced by Lioness Media Arts
Directed by Rachel Lyon
DVD, color, 51 min.
Middle School - General Adult
Hate Crimes, Tulsa, Racism, History


Reviewed by Christopher Lewis, American University Library, American University

Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 6/11/2015

The race riots of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma stand as one of the most horrendously shameful acts of mob violence against African Americans in US history, yet it registers little acknowledgement in the national conscience today. Racially-driven hatred reared its head again in Tulsa in 2012 when two white men terrorized black neighborhoods on the night of Good Friday, shooting five random African Americans, three of whom died. Hate Crimes in the Heartland places these two events in context to each other and within the histories of the city, the state of Oklahoma, and the United States at large.

The video opens on the coverage of the Good Friday shootings where the known details suggest that the two perpetrators, Jake England and Alvin Watts, went on a rampage targeting any African Americans they came across that night to avenge the killing of England’s father by an African American man two years earlier. This event terrorized the African-American community and was widely characterized as a hate crime.

The filmmaker then segues into a narrative of events in Tulsa’s history of racial violence, particularly the disastrous Greenwood riots of 1921, where Tulsa’s black population lived and worked.

At the time, Greenwood was regarded as the country’s most successful business center for African Americans. Black and white veterans had returned from World War I to a city in the midst of an oil boom that brought prosperity to many, though festering racism, evidenced by Jim Crow laws, was evident in the white community. The riots were instigated by a lynch mob that had been enraged by false reports of the rape of a white woman by a young black man. Unfortunately the situation didn’t end with the failed lynching attempt. The blood-thirsty mob then turned their anger toward the thriving black community and the violence rapidly escalated into a massacre of any black people the white rioters could find. Pawn shops and gun shops supplied weapons and the police protected the rioters. By the time the smoke cleared just a day later, Greenwood was in ruins: 500 businesses including theaters, hotels, and churches, and 1,500 homes were destroyed. Surviving African American men, women, and children either fled the town or were rounded up and put into internment centers run by the National Guard. The severity of the devastation left the African American population trembling for fear it would happen again and their silence about the event lasted for generations. In the years following, the local white population, shamed by the violence and destruction in their city, also avoided mentioning it. Over the years, the calamitous event was mostly forgotten.

The film bookends the 1921 destruction of Greenwood with the details of the Good Friday shootings. Except for the terror these two events inspired, the stories are somewhat dissimilar. The 2012 shootings were treated in a much more sensitive manner by both law enforcement and the news media, yet both events are significant in the history of race-based violence against African Americans.

Structurally, the film is comprised of talking head interviews with historians, legal scholars, reporters, the police chief, a city council member, and survivors of both events. There is lots of B-roll footage interspersed throughout. Many of the interviews are cut into soundbites and the narrative is jumpy in places.

The filmmaker’s effort to summarize a broad scope of issues related to crime and race is a bit rushed and detracts from the central narrative, as when it attempts to address racial profiling in media coverage, the various uses of the term “hate crime,” and whether the death penalty is ever a just punishment. These secondary discussions interrupt the flow of the narrative and contribute little to the strength of the piece.

The stories of the 1921 massacre and the Good Friday shootings are compelling history and there is enlightening commentary from the interviewees. As a document of history, it’s a powerful film; however as a commentary on the causes and effects of racial violence, it is less effective though occasionally thought-provoking. It does succeed in illustrating that despite the election of Barack Obama, deep prejudices continue to haunt the US, especially in economically depressed areas.