Documentary Review: 'Rise Again: Tulsa and The Red Summer'
Stunning documentary on the Tulsa riot of 1921 and the Red Summer of Riots in 1919 in which innocent African Americans were murdered by the hundreds.
"If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!"
- Claude McKay
Read that poem again, Claude McKay’s haunting If We Must Die. It wasn’t written on the battlefields of Europe in World War 1, it wasn’t penned during battle in the Civil War by a desperate soldier on the brink of defeat. No, Claude McKay wrote If We Must Die during the summer of 1919 in America when the blood of black people ran in the streets so much that they called it ‘Red Summer.’ If you wonder why 100 years later Black Lives Matter remains defiant in the streets of America it’s because 100 years isn’t that long ago. The mighty new documentary, Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer brings it all back to the fore.
Directed by Dawn Porter, Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer contains a 1-2 punch unlike any other documentary. You might go in assuming you are going to hear about the horrors committed in June 1921, and you will, but first you will hear about the Summer of 1919 and the repeated tragedies that led to the unforgettable flashpoint that is Tulsa in 1921 and the deaths of more than 300 black people and a fire that devastated an entire population. People have a rose colored glasses notion that the 60’s was where it all began but this fight went on for years, decades, centuries and was even deadlier than you know.
Director Dawn Porter set out to tell the story of how the city of Tulsa had finally been compelled to search for the mass graves of Black people in Tulsa. What she ended up with is a comprehensive and devastating history of violence that many tried to sweep under the carpet. Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer takes us to Elaine, Arkansas where the state has refused repeated requests to search for what may be one of the most horrific mass graves of innocents in American history. The bodies of innocent African Americans rest under untended lands that the state refuses to search so that those lost can be properly mourned.
In the midst of Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer, we go to Chicago, East Saint Louis, Washington D.C, and a dozen other locations in 1919 where the seeds that became the Civil Rights movement were cultivated with the blood of innocent people. These are innocent people targeted for the color of their skin and the reasonable request that they be treated as equals. It was, and it remains, a perfectly reasonable request, fairness, justice, equality, and that such requests were met with a horrific, incalculably inhuman response, one of violence, torture and murder, the shame lingers like a stain on our collective American soul.
Washington Post award winning reporter Deneen Brown is the muse of director Dawn Porter in Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer. Brown, with the grit and tenacity of a really great reporter, has been working to assure that these tragedies that raged across the summer of 1919 through Tulsa in 1921, are never forgotten. Her award winning reporting in the Washington Post provides the bones of the documentary, though she would be quick to tell you that it was Ida B Wells, and the Black Press of the time who did the real work.
Wells, a heralded journalist, rescued the story of Tulsa by traveling to Tulsa in the wake of the devastation, donning a disguise and surreptitiously gathering the stories of survivors that were subsequently reported in Black owned newspapers across the country. Wells’ courageous reporting gave life to this story that many tried to wipe out of our collective history. It’s not hard to imagine that without Ida B Wells, Tulsa would be only a legend, a terrifying tale whispered but never given a proper airing.
The battle goes on, Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer arrives at a time when it feels like it could have been completed a week ago. As we speak, in Tulsa, there continues to be an effort to uncover the mass graves of potentially hundreds of innocent black people murdered in cold blood by a vicious, racist mob. It must be said this way, there are no two sides to this, the mob that committed these murders, who robbed and tortured innocent black people, are monsters and must be remembered as such.
Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer is the true history, written with lightning, a bolt of harsh truth, the cleansing light from in an age where the darkness appears to be creeping in again at the edges. Let Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer be a reminder of the stain on our soul that is racism and our historic and contemporary racial violence. Stop asking black people why they are angry and start listening. Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer is a great place to start for those who struggle to understand why people are angry and demanding change. Then again, if the death of George Floyd didn't provide that awakening, I worry nothing can reach through your ignorance.
Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer debuts on NatGeo and Hulu on June 18th, just days after President Joe Biden makes a historic trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the 100th anniversary of this merciless slaughter of innocent people.