Documentary Review: A filmmaker looks at “The Long Shadow” of racism in America

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Filmmaker Frances Causey was born in segregated Greensboro, N.C. in the early ’60s, “where white superiority was never questioned.”

But with family in N.C. and Mississippi, with ancestral ties to slavery era Virginia, as an adult she pondered what she and her family had seen and accepted in “the racist South of my childhood.”

Spurred by eruptions of violence like Dylan Roof’s murderous assault on an African American church Charleston, she wondered about her own family’s place in fomenting America’s racial divide, and being a documentarian she saw a movie in that.

“Our family history haunted me enough to make this film.”

“The Long Shadow” promised to be the race relations equivalent of her fellow North Carolinian Ross McElwee’s “Bright Leaves,” a personal essay and exploration (with expert testimony) about family connections to something unsavory — tobacco, in McElwee’s case, segregation and racism in Causey’s.

But while Causey does find historical connections between her family and America’s racial divide, her “Shadow” lengthens into a much broader look at racism in America, the tipping point moments. The film overreaches and loses some of its power-of-personal experience as it travels far and wide, from the first indentured African servants to arrive in America to their enslavement, from the rise of Jim Crow to the economic and social inequality and race resentment that hobbles the country to this day.

It’s not that her points and tidal wave of experts, collected interviews, archival footage and even recorded oral histories of former slaves aren’t factual or fascinating. Her notion of “unknown history” is a bit broad (lots of people know most of what’s reported here). It’s just that she tries to cram too much into an 87 minute movie that would have had more impact had it narrowed its focus.

Causey “discovered” via Gerald Horne, the author of  “The Counterrevolution: 1776” that “the reason the U.S. is such an advanced country” then and now “was the slave trade,” which was focused on the South but Northern financed — shipping, banking and insurance industries in the Northeast were in essence, built on the backs of slaves.”

She has Paul Kivel, author of “Living in the Shadow of the Cross,” connect America’s shifting, dehumanizing attitudes to the Africans being imported to the legal theft of Indian lands, and a rising sense among American colonists that “heathen/non Christians” such as Native Americans and Africans did not have to be treated as equals or even fellow human beings.

She visits Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia and recalls the class divisions deflected to racial divisions after the 1676 revolt in Virginia called “Bacon’s Rebellion,” when working class whites and blacks joined to protest and fight the super-rich oligarchs of the colony.

A College of William & Mary historian, Jody Allen, sees the blowback from that revolt as the birth of “divide and conquer,” the wealthy setting out to keep poor whites thinking that there was still one group “below them” and use that to re-direct their resentment.

As Causey visits family in Meridian, Mississippi and watches TV coverage of mass-murderer Dylan Roof, she blurts out “God, nothing ever changes here!”

She looks back on her ancestor Edmund Pendleton, a racist Founding Father and decries his role in setting up a Constitution that gave disproportionate power to the slave states, she questions if America’s landed classes sought independence from Britain because of Britain’s growing anti-slavery movement and ponders how that taints American politics to this day.

From the 3/5’s compromise to the resilience of slavery to Jim Crow, the rise of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan, “Strange Fruit” to “The Solid South” that led to the GOP’s embrace of “The Southern Strategy,” Causey tries to cover all the corners of the origin story of how America got to where it is, and what that means to race relations even today.

She finds outliers, too, progressive landowners, church officials and others — one in Virginia, another in Canada.

What she needed more of were the personal stories, such the relative who loved her black nanny and cook and got her first taste of Grownup Jim Crow when she realized the woman couldn’t eat at the same lunch counter she brought her to as a child.

“The Long Shadow” isn’t a bad movie and has little that one could argue with its expert witnesses about in terms of the history of race in America (although Causey miscredits her ancestor Pendleton as “governor of the colony” of Virginia).

But it’s not the movie she promises in the opening minutes. And the movie she made is, while informative and provocative, not the personalized connection to America’s troubled racial history that would make every viewer ask the same hard questions she started to.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: Unrated

Credits:Directed by Frances Causey. A Passion River release.

Running time: 1:27

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