With other films coming out in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, the trait that makes Dawn Porter’s “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer” stand out is the context, and the drama of “proof.”
Her National Geographic crew was filming the day the mass grave that removed any doubt that this tragedy was as awful in scale as claimed. And in 88 brisk minutes (PBS had a doc mini-series about Tulsa in 2019) we learn of most of the events that led up to that last “Red Summer” of several that followed the end of World War I.
With Washington Post reporter and Oklahoma native DeNeen Brown (below) as journalist and anchor interview, this film visits archives, interviews survivors and a white eyewitness and retrieves interviews with survivors no longer living and audio of historical figures speaking on the state of race in America in the early years of the 20th century.
President William Howard Taft delivers remarks on the pace of progress in African American social and business affairs in the years after slavery. But a few years later, after the first “Red Summer,” largely a reaction to the threat that “progress” represented to white America, poet Claude McKay wrote his “If We Must Die,” and we hear him recite it.
“Rise Again” deftly traces the string of white mob massacres that raced across the country in 1919, 1920 and that climaxed in Tulsa just after Memorial Day in 1921. And it takes us into the lesser-known preamble, an armed assault on Black farmers in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919.
As Brown notes, in cities from Chicago to Knoxville, Atlanta to Elaine, “all it took was a rumor” of an alleged assault or affront, or in Elaine’s case, the threat of Black farmers organizing to get better prices for their labor, for lynch mobs to form.
Brown meets an archivist who shows us the then-governor’s scrapbook revealing how Charles Brough dashed to the scene of the Elaine unrest, participated in it, then promised “hangings” for those Black victims charged with inciting or carrying out the violence, when their real crime was defending themselves and surviving.
Airplanes circled over Tulsa and are widely believed to have bombed the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood and business district, 35 blocks of the city destroyed in days of racist rage in 1921. Hundreds died, most of the scores and scores of businesses never came back to life.
Brown notes her own newspaper’s ugly part in the summers of unrest, blasting headlines calling for reprisals and violence in Washington, D.C. in that first Red Summer. And we see Tulsa’s laudable commitment to unearth this past when efforts to investigate it more thoroughly were thwarted in the late 1990s.
At a time when America is wrestling anew with what the country “means” and stands for, when “Jim Crow” is again in the headlines thanks to voter suppression efforts in Republican-controlled legislatures across the land, and when grappling with the long history of racial animus that is a stain we never seem to want to acknowledge, “Rise Again” is a sober reminder of the history many want to erase, all but ensuring it’ll repeat itself for the next hundred years as well.
MPA Rating: unrated, archival photos and descriptions of violence
Cast: DeNeen Brown, Oklahoma State Representative Regina Goodwin, Cameron McWhirter, Rev. Dr. Robert Turner and Mayor G.T. Bynum.
Credits: Directed by Dawn Porter. A National Geographic/Hulu release premiering June 18 and 19.
Running time: 1:28