Today in Black History, I want to look at some documentary films.
All of these can be found on Hulu, Netflix, and/or YouTube and all of them focus on stories centering on people of color and their cultural influences. I love documentary films. In recent years, the ways in which a non fictional narrative can be portrayed on screen can make the subject seem larger than life and I think that can be said for all of these films. For all of these films, I can say that I am always left with the weight of their respective subjects and the ways that the narratives relate to my life and my own path.
I’ve numbered this sequence because in many ways, you can view these films chronologically and see the ways the spirit of a time trickled its way into the lives of real black and brown folks who were the unwitting scapegoats of bureaucratic miscondunct.
Made in 2015, this documentary is about the youth gang culture that exploded through the Bronx, most notably, and subsequently the rest of the boroughs of New York City.
This is the picture of New York City that my mom has when she thinks of the Big Apple. I told her I was planning on moving there after undergrad and she didn’t seem sold on the idea.
Of course, there’s always a small chance that shit can pop off, but that’s true anywhere. Even here in Mississippi, there are some places you just don’t go to. But there’s enough wy ppl there gentrifying the city that getting mugged at any given moment is significantly less likely.
Anyhoo… this film puts a lens on the crime ridden borough of the Bronx and the political plays that were made that resulted in the high crime rates and rise in youth gang activity.
In a nutshell, we can trace the causes of these social conditions back to the start of Ronal Reagan’s War on Drugs. Nixon took the presidency and breathed new life into Reagan’s crusade and the rest is history. The rise of “the rubble kings,” these adolescent gang boppers, begin organizing themselves between their neighborhoods and policing the streets with violence and vigilantism as a result of various new laws put in place that accelerated the rise of urban decay and neglect in which these kids were innocently born in to.
Fresh Dressed, produced by Pharrell, picks up where Rubble Kings leaves off. After the turbulance of the the 70s and the onslaught of the War on Drugs, after the hundreds of resulting deaths, and after one reckoning moment, the tide of the times changes as hip hop forges on to the scene in the late 70s.
Fresh Dressed, as the title alludes, is about fashion. The film archives the change in fashion trends beginning in the late 70s as the prevailing gang culture subsides and from its ashes, hip hop culture arises.
Fresh Dressed is a culture study through the lens of fashion.
The Radiant Child
The Radiant Child is a personal favorite. Taking the bigger picture that Rubble Kings and Fresh Dressed painted and seeing how the issues discussed in those films ended up affecting a singular narrative.
Though Jean Michel Basquiat was one guy, his work has touched millions and he was a product of a very specific environment.
These three films overlap in the time periods that they cover, especially as it pertains to the late 70s and 80s in New York City. In fact, when watching, you might notice that some of the references and even the talking heads themselves are featured in two of the films, if not all three.
When I think about Black History, that is the history of Black people in America, I think it’s important to know just how we got to where we are at this moment in history. Existentially speaking, history has been building on itself, expressing itself through the stories in these films, and reaping itself accordingly.
Today in Black History, we must honor the process.
The turbulent 60s gave rise to the violent 70s which gave rise to the electric 80s, the iconic 90s, and so on and so forth. If we are to look to the future, we really have to come to terms with the now and realize that nothing happens in a vacuum.
If we wish to change the future, change has to begin now.