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Film Review: “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer” Offers an Urgent, Much-Needed History Lesson

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 17th, 2021

Film poster: “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer”

Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer (Dawn Porter, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

By now, one would hope, more Americans than ever before know about Oklahoma’s Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, which just marked its 100th anniversary this year, on June 1. Given the press that milestone generated, not to mention the violent event’s appearance in not one, but two recent HBO series, Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, it seems like the time has come for ever-deeper analyses of the history and enduring presence of racism, systemic and otherwise, in the United States since its inception as a slave-holding nation. Despite the right-wing pushback against Critical Race Theory (which most people don’t even understand), we see a growing constituency of folks across the country willing to engage in critical discussions about our past and how it affects the present. Joining in that conversation is prolific director Dawn Porter’s latest documentary, Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer, which looks back not only at what happened in Tulsa a century ago, but at the context that made such an attack on innocent citizens possible.

The film features such participants as Washington Post journalist DeNeen Brown, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America author Cameron McWhirter, poet/lawyer/teacher CeLillianne Green, Tulsa’s Vernon Chapel A.M.E. Church pastor Rev. Dr. Robert Turner, Tulsa’s Mayor G.T. Bynum, descendants of the massacre victims and survivors, both in Tulsa and elsewhere, and many more. Their voices lead us through the murderous years and days before June of 1921, starting in East St. Louis, in 1917, where a similar riot against another prosperous Black community took place. 1919, known as the “Red Summer,” then proved an even more carnage-filled year. White America was not ready (as if it is now) to accept that Black Americans could take their place alongside or, worse, above them. Any sign of wealth and success had to be eliminated. As Dr. Turner queries, “What does a lie [that of white supremacy] do when it confronts the truth [that Blacks are not inferior]?” It can either adapt to the new reality and accept the error, or it can remove the offending contradiction. Sadly, all too often, again and again, the second option prevails.

DeNeen Brown in RISE AGAIN: TULSA AND THE RED SUMMER ©National Geographic

We start and end with the present-day administration of Tulsa, under Bynum’s leadership, trying to make some kind of amends by at first agreeing to excavate suspected mass-grave sites. This will have the twin benefits of exposing the crime and honoring the dead. Unfortunately, things grow complicated when the issue of reparations comes up. While Bynum wants Tulsa to accept responsibility for the massacre (and just recently issued an official apology), he is not prepared to go as far as compensating the remaining survivors and descendants, not to mention Tulsa’s Black population as a whole. However one feels about the arguments for and against, director Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble) does her usual excellent job laying out all the complexities so that we may consider the full picture. This doesn’t mean she draws false equivalencies between unequal claims, but that she allows those she interviews to speak their minds as they see fit. Her movie is all the stronger for it.

As wonderful as all of the above may be, the aesthetics of the work would improve with less of a glossy National Geographic (the producer/distributor) imprint. There are too many heavily scored moments that would be more effective if quieter. The slickness of the finished product sometimes works against the gravity of the subject, in other words, at least for this viewer. And it’s unnecessary, since what is on screen is powerful enough without those adornments. Nevertheless, I encourage everyone to watch, as the lessons within must be learned so that we can finally emerge from the scourge of our racist demons. Let the healing and reconciliation begin, please.

A still from RISE AGAIN: TULSA AND THE RED SUMMER ©National Geographic
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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