Film

Tell Them We Are Rising

The story of black colleges

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Elegantly condensing a miniseries’ worth of history into a streamlined feature, veteran documentarian Stanley Nelson’s latest work traces the century-and-a-half story of historically black colleges and universities. While the doc follows a traditional template of archival material, talking heads and impressionistic reenactments, its rich and sharply edited selection of stills, footage and new commentary makes for bracing viewing. Tell Them We Are Rising reveals the crucial role of HBCUs not only in the identity of black Americans but in the nation as a whole.

In addition to the incisive observations of historians and scholars, HCBU alumni from the 1940s through the ’70s provide firsthand accounts. Their experiences are marked by freedom, joy and struggle. Through showdowns with authorities on and off campus, they advanced the cause of civil rights—it was an HBCU graduate, Thurgood Marshall of Howard University, who tried the landmark Brown v. Education before the Supreme Court in 1954. Some confrontations ended terribly, as in the fatal shooting of students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests at Southern University in Baton Rouge, a still-unsolved case that should be more widely known. Nelson speaks with people who were part of the student demonstrations on the Louisiana campus, and for some of them the pain over the events is still acute.

Nelson and his co-writer, Marcia Smith, begin the HBCU story in the post-Civil War South and bring it up to the moment, suggesting but not naming the Black Lives Matter movement as the newest iteration in a legacy of social engagement and self-determination.

A thrilling montage of photographs of the “contraband schools” that sprung up during and after the Civil War expresses a ferocious, if wary, hope. One of the countless brutal indignities inflicted upon American slaves was that, as a group, they were denied the chance to read and write. As scholar Kimberle Crenshaw notes succinctly, “An educated black population couldn’t be an enslaved black population.”

Inevitably and paternalistically, the federal government and Christian missionary organizations descended on the South to “Yankee-fy” the schools. One historian cites the horrifying death toll of an estimated 20,000 people, blacks and whites who, during a six-year period after the war, were killed for involvement in the education of African-Americans.

In its deft sketch of the deep philosophical divide between two leading black figures of the early 20th century—Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington and intellectual firebrand W. E. B. Du Bois—the film illustrates how obstacles toward full-fledged higher academics at HBCUs gave way to an unstoppable enterprise to achieve just that. Washington, a superstar voice of white-friendly compromise, advocated vocational training for blacks as the nation’s laborers and domestic servants—while he hobnobbed with powerful industrialists. Civil rights activist DuBois, whose ideas certainly have more currency today, insisted a liberal arts curriculum should be as open to African-Americans as it is to whites. Yet in some ways their debate about black Americans’ relationship to the powers that be continues.

As to what some non-HBCU schools offered blacks, eye-opening photos show the “separate but equal” setup at the University of Oklahoma that placed a doctoral student at a desk outside the whites-only classroom. More familiar images, of lunch-counter sit-ins, are enhanced by a new interview with Joseph McNeil, a member of the Greensboro Four, the undergrads from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University who began the steadily expanding series of 1960 protests at a Woolworth’s. The film places this moment, which another HBCU alumnus remembers as “earth-shaking,” within the context of the students who put themselves on the line, by the thousand, at lunch counters around the South.

Nelson caps the film with a contemporary sequence that suggests both renewed hope and uncertain survival. With almost no discussion of the reasons for school failures, the cameras observe the abandoned and crumbling buildings of a shuttered HBCU. But others are thriving. There are exuberant and tearful scenes of moving-in day for arriving freshmen, and the affecting testimony of a couple of students who explain why attending a black university is important to them. One spent her high school years as the “token black;” the other had never before had a black teacher. From a different time and perspective, they echo the relief and excitement that alumni from decades earlier recall about the HBCU experience. Amid setbacks and challenges, the cultural heritage that began with contraband schools is still thriving, still urgent.

Element Music Festival
More Film...
Zama
A man of constant sorrow

How do you make a movie about stagnation? A movie that doesn’t just tell you a story about someone wasting away, but that seems to embody a state of physical and moral decay for nearly two hours?

It may not sound like a glowing recommendation, but Lucrecia Martel has made such a movie…

more »
Hearts Beat Loud
Life writ small

Brett Haley’s new movie, Hearts Beat Loud, isn’t quite in the same league as his best film, I’ll See You in My Dreams, but I see what he’s up to, and I’m liking it. At a time when popular American movies are heading in the direction of the huge and the simple, Haley is developing…

more »
Ant-Man and the Wasp
The biggest little superhero

Ant-Man and the Wasp has a pleasingly breakneck, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t surreal glee. It’s a cunningly swift and delightful comedy of scale, in which Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), that quipster mensch of a convict-turned-superhero (has there ever been a movie criminal this nice?),…

more »
Events
Today
Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

12:30pm|Vanier Park

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Missoula Children's Theatre

10:00am|Mount Baker Theatre

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Kids Can Cook

11:00am|Community Food Co-op

Lit Camp

1:00pm|Village Books

Lit Camp

1:00pm|Village Books

Plant Diagnostic Clinics

5:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Cuban Salsa

6:00pm|Bell Tower Studios

Ferndale Cookbook Club

6:30pm|Ferndale Library

Guffawingham

9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

Trove Web
Tomorrow
Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:30pm|Vanier Park

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Tuesday Evening Free Paddles

4:30pm|Community Boating Center

Free Paddles

4:30pm|Community Boating Center

Trove Bingo

5:00pm|Trove Coffee

Artist Demo

6:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Kayak Camping Basics

6:00pm|REI

BIFT

6:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Luscious Lemons

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Sunset History Cruise

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Books on Tap

7:00pm|Josh VanderYacht Memorial Park

Comedy Open Mic

7:30pm|Shakedown

Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Wednesday
Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:30pm|Vanier Park

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Festival of Music Community Concert

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Wednesday Farmers Market

3:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

Sedro-Woolley Farmers Market

3:00pm|Hammer Heritage Square

Downtown Sounds

5:30pm|Downtown Bellingham

Backpacking Basics

6:00pm|REI

Group Run

6:00pm|Skagit Running Company

Swing Connection

6:00pm|Seafarers' Memorial Park

Brewers Cruise

6:30pm|www.whales.com

Vegetarian Pakistani

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Creekside Open Mic

6:30pm|South Whatcom Library

Intro to Improv

7:00pm|Improv Playworks

see our complete calendar »

Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Trove Web 2018 Cascadia Kids