With the advent of specialty television stations like The History Channel and Discovery there has never been a healthier market for documentary movies. Gone are the days when the documentary was considered so commercially non-viable that aside from the occasional nature film produced by people like The Disney Corporation, the chances of them receiving any public attention were minimal. Now, aside from the above-mentioned channels, film festivals like Hot Docs, the annual Toronto round-up of international documentaries, have sprung up that not only give people the opportunity to see them in the cinema, but give the movies and their producers the exposure needed to attract a distributor.
Documenting an event, a person's life, or any of the other subjects that end up being grist for a filmmakers mill, traditionally the camera played the part of neutral observer. Never commenting or passing judgment, merely recording, it was a supposedly impartial eye that allowed us to be a fly on the wall in rooms so that we could overhear those conversations we would normally miss. Of course even in the pre-Michael Moore, documentary-with-an-axe-to-grind days, objectivity was highly subjective, as the director and producer could still control what we saw and heard by what they chose to shoot or not shoot.
Producers of documentaries dealing with historical matters face different challenges than those working on contemporary issues as they are unable to film the events under discussion. Depending on the time frame they may be able to find archival footage that's applicable, but on the whole they are reliant on voice-overs, stills, and other static means of disseminating the information, including the infamous "talking head". Experts in the field are usually filmed sitting down so that they are only visible from the waist up, and become nothing more than talking heads holding forth on the subject matter. While they lend an air of credibility to a film, unless they are particularly interesting or dynamic, too many talking heads can sap the life right out out of it.
With a subject matter as interesting as the history of African Americans in New York City, you'd think that the directors of New York Noir: The History Of Black New York, produced by Little Dizzy Home Video would have had no problems making an interesting and informative film. Of course they suffered from the constraints of not having any footage dating back to the days when the city was called New Amsterdam and ruled by the Dutch in he early 1600s. Still it was to be hoped that they would have found a more interesting way of presenting the material than relying as heavily upon "talking heads" as they did, or at least found ones who were marginally more interesting than those they ended up with.
Instead of simply laying out the history of New York as seen through the eyes of the African American community, what they've done is divide the movie up into a series of chapters dealing with the various issues and topics relating to the theme of the movie. Starting with the history of black New York City, the chapters cover such topics as politics, civil rights, business, heroes, entertainment, and the great Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. While the movie makes certain that you know it won't be shrinking from dealing with the truth of the black experience in New York City (the opening chapter is called "Living A Lie" in reference to the fact that in spite of the constitution's claim that all men are created equal, African Americans went from slavery to second class citizens) there is still something about its focus that rings hollow.
Now, obviously this movie was made prior to the most recent American presidential election so they make no mention of Barack Obama's election, and Colin Powell is from New York City, but to place him at the zenith when talking about heroes seemed to me a little unsettling. In fact the whole hero section dealt with African American participation in American wars dating back to the Revolution, as if being a soldier was the sole outlet for heroism. Again they didn't stint from talking about the how black soldiers were allowed to die for their country in WWII but were treated like dirt upon their return home from the front, but they glossed over Vietnam by simply saying many blacks served with distinction.
There was no mention of how, under a policy known as McNamara's 100,000 in honour of Robert McNamara who authored the plan, physical and intelligence requirements for entrance into the armed forces were lowered. Or that from 1966 on, each year, for three years, recruiters swept through the urban centres and rural areas snapping up the uneducated to serve as front line troops, resulting in a disproportionate number of poor blacks serving and dying in Vietnam.
While the makers of the movie did a credible job in explaining how the Harlem Renaissance came about, they only briefly mentioned how the bottom was allowed to fall out because most of the real estate, including apartments and businesses, were owned by whites and that the city officials did its best to ignore spending any money on infrastructure, schools, and health care for the district. Although the movie went to great lengths to extol the virtues of the few African American business people who were successful in the early part of the twentieth century and showed it was possible for "blacks to pursue the American Dream", the poverty, crime, and horrible living conditions that have been the lot of the majority of blacks in New York City is glossed over.
I also question the fact that in the Civil Rights segment of the movie they focus so much attention on Marcus Garvey, without once mentioning his infamous "Back To Africa" policy which received support from folk like the Ku Klux Klan, or barely mentioned Shirley Chisholm. While they did say that as New York's Twelfth District congresswoman she was the first African American woman to enter Congress, they failed to mention that she sought the Democratic nomination for President in 1972. To give the movie its due, they did present one of the fairest treatments of Malcolm X that I've seen, mentioning that he never advocated violence, only self-defence, and how after making his pilgrimage to Mecca he began preaching universal brotherhood.
To try and cover a topic as complex as the history of African Americans in New York City, as New York Noir: The History Of Black New York attempts with any sort of authority would require far more time than this film's 50-minute length allows. While they don't shy away from mentioning the usual stories about the battles for integration and the overt racism of city hall and the New York police in the past, they also make no attempt to go below the surface of any of the issues or mention anything about what life is like currently.
There is no mention of how badly the population has been damaged by the HIV/AIDS virus, or the affects of drugs and its related violence on the community. Nor is there any examination of the state of the school system in the inner city, the availability of health care, how many African Americans in New York have health insurance, or what the economic prospects for the current generation of young blacks coming of age in New York City are like.
By ignoring these types of details, making injustice sound like a thing of the past, and glossing over some of the more insidious crimes against the community, this movie doesn't even come close to telling the history of black people in New York City as its title claims. It's movies like this one that perpetuate the lie that everything is all right with American society today, and inequality is a thing of the past. That's a dangerous message to be sending, and the harm a movie like this can do shouldn't be underestimated. It's a very good example of how through omission a documentary movie can offer a distorted view of the truth without resorting to telling outright lies.