A previous version of this review on Investigation Discovery's new series, "The Injustice Files," misidentified filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.
TV's 'Injustice Files,' 'Pictures Don't Lie' revisit civil rights era
Friday, February 18, 2011; 9:41 AM
Investigation Discovery's new series, "The Injustice Files," hunts for new leads on unsolved murders committed during the civil rights era four and five decades ago. Owing to television's proven power to spur viewers to produce fresh information on cold cases, the show sounds like a fairly good idea.
There is, of course, the small problem that "The Injustice Files" is itself buried in the TV equivalent of a file cabinet, on one of Discovery's many offshoots, with a Friday-night time slot. Seek it out, but expect education rather than closure.
The first episode revisits the slaying of Wharlest Jackson, a father of five whose truck exploded in 1967 as he was driving home from a shift at a Natchez, Miss., rubber factory. Jackson, who helped start Natchez's NAACP chapter, had recently been promoted to a technician job that was previously held by white employees only.
His death made news and federal investigators spent days gathering evidence, hoping to link the bomb to other cases. Months went by, eventually years and decades; no arrests were ever made.
In 2007, the FBI officially reopened a trove of unsolved, racially motivated homicides in the South prior to 1970. "The Injustice Files" is partly a ride-along that features FBI agents assigned to these old files, but is also a history project, retelling the stories of these crimes from the vantage point of survivors and witnesses who remember it like it was yesterday.
Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker whose previous work helped reopen the 1955 Emmett Till murder case, searches for clues and talks to Jackson's children about their father's death. Cynthia Deitle, chief of the FBI's civil rights unit, describes the case for viewers, as well as its dead end, and theorizes that Beauchamp's folksy, inquisitive style may produce new leads. Translation: He's black, cool and armed only with an iPad and a TV crew; she's white and a little too Agent Scully. Ergo, more people will talk to him.
As is typical with a lot of Discovery's programming, a little bit of material is stretched a long way to fill the hour - employing the usual whooshy-swooshy editing effects for drama. It's never certain that "investigation" is the right word for Beauchamp's quest. It's more like a personalized Google search and travelogue - somewhat journalistic, certainly noble-hearted and yet mostly fruitless. It all leads him to a name that the FBI has checked out before - an elderly man who, according to the show, had been charged (but never served time) in connection with several bombings in Mississippi a few years before Jackson's death.
Confronting the man in his Baton Rouge driveway provides "The Injustice Files" with its only fresh news, as well as its unsatisfying conclusion. "We're just gonna halt this conver-say-shun," the man drawls. "Y'all are gettin' to be a pain in th' behind."
Central casting could not have sent a more sinister stereotype of an old, white Southerner, and the "The Injustice Files" all but indicts the man on the spot. Which may work for TV, but is not enough evidence for the law. What happened to Wharlest Jackson remains unjust and unsolved.
'Pictures Don't Lie'
Meanwhile, on Sunday night, CNN's Soledad O'Brien mulls another mystery from the era: Why did Ernest Withers, the renowned Memphis civil rights photographer, also act as a paid informant for the FBI?
Withers had intimate access to the top civil rights leaders of the day, especially Martin Luther King Jr., but also to some of the movement's more militant fringe. It all began in 1955, when Withers, who had specialized in photographing black celebrities, took intentionally shocking open-casket pictures of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager who was beaten and shot in Mississippi. From there, Withers was always on the scene, all across the South.
"Pictures Don't Lie" is a thoughtful exploration of the debate that has gathered around Withers's legacy, as well as an opportunity to consider the breadth of his work. After he died in 2007, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that Withers was secretly paid to provide government agents with insider details, whereabouts and names. Activist and entertainer Dick Gregory, an early subject of Withers's pictures, tells O'Brien that he now thinks of the photographer as a "black Judas" who betrayed the trust of those he photographed.
Others - including Andrew Young, Earl Caldwell, Maxine Smith and three of Withers's children - are far more circumspect and forgiving, to the point of wondering if he even caused any harm. Withers made unforgettably historic images without much pay or recognition, which may have made the FBI's offer more tempting. He took the secret to the grave, and there it might have remained, except that his name was not redacted from certain FBI documents made available through a Freedom of Information Act request.
"Pictures Don't Lie" is refreshingly open to nuance, and O'Brien conducts precise interviews with people still trying to understand Withers's motives. The theme comes back around to the striking quality of his photos. Some may look at the pictures differently now, but the point is that they are looking.
The Injustice Files (one hour) premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on Investigation Discovery.
Pictures Don't Lie (one hour) airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on CNN.