When Betsy West and Julie Cohen were pitching their new documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray,” they found they were getting the same response: “Why don’t I know about this person?”
West recalls the film’s producer and co-writer, Talleah Bridges McMahon, coming to her and Cohen after she had researched Murray’s life and career. “She said, ‘This just makes me so mad that I don’t know more about Pauli Murray,’ ” West said.
Audiences will no doubt have the same reaction when they see “My Name is Pauli Murray” at this year’s AFI Docs film festival, which gets underway Tuesday. Indeed, Why wasn’t I told? might be the unofficial catchphrase of the 2021 AFI Docs program.
Unlike last year’s online-only festival, this year’s will combine virtual and in-person screenings of 77 nonfiction features, shorts and episodic series, a notable number of which excavate buried histories and forgotten icons. (That number is up from last year’s slate, although well short of past programs that occasionally topped 100 films. The Washington Post is a media sponsor of AFI Docs.)
With “Summer of Soul (. . .Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised),” first-time director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson revisits the Harlem Cultural Festival, a 1969 New York concert series known as the “Black Woodstock,” by way of footage that sat untouched in a basement for 50 years before being rediscovered. “The One and Only Dick Gregory” reminds viewers of the offstage life of the titular comedian. “Rebel Hearts” examines the Immaculate Heart Community in Los Angeles, where a group of revolutionary nuns challenged the male Catholic hierarchy in the 1960s and ’70s. In “The Neutral Ground,” “Daily Show” producer CJ Hunt explores debate over Confederate monuments through the lens of Reconstruction-era myths that still govern modern-day narratives about racism and slavery.
Bob Gazzale, CEO of the American Film Institute, which produces AFI Docs, was similarly struck by the through-line in this year’s festival, its 19th edition. Noting the current culture of mutual mistrust, media silos and contested realities, he observes that “ultimately what we’re all looking for in this day and age is truth, and we find it in the past. It seems like the audiences and the filmmakers are on the same quest, and there’s something powerful in that. What is real? If we can prove it’s from the past, it’s a solid foundation on which to stand.”
That sense of revelation extends to AFI Docs’ opening-night film “Naomi Osaka,” which in light of the tennis champion’s recent withdrawal from the French Open reinforces the idea that there is still more to learn about even the most public figures. “Let’s think of this person differently now,” Gazzale says. “Particularly with this news out of Paris.”
The impulse to look back also reflects an instinctive response to the past several years, which have encompassed a how-did-we-get-here whiplash induced by the pivot between the Obama and Trump administrations; the #MeToo movement; a pandemic that took hundreds of thousands of lives; and the murder of George Floyd and other African Americans whose deaths at the hands of police prompted a reckoning that still reverberates.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re seeing these reflective pieces of our history now,” says filmmaker Dawn Porter, “because there’s a sadness that we all missed it when we were in it.”
Porter directed one of the most highly anticipated films at AFI Docs: “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer,” which follows Washington Post reporter DeNeen L. Brown as she uncovers new details about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The film joins several other documentaries that have been released to recognize the 100th anniversary of the event, during which as many as 300 Black people were killed and thousands more were left homeless. In “Rise Again” Porter and Brown contextualize the violence as the culmination of years of white supremacist terror against Black citizens and communities, a chapter of American history that, like the massacre itself, has traditionally been downplayed or overlooked.
That erasure, Porter believes, helps explain why today’s America is still mired in a toxic cycle of seemingly unbridgeable misunderstanding and conflict.
“I do think if we had been exploring and unpacking and contextualizing this history earlier, we’d be so much farther along in our efforts to improve the future,” Porter says. “It feels like we’re still in this learning phase. There was progress, but there was progress without learning. . . . [But] there’s a pain that comes with the learning. And you cannot avoid that pain. It’s going to come out one way or another.”
It’s precisely the avoidance of pain that has led several states to enact or prepare to enact laws against teaching “critical race theory” in schools, with legislators decrying curriculums that confront historical and structural racism as efforts to demonize and discomfit White teachers and students. (As “The Neutral Ground” shows, these laws uncannily echo the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s successful campaign to whitewash hard truths about slavery and the Civil War from Southern textbooks.) “The moment you make racism more than an isolated incident, when you begin to talk about it as systemic, as baked into the way we live our lives . . . people don’t like that,” National Academy of Education President Gloria Ladson-Billings told The Post last month. “It runs counter to a narrative that we want to tell ourselves about who we are.”
To tell us who we are, it has fallen to documentaries — as well as such recent fiction films and series as “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Watchmen,” “Lovecraft Country” and “The Underground Railroad” — to expose the most discomfiting truths that educators either won’t or aren’t allowed to tell. “You learn through repetition,” Porter says. “You learn by turning the story around 180 degrees, and you have ‘Lovecraft Country.’ Then you turn it around a little bit more and you have a documentary.”
It’s been said in recent years that documentaries are the new journalism. Now, with schools and academia designated culture-war hot zones, it seems that they must function as the new historians and educators as well — especially with younger audiences who have been increasingly grativitating to nonfiction storytelling on streaming sites and podcasts.
Pedro Kos, who directed “Rebel Hearts,” recalls seeing the documentary “Bus 174” in his native Rio de Janeiro. The film, about a 2000 hostage incident that became a real-time media sensation, completely reframed his understanding of the event. “It shook me to the core,” he says. “It unearthed a history that was not taught, was not known. And it helped shape the way I see the current situation, and see the root causes of such strife and inequality.” Still, he’s ambivalent about assuming the role of teacher. “We should never replace traditional educators,” he says of his fellow documentarians. “But I do think we can work alongside.”
Kos notes that the patriarchal pushback against women’s autonomy documented in “Rebel Hearts” is in full force today, demonstrated by the Vatican’s recent change to its penal code, ordering the immediate excommunication of women attempting to become ordained (or anyone helping them). “Rebel Hearts” is all the more timely considering that co-writer and producer Shawnee Isaac-Smith conducted the film’s core interviews more than 20 years ago, saving the footage until she found the right creative partners and cultural moment to bring it to light. With networks, studios and audiences more sensitized to sexism, Isaac-Smith says, “Now is the best time for it to come out. Having waited all these years, the documentary was waiting for the best time to be presented to the world.”
When he was being interviewed about his Amazon series “The Underground Railroad,” director Barry Jenkins explained that one of his goals was to show present-day descendants of enslaved African Americans the supreme acts of sacrifice and self-preservation it took for their offspring to survive. “I believe my ancestors are responsible for one of the greatest acts of collective parenting the world has ever seen,” he said.
A similar case can be made for Isaac-Smith’s prescience in interviewing the Immaculate Heart sisters, many of whom died before “Rebel Hearts” was finished. Or Pauli Murray, who meticulously preserved a life’s worth of materials and shipped them to Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, where they were “just waiting to be discovered,” according to Cohen. Or television producer Hal Tulchin, whose images come back to vibrant life in “Summer of Soul.” Or Brown bearing witness to the generational trauma of Tulsa and Red Summer in “Rise Again.”
As important as these films are for the facts they impart, they also represent profound acts of caretaking, stewardship and projection into the future on behalf of subsequent generations — lost causes that have endured long enough to be found.
“Somebody’s got to know what to ask,” Porter says. “I didn’t think to ask, ‘Were there multiple massacres of Black people at the end of World War I?’ It’s just an insane proposition. But we’re asking it now. I think that whatever has come before, the question is, what do we do now? Now that you have this information — as an audience, as a people and as a culture — what are you going to do with it?”
AFI Docs takes place June 22-27, virtually and at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. Visit docs.afi.com.