Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street (2021) movie review

While watching “Dreamland”, I was particularly drawn to the fascinating recreation of Koroma’s time. Vibrant colorful animation inspired by Harlem Renaissance painters like Jacob Lawrence and William Johnson makes the electricity of everyday events in Greenwood – a place once described as Harlem, Bourbon Street and Chocolate City all in one – in dizzying terms. Black-and-white archival footage from the time recounts daily rituals: going to church, running tracks, basketball and dancing, with an observational eye that reminded me of film recordings of Oscar Micheaux and Zora Neale Hurston on Black Lives in the 1920s and 1930s. In two different clips, for example, two African-American men, filled with a bubbling aura born of economic freedom, take off their caps and smile for the camera. And from the surviving logs of residents, we can also trace the growing tensions caused by white jealousy of black wealth that led to death.

Koroma’s 98-minute documentary, however, is not just a reminder of that heartbreaking day. She also records the consequences in stunning detail. While the story of the massacre concerns a large-scale murder, its burial illustrates the displacement and erasure of black history by whites. Several talking heads, including current city mayor GT Bynum, openly admit their Oklahoma history classes included little information about the tragedy. In 1997, the state legislature appointed an 11-person commission to investigate the events of 1921. They interviewed more than 300 Tulsans, some 51 survivors, and learned that mass graves had reportedly been reported in the cemetery of ‘Oaklawn. Nevertheless, it is not until 2020 that excitement is granted. Throughout Koroma’s investigation, she looks back on the ongoing research of archaeologists and members of the African-American commission full of hope for the descendants.

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Koroma also sketches a contemporary threat hanging over the old Black Wall Street: gentrification. For decades, Greenwood’s footprint has shrunk, whether through urban renewal plans – a subterfuge in the 1970s to remove black soil to create a freeway – or the sale of property to white newcomers.

At times Koroma’s film is visually repetitive and relies heavily on drone shots to capture the excavation effort and the yellow letters of “Black Lives Matter” that are scrawled across the street. I also wish more footage was shared from eyewitness testimony. At one point, a talking head explains the power behind first person testimony. Failure to fully harness this power is a missed opportunity. When footage of the 1999 survivors is released, that’s when the story is most palpable.

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