Terms that trigger some people are repeated in this film, words like “systemic racism” and “reparations”. They are supported by in-depth explorations of how history repeats itself at the expense of black people. Drew Diamond, the former Tulsa police chief, describes police calling the black areas they patrolled “war zones,” and that’s what they are trained to believe. “When you hire and train people with the idea that they’re warriors,” he says, “they’re going to seek war. This is corroborated by Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report on the Tulsa PD, which they titled “Get on the Ground”. Director Jonathan Silvers completes Michel Martin’s narrative on this subject with images of black men shot by cops, something far more triggering than any phrase or terminology. Equally troublesome is the appearance of armed white militiamen during the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the panic in the city of Tulsa over a street painting similar to the one that adorned a Washington DC street after the murder of George Floyd.
“Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten” dedicates time to residents seeking change and improvement in the community. We hear from Greg Robinson II, a community activist who mentors residents of North Tulsa. His protégé, Tyrance Billingley II, tells of how black residents drop out of town after school because they don’t feel they can do it. A talented graduate “would be applauded” when he announced his departure from Tulsa. So Billingsley created a business plan to bring a tech hub to Tulsa, an opportunity that could keep young talent from jumping ship the second they can leave. I wish there was more to this particular project, but the documentary has plenty of other details to cover in its 84 minutes of execution. I also wish that more time had been devoted to the science and research of the discovery of hidden mass graves. These two subjects alone deserve documentaries.
A movie like this is as good as its talking heads. Everyone who appears has something instructive to share, from current Mayor GT Bynum to Eric Stover and Betsy Warner, both involved in excavation projects. Also featured is the pastor of Greenwood’s destroyed and rebuilt central house of worship, AME Church. Someone discusses the cruel ‘what if’ game as in ‘what if the owner of a successful hotel has been allowed to build his brand over time, sowing the seeds of black generational wealth? But the person who best connects the past and the present is Vanessa Hall-Harper, a member of Tulsa City Council. Speaking of the aforementioned armed militiamen who “patrolled” the demonstration, she said that they “represented the same crowd that was represented in 1921 when the massacre took place”. His words are not hyperbole if one pays attention to current events.
“Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten” works best as a learning tool, filling in some of the blanks in American history, details that have been intentionally drafted by the same types of people who wish to continue this writing. It runs on PBS on May 31stst, just in time for the anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.