“My grandparents were colored. My parents were Negroes. And me, I’m black.”
So says the amiable host and creator of Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has the demeanor of a friendly math teacher, and is a patient, open conversationalist. As a black man who was a teen in the 60s, he doesn’t hesitate to admit that he greatly benefited from affirmative action, going to Ivy League schools and becoming a professor himself. Because of his own experiences in the last 50 years, this journey of African-Americans in the last 50 years is a very personal and completely fascinating documentary.
Why are race relations in the United States still such a hot mess after the optimism of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s movement in the 60s? Gates takes us on a four-hour tour back to the mid-60s, right after Selma. MLK is still alive, but, as Gates explains, many had jumped ahead of him with the demands for voting rights in Lowndes County, Alabama, a heavily African-American county where people were afraid to vote. With rousing activist Stokely Carmichael encouraging them, the locals created a new party, which had the symbol of a black panther for those voters who could not read (fascinating!). A later, more riotous and violent group borrowed that very same symbol later.
As the film goes decade by decade, it celebrates as much as it exposes. By the 80s, pop culture celebrated many black performers, athletes, and celebrities. Incomes for African-America families soared under Bill Clinton. But Clinton was the one that pass anti-drug laws that ended up targeting poor, mostly black communities. He may have been hugely popular with African-Americans, but incarceration of black men skyrocketed since then because of laws Clinton passed.
Watching a summary of several decades expose a frustrating see-saw in our American history. There are success stories like Oprah, Robert L. Johnson (of BET), Michael Jordan, or President Obama. Then there are failures, like poverty, terrible schools, incarceration, and targeting by police. Not to mention it seems every decade there is riot like Watts, the LA riots after Rodney King, and Ferguson. Gates doesn’t pretend to offer answers, but admits surprise. With how much that has changed for the better since MLK, there is still a long way to go for there to be racial equality in the U.S.