“Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement” is television that matters.
Produced and directed by Emmy-Award-winner Laurens Grant, the documentary skillfully traces the birth and evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement from the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, though Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston and Baltimore.
In each of those last four cases, a black man died at the hands of police, and citizens were there to chronicle some part of the arrest, the death or the immediate aftermath. At the heart of this film is the story of how the global spread of those digital images through social media helped launch a movement that promises to change American life in profound and lasting ways.
The images of protest selected and edited by Grant are emotionally charged and remain as compelling to me seeing them in the film as they did on live TV when I first watched them in real-time coverage from the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore. The words of the talking heads are skillfully shaped into an illuminating discussion of how race, policing, social protest, new media and generational change came together to rock the status quo of business as usual in urban America in recent years.
Some of the voices in the film will be familiar to Baltimore viewers who watch the premiere at 9 tonight on BET. They include: Devin Allen, whose photography of the uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray was featured on the cover of Time magazine; Kwame Rose, whose confrontation with Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera went viral; and DeRay Mckesson, who recently ran in the Democratic primary for mayor of Baltimore.
Other voices include #blacklivesmatter co-founders Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, Princeton University professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and actor Jesse Williams, who is executive producer of the documentary.
Typical of the narrative clarity Grant brings to this history is a sequence on the birth of #blacklivesmatter that starts 3 minutes and 40 seconds into the film.
Images of angry protesters in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Martin, are followed by Garza explaining how she reacted to the images she was seeing on TV.
“Many people were trying to make sense of what happened, but I felt like the ways that people were trying to make sense of what happened and what we needed to be doing about it were actually destructive,” she says. “And so, I wrote a letter to black people on Facebook saying there was nothing wrong with us and we deserved dignity and respect.”
Cullors next appears onscreen saying, “I came across Alicia’s post hours later. I understand there is this thing called a hashtag, and you can make something go viral. And I put a hashtag in front of it saying #blacklivesmatter.”
Writer and cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis follows that by connecting the movement to another point in civil rights history: “Trayvon Martin was the tragedy that broke us open. He was our Emmett Till. But there was no one with a Twitter account around Emmett Till to tell us what really happened, right? But there is now.”
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Chicago boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Outrage over his death is considered a major contributing factor to the Civil Rights movement.
That’s how you use talking heads to connect the dots. In this case, from Martin to Facebook, to Twitter and Till.
I do have one issue with the film. The last act of it attempts to answer the question where the movement goes from here. Two of the people featured are Mckesson and Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore's state’s attorney.
Mckesson’s run for mayor gets big play, with him saying, “I am running for mayor of Baltimore because we need to implement changes on the inside. It’s about concrete things that can happen at the policy level to structurally end police violence.”
Mosby’s indictment of six police officers in the death of Gray is also shown in this segment intended to illustrate progress.
I don’t disagree on the accomplishments of Black Lives Matter.
In fact, I am willing to accept Taylor saying, “The Black Lives Matter movement is the most important development in black life in the last 40 years … .”
But in a piece I wrote days after the death of Freddie Gray, I was warned by one of the people I interviewed about getting too far ahead of reality in arguing that citizen videos and social media were having the same kind of societal impact that network news footage of police attacking peaceful civil rights protesters in the 1960s South had.
Documentary filmmaker Soledad O’Brien said that while she agreed on the power of citizen video, she questioned how much progress has been and would be made as a result of it in the real world of race as it is lived by black Americans.
"Keep in mind that we saw Eric Garner killed on camera and the officer wasn't indicted," she said. "And a glance at the cases that proceed to trial and conviction show the deck is stacked against civilians."
Facts are facts, and “Stay Woke” should have included the results of Mckesson’s mayoral campaign in which he finished sixth with about 2 percent of the vote. I was disappointed by how little impact his voice seemed to have on the discussion about Baltimore’s future during the election.
And of the six police officers who were indicted in the death of Gray, two have come to trial so far. One ended in a hung jury, and the other ended in not-guilty verdicts on all counts.
I am not saying those facts change the conclusion of progress being made. But they need to be included, and perhaps briefly discussed.
I contacted BET to ask if there might be a postscript to the film with those updates, and was told there will not be on the film viewers see tonight.
I hope Grant, who made an important film, will consider adding it to subsequent versions for the sake of giving viewers the fullest historical picture possible.