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CNN, PBS offer powerful, timely explorations of race, white supremacy and the far right | COMMENTARY

Beulah Mae Donald, who took on the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama in the 1980s after her 19-year-old son was lynched. She is featured in the CNN documentary series "The People V. The Klan" premiering April 11. Courtesy of CNN.
Beulah Mae Donald, who took on the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama in the 1980s after her 19-year-old son was lynched. She is featured in the CNN documentary series "The People V. The Klan" premiering April 11. Courtesy of CNN. (Courtesy of CNN / HANDOUT)

Two powerful narratives will appear on television in coming days that will put a new perspective and understanding on important events of the day including the trial of Derek Chauvin, the death of George Floyd and the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. Both are not to miss productions.

CNN’s “The People V. The Klan” and PBS’ “American Insurrection” are not directly connected, one deals with the lynching of a Black teenager in Alabama in 1981 and the other with the rise of extremism during the presidency of Donald Trump. But they deeply explore some of the same themes that so dominate American life today: racism, hate, white supremacy, domestic terrorism and police as agents of fear and repression.

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CNN’s four-part documentary series features a Black mother, Beulah Mae Donald, who in 1980s Alabama stood up to the Ku Klux Klan to demand justice for her 19-year-old son, Michael, who was lynched by Klansmen while on his way to buy cigarettes one night.

Yes, lynched in 1981 by a group of Klansmen who operated more or less openly in Mobile, Alabama. The teenager was found hung from a tree in a neighborhood where known Klan members lived. This documentary isn’t just an illuminating history lesson. The producers skillfully explain the connection between what happened 40 years ago in Alabama to the Black Lives Matter movement today and the murder of Floyd while he lay facedown and handcuffed with Chauvin’s knee on his neck for more than nine minutes last spring.

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The PBS documentary is a coproduction of “Frontline” and ProPublica, which have been working together since the 2017 show of far-right force in Charlottesville to doggedly track white supremacy, militias, the rise of hate groups and the infiltration by some members of those organizations into law enforcement agencies and the armed forces. “Frontline” and ProPublica have been fearless in exposing domestic terrorists and eloquent in telling this troubling American story in their “Documenting Hate” series with correspondent A.C. Thompson. “American Insurrection” continues in that tradition connecting the dots from the Tiki torches on the campus of the University of Virginia in the summer of 2017 to the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“The People V. The Klan” places the story of Michael Donald’s lynching within the historical context of the murder of teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. The 14-year-old Till was accused of offending a white woman in a grocery store. The connections between the two events go beyond the facts of two innocent Black teenagers being viciously beaten and murdered by white supremacists in the South.

Beulah Mae Donald and other family members say in the CNN production that she was inspired by the courageous example of Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who insisted her son’s casket be open during his funeral so that mourners and the world could see the horrific mutilation of his face after the brutal beating. Donald spent the rest of her life until her death in 1988 as an advocate seeking justice in the death of her son. She would live to not only see some of her son’s murderers indicted for their crimes, but also win a $7 million verdict in a civil suit against the national Ku Klux Klan.

Offering viewers a prism through which to watch the documentary, each of the four episodes opens with a series of voices talking about race and law enforcement.

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“The body of a Black man has been found hanging from a tree in Mobile, Alabama,” a newscaster says in the opening.

“Lynching is a tool to control and oppress Black people,” a woman says.

“Klans are not running around with white sheets over their heads, but it’s still happening,” another voice adds. “Today, people are horrified of the police.”

That last statement resonated profoundly for me with the testimony of 18-year-old Darnella Frazier in the first week of the Chauvin trial. Frazier, who filmed the video of Floyd’s death that was seen around the world, testified that she sent her 9-year-old cousin into a nearby store when they arrived on the scene so that the child would not see “a man terrified, scared, begging for his life” and possibly be traumatized for it the rest of her life.

Listening to the teenager, I came to understand how some police officers historically have tried to terrify Black citizens into submission with scenarios of brutality like the one with Floyd in Minneapolis. And in a very direct way, such displays of dominance and torture are much like the cross burnings and nighttime attacks by the Klan. This series connects those dots for viewers in the very first minutes of the film, that’s how focused the filmmakers are in making sure the relevancy of this history is understood by their audience

Part One, which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, looks at the lynching and the way the Mobile Police Department and other law enforcement authorities did little to try and solve it. Investigators call the teen’s mother regularly to say they are working on the case, but little seems to happen and the calls just worsen the mother’s pain, according to her daughter. At the same time she is also becoming more determined in her struggle for answers and justice and joins Black advocates in the community calling for a real investigation.

Part Two, which follows at 10 p.m. Sunday, chronicles the efforts of Donald and a Black state senator to get someone with authority to pay attention to her son’s death. That help arrives and the tide of inaction starts to turn when the federal government intervenes and an assistant U.S. attorney launches a true investigation. The killers are not hard to find. Some of them live on the very street where the teen’s body was found; one of them is a known leader of the Alabama Klan. What also is interesting is what Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, did or did not do in connection with this case. Hint: It’s not something to be proud of, according to almost everyone in the film except Sessions.

The third and fourth parts of the television special focus on the criminal trials and civil case. The narrative arc of justice denied, justice demanded and finally some hard-earned justice won by Donald is an emotionally rewarding one. For all the keen analysis in this film from participants and experts, “The People V. The Klan” is an engaging, dramatic production.

Even though “American Insurrection” is presented more in the style of investigative journalism than a historical account of a battle against evil by one remarkable woman, it is just as engaging of a TV production. As in previous looks at the rise of hate by “Frontline” and ProPublica, much of the narrative power here comes from the journey of Thompson, the correspondent and narrator.

The documentary opens in the empty halls of Congress early on the morning on Jan. 7, the day after the storming of the Capitol.

“It’s hard to believe that just yesterday these halls were flooded with pro-Trump rioters,” Thompson is heard saying in voice-over.

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The camera shows him walking the empty halls as he continues, “Today, four people are dead. This is how the Trump presidency ends. It’s shocking, but there had also been warning signs. I wonder what form these violent energies take now. To find an answer, I feel like I have to go back to the beginning.”

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The scene shifts to Thompson sitting at night in what looks like a campus.

“If the Trump presidency ended with an insurrection at the Capitol, for me, it began here in Charlottesville, Virginia, waiting on a darkened campus for the torches to arrive,” Thompson says, as the screen fills with an overhead shot of the long line of marchers, their Tiki torches lighting the sky like a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in the 1930s. “The rally was called Unite the Right, white supremacists out in the open unafraid and soon violent.”

That’s the arc of rising hate in America today: from Charlottesville early in the Donald Trump presidency to the insurrection he incited on Jan. 6. as he was bitterly leaving office. No one in television or print has chronicled and probed it more deeply than Thompson, “Frontline” and ProPublica.

“American Insurrection” premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on MPT and other PBS stations.

CNN’s “The People V. The Klan” premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday with a second hour airing at 10 p.m. Sunday.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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