“Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer” begins with workers marking off patches of green grass with orange paint. The beeps of a bulldozer sounded as excavation at the Oaklawn cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, got underway last summer. Forensic anthropologist had turned up data that suggested there might be a mass grave at the site. Director Dawn Porter’s insightful, chilling, often elegant documentary about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and the other virulent outbursts of anti-Black violence that preceded it — making 1919 one of the deadliest for Black Americans at the hands of white mobs — premieres June 18 on National Geographic and Hulu.
“Rise Again” is a hard but welcome addition to a growing collection of movies and television series — fiction and nonfiction — that insists viewers reckon with the nation’s violent, anti-Black past, a past that has carried over into our present. That it begins streaming on Juneteenth — a complicated, powerful holiday — is no small matter. It seems that for the foreseeable future, jubilation is necessarily entwined with jarring evidence of pathological racism.
Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the massacre that left one of the country’s most prosperous towns at the time in rubble and ash. As many as 300 people are believed to have been killed and 35 square blocks were razed by fire, amounting to the near-eradication of a citizenry and a thriving economy. Across the train tracks from Tulsa, the black enclave of Greenwood (known as “Black Wall Street”) had grown into a bustling business center. Victims of a historical record rife with gaps and intentional redactions, quite a few Americans learned of the massacre only recently, by way of HBO’s 2019 series “Watchmen.” “Rise Again” goes a far piece in remedying that ignorance.
In “Rise Again,” the unearthing of the dead is a political act, a moral act, a spiritual act. Though at the movie’s end, it was not conclusive. “I feel I had to be there when they dug for the first time to search for the bodies of Black people who were killed,” says DeNeen Brown.
Brown features prominently in “Rise Again” but also in “Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten” (by Jonathan Silvers), which premiered on PBS earlier this month. (She was a producer on that doc). Here, the award-winning reporter for the Washington Post acts in many ways as the film’s Virgil guiding audiences through the inferno of Jim Crow brutality. She is also a native of Oklahoma.
While a few other interviewees make dual appearances in Porter’s film — among them, Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum and Oklahoma representative Regina Goodwin — the director covers the material with a deft and delicate sense of balance. She finds ways to recount the story without retraumatizing black viewers with overwhelming evidence of despicable treatment, while grabbing hold of those viewers who may wish to slumber in the fantasy of American equanimity. “Rise Again” argues with eloquence that to truly understand the evil done, we need to grasp what was there before the terrorism.
Brown’s role in this film underscores what Porter, a former attorney, brings to her work: a nimble respect for context, as well as a nuanced grasp of power and how institutions leverage it for good and ill. Last year, her very different docs, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and “The Way I See It,” gave entertaining and grounded glimpses of the work of the later Georgia maverick (and official White House photographer) Pete Souza.
Among Porter’s skills is her ability to ask questions of institutions while hewing to the human subjects driving her narratives. The press gets more than a cameo, as she shows the influence the burgeoning Black press of the period, as well as the role so-called mainstream papers had. A Tulsa newspaper headline fomented the violence (“Nab Negro for Attack of Girl in Elevator” read a headline). On a more subtle note, Brown talks about the way she had to convince her editors that the digging of one gravesite was a beginning not the end of Tulsa’s story and its importance to the national understanding.
It’s worth noting that the event that was said to precipitate was a familiar one: A 19-year-old shoeshine worker was accused of assaulting a young elevator operator. Thanks in part to the work of a group of Greenwood men who arrived at the courthouse with arms to protect him from being lynched, the man survived, the charges were dropped, and he was lost to history. The young woman whom he allegedly assaulted never accused him — to the contrary — and she refused to press charges.
“Rise Again” builds a case that after the Civil War, Black achievement was often met with brutality, even carnage. Porter shows us what that success looked like. Making use of a trove of archival images and recordings, the director gives that post-slavery resilience a much-needed closeup. Images of Black men on horseback, men and their wives dressed in their finest out for a stroll, and soldiers beaming in their doughboy uniforms.
The Red Summer’s bloodshed and arson foreshadow Tulsa, and surged as Black soldiers returned from the frontlines of World War I. There were massacres in Omaha, Chicago, Washington and Memphis. There were also examples of resistance: Soldiers fought whites on the streets of Washington, and the NAACP held the famous Silent March in protest. In addition to a number of Tulsans, the film also spends time with descendants of the massacre in Elaine, Ark.
The forensic work at Tulsa’s cemetery provides rich metaphors about America’s past needing to be made present, about the ghosts needing to be called forth. As true as that may be, this advance sounds too disconnected from the grief and trauma. After all, the search for mass graves has profoundly personal meaning for the descendants of those slain. In a scene late in the movie, Brown stands with two Elaine residents, representatives of the Elaine Legacy Center. In a flat and fallow field, the three of them pray, calling forth the souls of the murdered to speak frankly to us — to speak and then rest‚ while the work continues.