Albert Einstein, Do The Right Thing (1989), Genius, Historical Documentaries, How We Got Here (2015), Racism, Selma, Selma (2014), The Men Who Built America (2014), W. E. B. Du Bois, Wernher von Braun, Whiteness
Or for that matter, where’s the documentary on Alain Locke, Anna Julia Cooper, John Hope Franklin, Horace Mann Bond, Richard Wright, Mary Church Terrell, and so many other Black intellectuals, writers and educators? If your answer is, “check out California Newsreel,” or PBS for a documentary on the Harlem Renaissance, then you obviously don’t watch TV for knowledge. Yes, California Newsreel and other independents have made documentaries on many of these important figures in American and African American history. But other than a handful of PBS documentaries done under the American Masters series, a few here and there on Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Jack Johnson, and Marcus Garvey, and a 1993 documentary on the Harlem Renaissance, there isn’t much in the land of historical documentaries if you’re outside academia.
Still, I began with Du Bois for a reason. Given his influence on African American studies, American studies, American history, African American history, sociology, psychology, higher education, poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, Whiteness studies, Transatlantic studies, civil rights activism, and the NAACP, it would seem a documentary for a broad audience is a bit overdue. He died in 1963 at the age of ninety-five, and February 23 marks 147 years since his original year of birth (1868). Most of us, though, can’t even pronounce his name correctly, assume that he’s French (read “White” here) or stereotype him as an egghead when we find out that his PhD in history’s from Harvard.
Yet, year in and year out, TV season after TV season, films and documentaries are made about White moguls and intellectuals, as if the only people with brains have been White males. Just in the past year alone, there have been at least three miniseries/documentaries on the great White male in history: Ancient Impossible: Ancient Einsteins, How We Got Here, and The Men Who Built America. Apparently the only smart ancients were Greeks who just happened to live in Egypt and master-race true believers like Henry Ford and Wernher von Braun built our modern world with their bare hands. Even ordinary White males ought to be insulted, no? Especially since Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller apparently built the country without their forefathers’ muscle, sweat and blood.
But that’s just it, according to Du Bois (via Black Reconstruction, 1935). Even though many of these documentaries all but wipe ordinary people out of existence, ordinary Whites can glean a psychological wage from Whiteness just from seeing someone who looks like them represented in pixels, especially White males. Even if they can in no way become that person. That level of analysis alone would make Du Bois worthy of a well-financed documentary. That is, of course, if he were White and if we pronounced his name as ” Doo-Bwah.”
Why I am bringing this up on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday holiday? Isn’t Black History Month and Du Bois’ birthday next month? Precisely because we need to reflect on what we want to see on screen and in other places in our lives. Every day, every month, every time. Selma‘s doing gangbusters, is well-written, and got great acting. What more can you ask for? Yet the Oscar committee all but shunned it because it’s a “Black film” that took a smidgen of poetic license. And, because Selma showed what everyone knows from listening to the LBJ tapes — that one of the great presidents who pushed through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Right Act was also a racist — the awards folks have snubbed it.
Seriously, how many times do we need to hear how great it was for men who weren’t self-made and who benefited from government subsidies to become billionaires at a time when a $500 a year salary made the average American man affluent (1880, by the way)? Or how much more to I need to hear to know that Einstein spent far more time pondering the cosmos than he did working on his marriage or being there for his two kids?
Too often we put great people on a pedestal as if they never had diarrhea or had days where their best efforts just weren’t good enough. Even Du Bois wasn’t an exception in this regard. He lost his only son when the latter was only eighteen months old, cheated repeatedly on his wife, and almost singlehandedly got Marcus Garvey arrested. But, then again, shouldn’t this make Du Bois documentary-worthy, too? Du Bois was a quintessential American, after all.