Tulsa massacre documentaries offer a deep dive into tragedy

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Several documentary filmmakers – some backed by NBA superstars – highlight the historically ignored 1921 Tulsa race massacre, one of the most gruesome tragedies in American history.

LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are among those releasing documentaries based on the racially motivated massacre. The projects come on the 100th anniversary of the massacre in Greenwood, a black-owned business and residential district in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Each documentary takes a unique look at how Greenwood’s thriving community – dubbed Black Wall Street due to the number of black-owned businesses – was wiped out in a two-day attack by a white mob. In the process, at least 300 blacks were killed. More than a thousand houses were set on fire and others looted, leaving around 10,000 residents displaced and homeless and the black business district destroyed.

“It has to do with the fact that African Americans are being systematically evicted from their lands with property and property destroyed,” said Stanley Nelson, who co-directed “Tulsa Burning: 1921 Race Massacre” with Marco Williams. Westbrook – who previously played with the Oklahoma City Thunder – is the executive producer of the documentary that airs Sunday on the History Channel.

National Geographic, CNN and PBS will also launch documentaries. Another documentary, “Black Wall Street”, is being distributed by Cineflix Productions, but no network has yet picked it up.

Nelson has said all projects are very necessary and important, especially with the commemoration of the massacre as the first anniversary of last year’s racial calculus approached by the death of George Floyd. (A former Minneapolis cop has since been convicted of Floyd’s murder.)

“I think the more (Greenwood) story can be brought to light, the better,” said Emmy winner Nelson said. “I’m sure every movie will be totally different. I think there is special timing here.”

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Director Salima Koroma said the story should be told more than once. She presented her documentary on the Tulsa massacre to some networks almost five years ago, but has not aroused any interest because she believes the “guardians” were not ready to welcome the story.

Eventually, the Koroma Project found a home with James and Maverick Carter’s The SpringHill Company. She believes the Los Angeles Lakers superstar and Carter’s association played a major role in advancing the project.

Photograph of an African American man with a camera looking at the iron bed skeletons rising above the ashes of a burnt block after the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921.
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Photograph of an African American man with a camera looking at the iron bed skeletons rising above the ashes of a burnt block after the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921.
(Getty Images)

“I just had to get it to the right gatekeepers,” said Koroma, director of “Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street,” which airs Monday on CNN and later airs on HBO Max.

“They see that we have to tell black stories,” she said. “Now everyone is scrambling to tell it. Well, tell these stories. I think that’s what’s happening.”

Some filmmakers said the story was difficult to tell because much of the content no longer exists.

“So how can you tell a feature length documentary?… Now people are putting in resources to do more than just photos,” Koroma said. “You can do animation or graphics. It’s hard to say. But with all of our powers combined, we can tell this story.”

The story of the Tulsa Massacre had been largely forgotten or unknown to some until the HBO series “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country” shed light on the grim tragedy of the past two years. The production company of Courtney B. Vance and Angela Bassett recently signed a deal with MTV Entertainment Studios to produce a limited script series about the massacre.

Journalist DeNeen L. Brown, who appears in two documentaries, said all projects relating to the massacre are necessary for educational purposes, as she says most of them have been forgotten in textbooks, newspapers and books. library periodicals. The Oklahoma native said even her father – who is a pastor in Tulsa – never heard of the massacre until the late 1990s, when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed.

“White survivors of the massacre have stopped talking about it,” she said. “The black survivors only whispered about it, because there was a real fear among black people that it could happen again, and it has happened in other places.”

As a curious child, Brown said she first learned of the massacre after reading the story of enslaved blacks in school. She said that projects relating to the massacre can also be educational.

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Photograph of damage caused by Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921.

Photograph of damage caused by Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921.
(Getty Images)

“It will become something that people and school children learn,” said Brown, a Washington Post reporter who wrote more than 20 articles on the massacre. She interviewed the descendants of Greenwood residents and business owners in the PBS documentary “Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten,” which aired on May 31.

Brown will report on the search for mass graves in National Geographic’s “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer”, which will be released on June 18. She said documentaries like hers needed to be told just as much as those about the American Revolution, Civil War, and World War I and II.

“(The Tulsa Massacre) is not known to the larger community, certainly not to white America,” said Jonathan Silvers, who worked with Brown as the director of the PBS documentary. “I think the experience of black Americans has been eclipsed. We white Americans have no idea. This historic violence casts a very long shadow.”

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