Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2014
Distributor: Alexander Street Press/Virgil Films (streaming distribution by Netflix)
Running Time: 52 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: 13th, Before They Die!, The Murder of Emmett Till, United Gates of America, The N-Word, Scottsboro: An American Tragedy
-Co-writer/cinematographer Bavand Karim has done camera work for The Hangover III, Anchorman 2, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
-Before the Tulsa Race Riots, the dollar circulated 36 to 100 times inside Black Wall Street before leaving the community. It’s even possible for a dollar to stay there for a whole year before leaving that part of Tulsa. (Credit to Atlanta Black Star)
-Creator Rachel Lyon has won an Emmy for her 1985 Frontline documentary called Men Who Molest.
It’s about time that more filmmakers are starting to talk about one of the most prevalent issues that still affects America to this day: racism.
Even in the 21st century, we still deal with racial profiling, lack of equal rights for people, housing discrimination and other forms of inequality. It makes one wonder how far society has truly moved forward. As the old adage goes, in order to understand the present, we have to look at the past. This instance involves an element in America’s past that is rarely if ever mentioned in textbooks and how it links to recent issues.
Hate Crimes In The Heartland focuses on two separate issues in Tulsa, Oklahoma and how they are indirectly connected. The content involves the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 and the Good Friday Murders in 2012. Here’s a quick history lesson on the former event. Over a century ago, there was an African-American neighborhood in North Tulsa called Greenwood. After World War I happened, many Black people created their own businesses in their community and several of their families became self-made millionaires. Greenwood has been nicknamed Black Wall Street because of the community being one of the richest areas in the city and because of the Black population that resided there. They had their own banks, grocery stores, legal firms, accounting firms, and other various businesses. On May 31st 1921, everything changed. A white mob came in to raze this community while killing hundreds of people, injuring thousands more, and this once-thriving community was burned, looted, and even bombed.
The other event that coincides with this documentary is the Good Friday Murders. Ninety-one years later, two white killers shot five Black people. Three of them died and two were injured. This got some mainstream news play as people were surprised that would happen in this so-called “post-racial” society where hate crimes would still continue in the 21st century when a biracial president would be in office. The scars of Tulsa were re-opened as this murder occurred in the North part of the city. The two killers Jake England and Alvin Watts were caught and there was a big debate as to whether they would get the death penalty or not for their crimes.
Hate Crimes In The Heartland pulls no punches in this documentary. There are several interviews mixed with news footage of the Good Friday Murders and pictures of the two events in Tulsa. Several interviewees talk about their experiences and/or research on the matters at hand including creator Rachel Lyons, Rev. Jesse Jackson, some citizens, and even some of the remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Riots which added a needed touch of validity to this documentary. It was very insightful that people of all races could comment on these situations while also wondering about the sociopolitical matters in 21st century America.
While several of the interviewees had some defensible points, I was floored by the testimonies of the Tulsa Race Riot survivors the most. It was tough seeing these former millionaires telling their stories. Some of them smiled while telling their stories which surprised me. It was if they still had some hope despite all they went through in their younger days when their families and friends were hunted down. They talked about how people would move from New York City and Chicago to live in the Greenwood district. They talked about the good times they had living in this luxurious part of North Tulsa even if it was annexed due to segregation and Jim Crow. However, one line that made my heart sank was when a woman who survived that event talked about the mob waving American flags while slaughtering people with machine guns. She said that her mother told her that “Your country is shooting at you!” That made me so sad hearing that from her and that quote only adds to the heinous nature of it all. Several of the people in this film of all races have called this a massacre, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and even a holocaust. There’s another phrase that should have been said: domestic terrorism.
You know if a bunch of Muslims did the same thing, everyone would call it terrorism. Hearing about what went down in Black Wall Street made my blood boil. All these homes and businesses were gone in a matter of 24 hours with guns, fires, and even some planes bombed the vicinity. Keep in mind that this would be the first airstrike on US soil twenty years before Pearl Harbor happened. Let that settle in for a minute. This was an attack by Americans, to Americans, for Americans plain and simple. The people have covered it up for decades, so you had Tulsa citizens born not even ten years later that didn’t even know this massacre happened in their own backyard. While it’s easy to point out the racial aspect of what happened in Black Wall Street (and it should be pointed out), there’s even some socioeconomic ramifications that only hurt the mobs themselves. You see, Oklahoma had an oil boom which allowed there to be prosperity. Once Greenwood was razed to the ground, Tulsa had lost tons of capital and financial infrastructure. The ramifications didn’t just affect Black people, Whites were affected by a recession after this destruction happened and that’s not even getting into what would eventually be The Great Depression only a few years later.
This documentary was very fast-paced even given the short running time, but they should have slowed it down in some parts. I felt like there were so many faces and names in under a minute. While they had some good points, I thought the editing went way too fast with all these nuggets of information and quotes. It was really hard to keep track of everyone involved. Also, most of the footage besides the interviews were newsreels and pictures. The whole talking heads aspect with the interviewees could be seen as repetitive and some of the pictures felt like cheap editing despite the historical veracity of several photos. Another issue I had was the correlation between the Tulsa Race Riots and the Good Friday Murders. I do applaud them for finding connections besides both of them taking place in Tulsa, but I think there should have been a bit more context linking these events. Maybe they could have added more events that would connect with what happened in 1921 or possibly interviewing England and Watts. They did get some of their friends and families screen time as they were surprised that they would do that. A strong element in Hate Crimes In The Heartland is the usage of intersectionality. Those events and others that still plague America aren’t just racial issues. I’m glad that several of the people involved pointed out the other systemic vices. The economic issue was a prevalent one given Black Wall Street and how there’s a huge income gap between people in various parts of Tulsa that still happen with certain areas being richer than others. They also brought up the issue of jobs being outsourced nationwide and how that affects everyone. If you think this is some anti-white documentary just because it’s anti-racist, you are sadly mistaken and that thought itself is a painfully fallacious strawman. To quote another interviewee: “Every American wants the same thing!”.
Another message is the concept of reconciliation. People need to speak up about these issues, so we all can get better. There also needs to be healing for all the injustice involved. That doesn’t mean sweeping things under the rug, we have to acknowledge the good and bad in what happened in America’s history, and to find a way to progress as a society.
Hate Crimes In The Heartland is a valiant documentary about a subject that needed to be said. I think everyone should see it not just for the historical value, but also for the hope to do something to curb prejudice. I wish the filming style would slow down a bit for some of the heavier issues, but the content itself is still top-notch. It’s a brief, yet incredibly brave documentary that places such as The History Channel or Discovery would be too scared to show on cable. Shoot, I think most Hollywood companies would be scared to make a period piece about those events. If you have a Netflix account, then please watch this whenever you can. This isn’t some left-wing or right-wing issue: It’s a HUMAN issue. Much like other atrocities like 9/11, The Holocaust, or Pearl Harbor, I have two words to say about Greenwood AKA Black Wall Street.
Adjustable Rating System:
Subtract 2-4 points if racial issues in film make you really uncomfortable
-Strong content that’s very well-researched
-Uses intersectionality to show that the events aren’t just racial issues
-Provides a sense of hope and reconciliation despite these tragedies
-Breakneck pace can be overwhelming
-Over-reliance on talking heads in interview footage
-Connection between the race riots and the Good Friday Murders should have been stronger
Final Score: 10/10 points
Content Warning: I’d say teens and up despite the lack of offensive content. Hate Crimes In The Heartland has mature content dealing with these atrocities in Oklahoma with people getting murdered and their communities being in shambles. One reason why the Tulsa Race Riots happened was because of a false rape accusation, by the way. There is a brief photo of profanity-laced graffiti and some people do use the N-word as far as dialog is concerned.
Photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.