Doc of the Day: 500 Years Later Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: 500 Years Later

Posted in Days of Docs by - February 09, 2012

Be warned: this movie does not seek to make you feel good about the global situation with race in any way, shape, or form. Day Four of Black History Week.

Dir. Owen ‘Alik Shahadah, 2005, 108 min

Some people who watch this movie are gonna really hate it. If 4 Little Girls felt like a punch in the eye, 500 Years Later feels like going a round with Tyson. This is gloves-off, no-bullshit, confrontation filmmaking. It holds no pretense of objectivity; in fact it is staunchly partisan. This is an angry little ball of indignation, crying out for justice. It’s the Malcolm X to the MLK of the average doc that covers African-related material. There’s a good chance you won’t agree with everything this movie has to say. I certainly didn’t, but its sheer gumption and brazen attitude commands respect. Of course, it’s for that same reason that certain viewers will have the opposite reaction. I haven’t dug too deeply into the public reception of the doc yet, but I fully expect “reverse racism” or similar moronic terms to pop up.

This documentary is a global survey of the African diaspora. It chronicles the history of ethnic oppression these people have suffered under. But most of it isn’t in the past; the film isn’t titled 500 Years. Rather, it condemns how little things have changed since the heyday of the African slave trade. And that’s what makes it so contentious. In America especially, we like to pretend that we’ve moved past racism, that everything is now hunky-dory and anyone who says otherwise is just a socialist or whatever. Anyone who tries to draw attention to the systemic issues that continue to obstruct equality gets accused of agitation or worse.

And 500 Years Later is comprehensive on those issues, and damningly so. The magnifying lens burns mainstream education, popular entertainment, law enforcement, judicial practices, policy-makers, religious tradition, standards of beauty, and more. The doc casts a harsh eye on every institution. This emphasizes how deep-seated inequality is. You can’t come from hundreds of years of slavery and really claim to achieve social parity in just a few decades. Racism is now much less visible, but no less prevalent, and all it takes is a little critical thinking to reveal its presence. But the truth is that we don’t like thinking about it. Especially white people. I know it makes me uncomfortable. The doc covers this as well: we fear what may happen if we acknowledge our guilt. It’s a subconscious terror of forced repatriation or, worse, retaliation. But it’s something we have to face if we want to ever make progress.

The filmmakers would likely disagree with me on that last sentence. According to this doc, all the enumerated problems are to be solved by those of African descent, and them alone. This movie isn’t really “for” me; it’s geared towards black youth. It’s meant to act as a galvanizing agent, to inspire them to aspire to the loftiest ambitions they can imagine. Now, certainly, it’s the demands of the people who stand to benefit from social change most that will spur change on. But, and I know this lays bare the depths of my bleeding heart, is there nothing white people can do? I don’t expect us to swoop in and pull the po’ colored folk up from adversity in the style of some Oscar-baiting drama, but there must be a way to support them, right? This movie made me feel weirdly marginalized. As I usually do when I watch docs about social issues, the constant thought of “How can I help?” came to mind during my viewing. This film’s answer is “Stay out of our way.” Of course, the movie is under no obligation to “make room” for me. As a WASP, there’s more than enough art and entertainment targeted mainly at my demographic.

This is an African film. Not a single white person speaks in it. It is firmly of a specific mindset, and it’s in-your-face about it. Why, the doc opens by tearing apart the idea that African collaboration with European slavers somehow absolves the Europeans of their culpability in the slave trade. This aspect, even more than the subject, is what will likely draw accusations of “anti-white racism” or whatever. And some of the ideas that 500 Years Later advocates do feel unnecessarily divisive. It’s pushing for the African diaspora to establish an identity by returning wholly to original African practices and learning only about African leaders and history. I don’t feel that this is a truly progressive or beneficial in the long run. I’d rather have previously ignored black figures and history brought into the mainstream fold, and have all people learn about everything. But I’m a starry-eyed Pollyanna, so what do I know?

The most blatant symptom of our culture’s continued repressive attitude on this topic is the refusal by the mainstream to acknowledge that what was done to Africa was a holocaust. It was quite frankly worse than the holocaust we all know, and yet it gets far less observation. We are rightly urged to “never forget” the extermination of the Jews; why is the same approach not taken for the much more complete destruction of entire ways of being, of the sustained humiliation of a larger group of human beings? We try to bury slavery and colonialism and Jim Crow and what we continue to do. 500 Years Later storms into the woods, digs up that corpse, dumps it on our front lawn, and stands there, hands on hips, asking us what we intend to do about it. It’s a haunting, piercing question.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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