We’re pretty cheap, so it took a celebratory night (46 years of fairly amiable tolerance of one another) to splurge on Prime’s “stream for pay” documentary: Shelby Steele’s What Killed Michael Brown?. We’d seen reviews* that sounded interesting. Steele’s voice and perspective define the film; it is directed by his son, Eli. It is polished, its music, use of historical footage smooth.
He interviews citizens from Ferguson, he compiles a brief but clear description of that fatal afternoon, uses clips of George Stephanopoulos’ interview of Darren Wilson. He notes Holder’s arrival in Ferguson after the shooting, the response of residents to his statements. A repeated presence is Al Sharpton, who seems to represent those who force incidents into patterns presented as “poetic truth” – prejudged, premade narratives that ignore the shifts in culture (and reality) over a hundred years. While the central focus is the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, it interweaves personal narrative to quietly honor the strength and integrity of his father’s choices. He traces his parents’ lives (we see the Kentucky community in which his father was born in 1900 and from which he joined the great northern migration as an orphaned boy at 14; by emphasizing the house ownership rate in the black communities of his youth and showing houses his parents bought in the forties and fifties in Chicago, he tells us much about a culture and a time, about the incremental nature but powerful force of economic liberty and responsibility). Less of his own life is described, but, born in 1946, he lived through the transition: he came of age in the Great Society era: we hear LBJ, we see the projects when as a young man he worked in St. Louis, and we see them implode.
But the touchstone for him lies in his parents’ choices: their civil rights activism reflected their values in the forties and fifties as were their hard-won and steady movement toward a secure home. He returns to the self-made man, a concept central to his father’s life as it had been to Frederick Douglass, two generations before. His argument, characteristic of a Hoover scholar, is familiar, if subtle, personal and complex. His father was not helpless, but the Great Society assumed helplessness; that assumption was destructive but accepting it was also a choice and also destructive. Steele seems intent on communicating what he has learned over a long lifetime, wisdom and appreciation that connects his father, his own maturation, and the present to the importance of making one’s self, accepting agency. (* Links of reviews below fold.)