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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Documenting Social Justice and the Racial Divide

Right now I am particularly interested in the role of regional film fests in addressing greater social issues through both films and ancillary programming. I believe strongly in the role of regional fests to educate and inform as well as to entertain.

One of the things I love about the Oxford Film Festival is how bold the programming team is about putting films on their slate that directly address issues around race and class. Oxford may be an intellectual center of Mississippi in many respects, and there are a lot of people there who are passionate about addressing these issues in their community, but it is still Mississippi, it is still the South, and issues around race there have a tone and tenor informed by a completely different history and context than they do on the coasts.

Ideas around what slavery meant in the South still permeate Southern culture and attitudes — often in ways that I think my friends who were born and raised in the Northeast or West Coast find shocking. I grew up in Oklahoma and so I am less shocked when white people say incredibly stupid things about slavery or race that reveal deeply ingrained attitudes about these issues that I sometimes think they don’t even realize they have. So I applaud Oxford for consistently programming films — particularly in their docs categories — that deal with issues of race.

This year’s docs winner, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History, is set in St. Louis, which you may or may not consider as part of “the South” depending on where you’re from. I mentioned in my Oxford wrap piece that the film needs a new title, and the producer very politely emailed me and asked if I had any suggestions around that. I know it will shock those who know me to find that I do, in fact, have some thoughts on that subject.

Pruitt-Igoe is less compelling to me framed as simply a microcosm demonstrating the collapse of social structure in one housing project than it is when it views the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project through the lens of much broader social issues around class, race and social justice.

A lot of pertinent questions are raised in this film. Why we as a society believe it is right or wrong, imperative or abhorrent, to help those in need. Whether we secretly feel some people deserve to be poor and downtrodden. Why, when we recognize the need to for public housing, do “we” punish “them” in all the countless little soul-sucking ways the filmmakers show in this film? We’ll only help you if the father leaves the home. We’ll help you, but you can’t have a TV, or paint your walls, or this, or that. We’re giving you a gift, so we can tell you what to do with it, and you damn well better be thankful we are giving you anything at all. Or, as one of my fellow jurors aptly put it, we expect you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps — but we’re going to take away your boots.

When you start chipping away at peoples’ humanity you make it easier and easier to both oppress them and, conversely, to blame the oppressed for putting themselves in that position to begin with — a thesis that Pruitt-Igoe directly supports. You make it easier for the privileged middle class to make assumptions that poor people choose to be poor, that poor Black or Hispanic parents don’t care about their children or their childrens’ educations, that anyone, for pity’s sake, actually aspires to be poor and on welfare and dependent on the grudging generosity of others just to survive.

To further complicate matters, there are attitudes and anger from both sides that make it challenging to engage in meaningful conversation that could affect actual change in any kind of positive, lasting way. Do we want to win a war of words against each other, or find common ground on which to unite and solve problems? Regional film fests have a role to play in engaging audiences in conversations that unite rather than divide.

Pruitt-Igoe is a film about the wrecking of humanity and spirit and the sense of pride and self-worth that could have made Pruitt-Igoe a model for successful public housing rather than a symbol of its failure that white folks can point to and say, “See, even when we give them something, they destroy it.” Because at the end of the day, it’s always about race and class and who’s under the boot heel and who’s wearing the boot.

It is the people who form the heart and soul of any community, public housing or private — not the bricks and mortar and window glass — but without a well-maintained physical structure and a system for establishing and maintaining the safety of the residents you simply cannot sustain a community.

Pruitt-Igoe most effectively captures the sense of this in the interviews with residents who were part of the first group of families to move into the housing project. They had a sense of pride to be moving there. One woman refers to it as a “penthouse.” There were Christmas lights, and neighborliness, and a real sense of community when Pruitt-Igoe first opened. What killed Pruitt-Igoe was this idea that the government could invest in this massive structure and that it would just magically maintain and sustain itself.

Along with other public housing communities around the same time, Pruitt-Igoe directly destroyed the structure of (largely) black families by demanding that fathers leave the home in order for a family to live there. It seems fairly obvious, in retrospect, that this was a very stupid idea, and further that it is an idea that hinges around a subtle class distinction and keeping a boot heel firmly on the neck of the perceived supplicant: We will help women and children, but we aren’t helping any able-bodied MAN. Never mind that those able-bodied men might have helped form the backbone of a community that would have sustained Pruitt-Igoe and kept it from deteriorating and ultimately being, literally, imploded in a cloud of dust and mythos about Black People Who Live in The Ghetto.

Good Times, right? Anyone remember that show, with its ironic theme song: “… Ain’t we lucky we got ’em? Good times.” Good times, indeed.

So to answer the question of the producer as to how I would re-title the film? I would probably go with something more like “Bad Times: The Imploding of an Urban Ghetto” and then frame the opening narration around Pruitt-Igoe as a symbolic representation of the issues inherent in providing public housing within the caste-like strata of a capitalist society, and around class distinction more generally.

There are important social issues addressed in this film, and what it contains within its beautifully shot bookends of desolation and destruction is a story of hope briefly attained and then lost in a cloud of dust. That is the story, don’t lose the heart and soul of the real people profiled in the film by over-emphasizing the dry facts and making it sound dry and boring from the start, because it’s not.

2 Responses to “Documenting Social Justice and the Racial Divide”

  1. Ogden Munn says:

    In twelve or so paragraphs, you really said very little about the film. I hope you won’t take this criticism too personally, but this sounds like Freshman English Composition; overwrought personal reflections standing in for analysis. It was also endlessly confusing that you used “Pruitt-Igoe” to refer to both the housing project and the film about the housing project.

    I’m eager to see this film; but I gotta say that this review told me absolutely nothing. When you speak of your own reflections on it, you don’t even speak about aspects of the film that generated these reflections. I notionally agree with your liberalism and empathy, but this is a film review, right? You say more about the title than you do about any of the other parts of the film combined.

    Lastly, there’s no beating around the bush on this fact: “Bad Times: The Imploding of an Urban Ghetto” might be the worst film title I’ve ever heard. If the filmmakers’ choice was bad, your suggested alternative is abominable.

    I read some of your other reviews, and it seems that you normally do a pretty good job.

  2. Kim Voynar says:

    This wasn’t a film review, it was a column about my reflections on the film as a broader statement on social justice issues. Sorry if that was confusing, but it wasn’t intended to be a review that spelled out for the reader what the film was about … apart from speaking generally to how it’s about bigger issues than a single housing project.

    And I supposed I could have said “Pruitt-Igoe, the film” and “Pruitt-Igoe, the housing project” liberally throughout … kind of the problem inherent with the film title being the same as the project. But I think I made it pretty clear to which I was referring in each instance. You disagree, clearly, so I may not have made it as clear for my readers as I thought I did.

    I personally think my title suggestion is a significant improvement, but that’s just me. If you have a better one after you’ve seen the film, though, I’d be interested to hear it. At any rate, thanks for your words.

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