MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, August 14th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re so glad you are! Good morning to you. I’m Myrna Brown.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Next up, Megan Basham reviews a recent documentary she says deserves more attention.
MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: The rollout of the new documentary Uncle Tom is, in some ways, evidence of its thesis. The film argues that the media prefers to ignore or mock black conservatives rather than engage with their arguments.
Released six weeks ago, it offers sharp perspectives on the most contentious political debates of recent months. And yet, about the only place you can find it is at uncletom.com.
While other recent documentaries on race like 13th and Whose Streets were rewarded with fawning news coverage, first-rate streaming deals, and numerous nominations, as of now, no major outlet has even bothered reviewing Uncle Tom. Perhaps that’s because a review would require admitting it’s pretty good.
CLIP: Why wouldn’t they teach us about Thomas Sowell in school. I know LeBron James. I know all these rappers. I don’t know Thomas Sowell. I don’t know about Walter Williams. If there’s one person you’d think black American would be celebrating. It’s like having a very successful family that you never knew you had until your grandfather dies and you all meet at the funeral.
Billing itself as an “An Oral History of the American Black Conservative,” the film features original interviews with well-known personalities like Larry Elder, Herman Cain, and Allen West. It also includes archival footage of Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Ben Carson, and Kanye West.
The first and most scatter-shot segment focuses on how they came to hold right-wing views. The next section cross-examines liberal sacred cows regarding racial division, such as micro-aggressions and privilege. It contends they have little, if any, real-world impact today.
The last, and most engaging sequence, presents a summary of African American political history. It illustrates how W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington offered divergent paths forward after abolition. And it contends black well-being has decreased since the Democratic Party and poverty programs won the majority of their allegiance.
CLIP: Before the war on poverty launched, 87 percent of blacks lived behind the federally defined level of poverty in 1940. By 1960 that number had decreased to 47 percent. A 40 point drop in 20 years. That’s probably the greatest economic prosperity period for blacks in the history of this country. And it all happened before affirmative action, before the so-called war on poverty.
Uncle Tom offers persuasive arguments and an appropriately long-term perspective that allows for only a few minutes on the presidency of Donald Trump. But it does at times suffer from an overreliance on pundits. Its most compelling insights come from people who’ve never been quoted in a Twitter or Facebook battle. People who don’t make their livings as black conservatives.
Like Patricia Watson, a successful farmer who describes how she came to purchase her land. Or Chad Jackson, a contractor and small-business owner.
Jackson shares that, for him, becoming a conservative was secondary to becoming a Christian. Shortly after his salvation, a friend challenged his belief that the Democratic Party offered him a better political home because it favors benefits for poor, urban communities.
CLIP: I became a Christian back in 2009. The year prior I voted for Barack Obama. I was really passionate about Barack Obama and his policies. I was having a conversation with a friend and I was telling him I’m a Democrat because the Democrat policy is pro Medicaid, pro government benefits, and all these things that can help poor, urban communities. And doesn’t the Bible say that we’re supposed to look out for poor people? And this friend of mine who’s also a Christian said, “Well, was it talking about the government or was it talking about you?” And I thought, well, that’s really interesting. So I went back and read it, and it was talking about me. A lot of the way I saw things began to change.
Uncle Tom isn’t rated, but it includes a fair amount of bad language, including racial epithets. This is the rare case, however, where the profanity often proves a point. As we see vitriol, derision, and disingenuous concern thrown at Candace Owens, it becomes easier to understand what may be motivating her famously strident tone.
CLIP: What do you think the press is doing when you try to smear someone as having a mental disorder and when you say someone is inspiring a mosque shooting? Well, you’re trying to make it so my career is effectively cut off. You’re trying to make it so nobody talks to me. So I’m considered this sort of reject.
At the least, it prompts us to consider whether we’re applying a higher standard to Owens than we do to other young African American commentators. And whether it’s fair for more established and respectable Republicans to dismiss her as a political grifter. Perhaps it’s only a tranquility born of experience that allows an old war horse like Elder to smile and shrug when racist names are thrown at him.
The film, understandably, feels targeted at black audiences. But as it traces the lonely, comparatively thankless road of a conservative minority, it has a secondary effect of challenging white viewers to search their hearts as well.
Are their political beliefs and social activism, whatever side they may fall on, really serving the interests of black Americans, Uncle Tom asks. Or is it only serving their own images?
I’m Megan Basham.