MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday, October 23rd and you’re listening to WORLD Radio, supported by listeners like you. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Mary Reichard.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. This summer, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Amazon Prime released a series of billboards promising to, “Amplify Black Voices. It also added an “Amplify” branded carousel of African American films to its home page.
But there was one black filmmaker the streaming giant wasn’t interested in amplifying, at least until it faced a barrage of negative press: Shelby Steele.
Megan Basham, our movie reviewer, explains why.
MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Few screenwriters bring as impressive a résumé to their project as Shelby Steele. He’s a former San Jose State literature professor and Hoover Institution fellow at Stanford. Along with winning a National Book Critics Circle Award, a National Humanities Award, and a Writers Guild Award, he also won an Emmy for a documentary he co-wrote and produced for the PBS news program, Frontline.
Yet when he and his son, director Eli Steele, submitted What Killed Michael Brown? to Amazon’s video on demand service, they received this reply: “Unfortunately, we have found that your title doesn’t meet Prime Video’s content quality expectations and is not eligible for publishing on the service at this time. We will not be accepting resubmission of this title and this decision may not be appealed.”
Anyone who views the film will get a quick idea what prompted such a terse reply.
CLIP: Back then I had no cynicism about justice. It was the word that animated the Civil Rights movement more than any other. But after three years in East St. Louis I no longer trusted the word. It hid more than it revealed and left too much room for corruption.
What Killed Michael Brown? ostensibly focuses on the tragic case of a black teenager killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. But what it tells us about cultural myths—how Big Tech and Big Media help shape them and why—goes far beyond a single flashpoint.
Steele calls these myths, such as the widespread inaccuracy that Brown had his hands up and said, “don’t shoot,” just before he died, “poetic truth.” People buy into it not because they have examined the evidence and found it credible, but because they align with narratives they already believe. They feel true.
CLIP: This is a distortion of the actual truth that we use to sue for leverage and power in the world. It is a partisan version of reality. A storyline that we put forward to build our case. For example, that Michael Brown was executed was a poetic truth.
In Steele’s example, the poetic truth is that systemic racism in the Ferguson police department created an environment that led to Brown’s death.
Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder found no evidence Officer Darren Wilson was motivated by race. What he did find is that black people make up only two-thirds of Ferguson’s population yet represent 85 percent of traffic stops. Because of that, Holder concluded widespread bias permeated the police department. But Ferguson’s mayor had another explanation, based on more localized data.
CLIP: Ferguson is a community that’s integrated but our surrounding communities are predominantly African-American. 90% to 95 percent. Statistically, who do you think is driving down the roads? People from all over this area come to Sam’s because there is no grocery stores, no Walmarts, nothing in north St. Louis city and everyone of those people come to Ferguson to shop.
Steele says the danger in favoring poetic truth over objective truth, or put another way, broad theories over specific details, is that it always traps us into solving the wrong problems. He makes a host of arguments worthy of consideration. But for Christian viewers, the way Steele highlights how two different how two different churches approach the nebulous subject of justice is especially valuable.
The first joins forces with out-of-town activists.
CLIP: If you get hurt, if you get gas in your eyes, the word was, go to Saint Mark’s. If the protesters had not had a place, a home base if you will, to come and set up, the movement would not have lasted as long as it lasted.
The result, several local black leaders explain, was that violent protests in Ferguson went on longer than they otherwise might have. The city was torn apart. In the end, poor minorities who live there faced destroyed infrastructure, crashing property values, and fewer resources.
Steele puts it starkly:
CLIP: Holder made Ferguson pay the price for a racist murder that was neither racist nor a murder.
The second church is in Chicago’s South Side. Pastor Corey Brooks doesn’t talk about theories or politics. Neither does a young, former drug dealer who now works with him:
CLIP: I’m gonna be honest I just did 11 years for the feds. I got some good street skills. My friends take me to the church. And I’m like who am I meeting? And they’re like, you’re going to meet the pastor. And I’m like I don’t wanna meet the pastor. I just came home. They like no you have to talk to him because he runs our neighborhood now. I’m like, he don’t run no neighborhood I’m in. So we seen the pastor and he was like, OK I know who you are. I heard a lot about you. Glad to see you’re home. But I am the new sheriff in town. Do you really know what you did to your community. I’m like, no, what? He said, you tore your community down.
Brooks’s ministry teaching these young men tangible life skills that they go on to teach other young men has created a domino effect of transformed lives.
From a bird’s eye view, it’s all too easy to oversimplify every headline in favor of our neat ideologies. To create our own poetic truth. But one of Steele’s closing questions suggests the path out of focusing on forests and forgetting about trees.
CLIP: I wonder what would’ve happened if Michael Brown had had the good fortune to meet Pastor Brooks.
It’s our job to try to provide an answer to that question for some other Michael Brown.
I’m Megan Basham.