It’s become far too common for Americans—specifically, white Americans—to declare that the country exists in a “post-racial world”. For every story about a person of color suffering a grave injustice, there’s a talking head or politician who insists the solution to the problem can be found by examining anything other than tense race relations. By gosh, look how far we’ve come, right?! But Hate Crimes in the Heartland, a documentary from filmmaker Rachel Lyon, wonderfully illustrates how the hate, racism, segregation and violence of the past is not just confined to history books, but instead continues to influence our “post-racial” nation.
Hate Crimes in the Heartland focuses on two specific incidents, separated by nearly a century and numerous steps forward in the civil rights movement. The first is the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, wherein a group of white people attacked black citizens living in “Black Wall Street”, the wealthiest black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Eighty-one years later, in what would come to be known as the Good Friday Shootings, two white men randomly open fire on a group of black men and women in Tulsa, killing three and wounding two others. The film seeks to connect the two incidents, by showing how racial tension is an open wound on the skin of America, and if it goes untreated it can begin to infect and will eventually breed a new kind of danger.
It isn’t the most flashy documentary (with a running time of only fifty-one minutes, the film is very dry), but offers a trove of primary sources, witnesses to the horrors of the past and how they begat the atrocities of today. Comprised mostly of archival footage and talking heads, Kelly Lyon deftly highlights the connective tissues between the riots of 1921 and the Good Friday Shootings, making a distinct link between Jim Crow racism and, as one interviewee puts it, the “new racism” of the twenty-first century.
Unfortunately, Hate Crimes in the Heart Land has a bit of a focus problem, frequently jumping tracks to broader topics—such as the morality of the death penalty—that the film just isn’t equipped to address and, moreover, detracts from the central thesis. I’m a cineaste who couldn’t be more content with a lean, short movie; why tell in two hours what you could easily tell in ninety minutes. With that said, there are some pieces missing in Lyon’s film, pieces that could have been more fleshed out if Lyon’s wasn’t pinned to a fifty minute run time. The end is abrupt and there are large chunks—such as the fact that the race riots can be directly connected to Tulsa’s current state of racially segregated neighborhoods—that beg for more screen time.
Regardless of its shortcomings, Hate Crimes in the Heartland is an important film, one that defies you to look at the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant and not see the link between their deaths and the sins of generations passed.
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.