August was the sixth anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, the black teenager who was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The incident, and the nationwide coverage it attracted, marked the beginning of a period of mass protests against police, which culminated (let’s hope) after the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis this May.
The fashionable explanation for what happened to Brown, Floyd and others—such as Freddie Gray in 2015 and Philando Castile in 2016—is so-called systemic racism. The activist left and the mainstream media insist that law enforcement targeted these men because they were black—and that if they weren’t black, they would still be alive. The truth is more complicated and less politically correct, and it’s the subject of an engrossing new documentary that is scheduled to premiere Oct. 16.
The film, titled “What Killed Michael Brown?,” is written and narrated by the noted race scholar Shelby Steele and directed by his son, Eli Steele. Readers of these pages probably know the elder Mr. Steele through his best-selling books and occasional Journal op-eds. But earlier in his career, Mr. Steele also won acclaim for his work in television. In 1990 he co-wrote and produced “Seven Days in Bensonhurst,” an Emmy-winning documentary about Yusef Hawkins, the black teenager from Brooklyn who was fatally shot in 1989 after he and some friends were attacked by a white mob.
In an interview this week, Mr. Steele, who is based at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, explained the significance of Brown’s death and what it tells us about race relations today. “Michael Brown represented, even more so than Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and others, the distortion of truth, of reality,” he said. Mr. Steele added that when it comes to racial controversies, liberals have developed what he calls a “poetic truth,” which may be at complete odds with objective truth but nevertheless helps them advance a desirable narrative. In the case of Michael Brown, reality was turned on its head.
“It was almost absolute,” Mr. Steele said. “The language—he was ‘executed,’ he was ‘assassinated,’ ‘hands up, don’t shoot’—it was a stunning example of poetic truth, of the lies that a society can entertain in pursuit of power.” Despite ample forensic evidence, the grand-jury reports and the multiple Justice Department investigations clearing the police officer of any wrongdoing, “there are blacks today, right now in Ferguson, as I point out in the film, who still truly believe that Michael Brown was killed out of racial animus,” he said. “In a microcosm, that’s where race relations are today. The truth has no chance. It’s smothered by the politics of victimization.”
Yet Mr. Steele sees a better future, and the interviews highlighted in “What Killed Michael Brown?” help to explain his optimism. One of the film’s strong suits is showcasing the words and deeds of everyday community leaders in places like Ferguson, St. Louis and Chicago. These people are far more focused on black self-development than on badgering whites or blaming society for problems in poor black communities. They understand and accept objective truth but mostly toil in obscurity while liberal billionaires cut million-dollar checks to subsidize Black Lives Matter activism and antiracism gibberish from “woke” academics.
“It’s easy to say, ‘The white man, the white man,’ and point the finger,” says a pastor in the film whose church is located in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. “In reality, we have to take a very close look at ourselves.” His focus is on “the transformation of the person. And we’re telling them, hey, educationally, you gotta get it together. Economically, you gotta get it together. Family and spiritually, you gotta get it together. And you have to take responsibility.”
The president of the St. Louis NAACP chapter told Mr. Steele there was no evidence that the Ferguson protests had done anything to help the black people who live there. Property values have fallen, crime has increased, and schools continue to underperform. “Let’s be clear. The progressive agenda is not the black agenda,” he says. “The people in that community are no better off than they were prior to the death of that young black child. They’re no better off, and everybody knows it.”
Amazon, which was scheduled to stream the movie, is now having second thoughts and has placed it under “content review.” Eli Steele, the director, told me that he will resort to other streaming platforms if he has to and is referring people to the film’s website, WhatKilledMichaelBrown.com, for more details on how to view it. The progressive agenda may not be the black agenda, but it is the media’s agenda. Sadly, speaking plain truths about racial inequality in America today remains controversial.
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