Marco Williams’s latest investigation into race relations suggests, seemingly without intending to, how much the language of pop psychology has vitiated our nation’s discourse on the atrocities committed on its soil. The filmmaker (whose documentaries also include Two Towns of Jasper, about the brutal killing of James Byrd Jr.) chronicles the legacy of the period between the Civil War and the Great Depression when whites in several Southern counties forced black residents to leave for good.
Words like healing and closure are heard frequently, both from the descendants of the exiles and white folks. “I think it’d be a closure for them. There has to be a forgiving in there somewhere too,” the gruff coroner of Pierce City, Missouri (one of three towns Williams visits), remarks about Charles Brown’s insistence that the hamlet pay for the disinterment of his great-grandfather’s remains—an action that Brown insists “would help us with the healing process.” The sunny president of the Chamber of Commerce in Harrison, Arkansas—the headquarters of the KKK—chirps about recent efforts to “acknowledge that hurt”: A task force is established, a national day of prayer is held. Williams never interrogates the use of this feeble language or the inadequacy of these actions but merely asks a weak, rhetorical question: “Why is it so hard to find common ground?”