Last Saturday, Oct. 18, some 15 or so of us walked into the Warch Campus Center Cinema and watched a documentary. This was a depressing fact to me, and not only because that is about as many people as you are likely to see in a movie theater showing a documentary at any given time. It depressed me because the film, “Forgotten History,” is an important, vital look at a part of Lawrence history that is often ignored. If there is any film all of us should see, it is this one.
Written and directed by Junior Zach Ben-Amots, “Forgotten History” is not a documentary with overwhelming visual style like the films of Andrei Ujica or Errol Morris, or as forceful in its advocacy as the works of Steve James or Michael Moore. Ben-Amots instead takes an approach reminiscent of Ken Burns or James Marsh: the facts and the subject first, minimal authorial voice, telling the story and examining his interviewees (ranging from current students, recent graduates, faculty and alumni who are decades out of school). He lets them tell the story, staying silent and ceding the spotlight to them.
Here’s some good news for Lawrentians: the college (and us by proxy) comes off well. From the 60s to the present day, it is clear that Lawrence works with students to create a racially accepting environment.
Though, there are struggles and growing pains that naturally take place; there is a reason the black student union wrote a list of 10 demands to help create a more accepting atmosphere, not to mention their occupation operations in the late 60s and early 70s). There are cases of professors and students acting insensitively or with ignorance, but there is nothing that suggests outright hostility.
Instead, a dialogue is open and sometimes the tone of the conversation darkens.
Less accepting, however, is Appleton, a place where the diversity showed itself only in different shades of white until relatively recently, and had only seen people who were not white, for the most part, on television. These students were once treated as novelties, as aliens and sadly even as something unnatural. It was not uncommon in the past, as the interviews with students reveal, to hear racial slurs from rolled down car windows walking down the street.
The film raises the question of what to do. Certainly racism is not, and has never been, the answer. “Color blindness,” as it’s called, acting as if race does not exist, also does not help, because race does exist.
Race helps define who we are, and to deny an aspect of everyone’s identity creates just as many problems as it allegedly solves. Professors, students and townspeople have all acted thoughtlessly. Maybe there is not going to be any change overnight, but there has been some. We can all get better. If there’s one thing “Forgotten History” helps us remember, it is that.