Review: ‘The Invaders’ (2022), starring Coby Smith, John B. Smith, Calvin Taylor, Juanita Thornton, Jim Netters, Lance Watson and Clarence Christian

November 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Coby Smith in “The Invaders” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“The Invaders” (2022)

Directed by Prichard Smith

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Invaders” features an all-African American group of people discussing the rise and fall of the Memphis, Tennessee-based militant Black Power group the Invaders, which formed in 1967 and disbanded a few years later.

Culture Clash: Former members of the Invaders say that were wrongfully blamed for a riot that broke out in Memphis in March 1968, during a protest in support of a labor strike by the city’s African American sanitation workers. 

Culture Audience: “The Invaders” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about the U.S. civil rights movement in the late 1960s.

John B. Smith in “The Invaders” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

When most people think of the Black Power movement that gained momentum in the U.S. in the late 1960s, they think of the Black Panthers. Many people don’t know about the smaller, grassroots Black Power groups that had similar ideals and made an impact. “The Invaders” documentary tells the story of one such group formed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1967. This traditionally made documentary gives insight into the Invaders and their contributions to the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. It’s an important reminder that the Black Panthers weren’t the only Black Power group making history.

Directed by Prichard Smith, “The Invaders” had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2015. The movie’s release was in limbo for several years because of funding and licensing issues, according to a 2022 interview that Prichard Smith did with the Memphis Flyer, a local newspaper. Seven years after its world premiere at DOC NYC, “The Invaders” has now been released. The documentary is a conventionally structured mixture of archival footage and more recent interviews with former members and associates of the Invaders. What’s been added since “The Invaders” made the rounds on the film festival circuit is voiceover narration from Nasir Jones (better known as rapper Nas), who signed on as an executive producer for the documentary.

“The Invaders” opens with archival footage of Invaders co-founder Coby Smith (no relation to Prichard Smith) being interviewed by an unnamed media outlet in the late 1960s. He says, “We don’t organize burnings, essentially. We organize people. If people burn, they burn. We are black, and we’re proud of it.”

Much of “The Invaders” explores the theme of how there were two types of philosophies for the U.S. civil rights movement, when it came to race relations: One was the philosophy of non-violence, espoused by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther Ling Jr. The other was the philosophy of violence in self-defense, espoused by civil rights leader Malcolm X and later the Black Panthers. What a lot of people don’t know is that King sought out the Invaders to be a bridge between these two philosophies.

Among the people who tell the story in “The Invaders” documentary are Invaders co-founders Coby Smith and John B. Smith, who are not related to each other and not related to director Prichard Smith. Coby Smith and John B. Smith share vivid memories of meeting and forming the Invaders in 1967 with co-founder Charles Cabbage, who died in 2010, at the age of 66.

At the time the Invaders launched, Coby Smith and Cabbage were students and intellectuals who yearned to make a difference in African American communities in Memphis and beyond. John B. Smith was a disabled Vietnam War veteran who became disillusioned with the U.S. government after he came back from the war.

In the documentary, John B. Smith has this to say about what Memphis was like before the civil rights movement: “Segregation wasn’t just laws on the books. It was a state of mind. Black people understood what their place was, and they accepted that.” Calvin Taylor, former minister of information for the Invaders, adds: “When we were growing up, if you were black, that meant you were in the [racism] problem. It didn’t mean you had any opportunities not to be part of the problem.”

John B. Smith tells a story about the turning point when he decided to become a civil rights activist. He had returned from the Vietnam War and considered himself to be very patriotic about America. One day, he was at a gas station, minding his own business, when he saw a white man steal the gas cap from John B. Smith’s car. The alleged thief then tried to sell the gas cap back to John B. Smith.

John B. Smith responded by calling the police, who immediately took the white man’s side and believed the white man’s denials of stealing the gas cap, according to John B. Smith. The white man then accused John B. Smith of harassing him. A crowd gathered and defended John B. Smith, but the police theatened the crowd with arrest if they didn’t leave. John B. Smith says he refused to leave until the matter of the theft was resolved. And as a result, John B. Smith was arrested.

Influenced by Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, the Invaders aimed to empower African Americans, beginning in Memphis, with fundraisers to help underprivileged people in the community. The Invaders were involved in the Black Organizing Project, which offered assistance in education and food for the African American community. Black Organizing Project also launched the Community Unification Program.

As the civil rights movement became more dangerous for activists and protestors, the Invaders also believed that black people were better off learning to arm and defend themselves against racist attackers. Juanita Thornton, one of the former Invaders interviewed in the documentary, says of this philosophy: “If you hit me, I should be able to hit you back without a whole lot of bullshit. I loved it.”

It was this militant stance that caused some civil rights leaders to mistrust the Invaders, while other civil right leaders wanted to align themselves with the Invaders. Reverend James Lawson, a civil rights activist who believed in non-violence, came from Nashville to Memphis and interacted for a time with the Invaders. Civil rights leader King became another ally of the Invaders, but he was assassinated (shot to death) on April 4, 1968, before his plans to create a formal alliance with the Invaders ever became a reality.

The Memphis sanitation strike, which lasted from February to April 1968, was the Invaders’ highest-profile protest campaign, for better or for worse. About 1,300 African American male sanitation workers from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike to demand higher wages and safer work environments that were the same given to the white sanitation workers who did the same jobs. Reverend Malcolm Blackburn, a white pastor of Clayborn Temple in Memphis, was an ally of the striking workers, and so were the Invaders.

Contrary to a mythical stereotype, Black Power activists such as the Invaders were not against working with white people in the civil rights movement. Coby Smith comments in the documentary: “We never would’ve gotten through the civil rights movement without an awful amount of whites who came and said [about racist laws/policies], ‘Wait a minute, that does not make sense.'”

On March 28, 1968, King and Lawson led a protest march in downtown Memphis, in support of the sanitation workers who were on strike. The march started out as peaceful but descended into chaos, as the mood turned angry. Some people in the crowd started looting and causing vandalism at nearby businesses. (King and Lawson left the protest soon after it became violent.) Police responded with aggression, including using mace and guns. In the resulting pandemonium, an unarmed 16-year-old African American named Larry Payne was shot to death in the stomach by a white cop.

The Invaders were blamed for inciting the riot, but it’s an allegation that the people in the documentary vehemently deny. Still, the riot tainted the Invaders’ reputation, and they say that key members of the Invaders became the targets of FBI surveillance, just like King was targeted by the FBI. Rather than distance himself from the Invaders, King sought them out for protection when he was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, on that fateful day of his death. (James Earl Ray, who had a long criminal history of being a thief, pleaded guilty to the murder, and he was sentenced in 1969 to 99 years in prison. Ray died in 1998, at the age of 70.)

Still reeling from the damage and increased racial tensions caused by the riot and Payne’s death, about 15 members of the Invaders met with King for a few hours, at his request, at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. About half an hour after the Invaders left the motel, King was murdered. John B. Smith and Cabbage were among those who met with King, who told them that he wanted the Invaders to be the security personnel for the next planned protest in support of the Memphis sanitation workers on strike.

John B. Smith says that King confided in them about being under surveillance by the FBI because then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had a personal grudge against King. In the documentary, John B. Smith remembers that King told him about the famous private meeting that King and Hoover had in December 1964, after Hoover had publicly made this statement in November 1964: “Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country.” (The December 1964 meeting was the only time that King and Hoover ever met face-to-face.)

According to John B. Smith, King went into the meeting with Hoover thinking one way and came out of the meeting thinking another way: “He [King] thought that they could actually come to a meeting of the mind. But once he met with him [Hoover], he realized that Hoover was out to destroy him.” King also said that the racists that King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference group encountered were worse in the Northern states than in the racially segregated Southern states.

Thornton says in the documentary that King wanted to take “the cream of the crop” of African American militants, such as the Invaders, and “put them into a training program that was non-violent.” Later in the documentary, Thornton says, “I believe economic power for poor people was one of the main reasons why Dr. King got assassinated. He was talking about poor people power.”

“The Invaders” is very no-frills when it comes to its editing and cinematography, but the interviewees are compelling and offer some valuable first-hand insights about their perspectives of the U.S. civil rights movement. Other people interviewed in the documentary are Reverend Jim Netters, who was on the Memphis City Council in 1968; Clarence Christian, who was a student activist at LeMoyne-Owen College in 1968; Mad Lads lead singer John Gary Williams, a former member of the Invaders; David Acey, who was a student protester in 1968; and Lance Watson, also known as Sweet Willie Wine, who led the Invaders’ security personnel. Watson later changed his name to Suhkara A. Yahweh. (Williams died in 2019, at the age of 73.)

As interesting as these stories are in “The Invaders,” this documentary doesn’t really reveal anything new. Some of the interviewees have talked about the same things in other media interviews before this documentary was made. John B. Smith also wrote a memoir titled “The 400th: From Slavery to Hip-Hop” (published in 2021), which covers many of the same things that are covered in the documentary.

“The Invaders” doesn’t go deep enough in taking a critical look at why a civil rights group such as the Invaders had very sexist attitudes in not letting women have leadership roles. Thornton (who was never a leader in the group) is the only woman interviewed in the documentary. The small percentage of female representation in this documentary is indicative of problems that the group had with sexism against women that the documentary completely ignores.

“The Invaders” also could have had perspectives from at least a few people who were involved in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, but were not necessarily fans of the Invaders. The documentary seems to be a little too much of a praise fest for the Invaders and doesn’t offer any constructive criticism of the group, which eventually drifted apart and disbanded a few years after King’s assassination. Even with these flaws, “The Invaders” documentary is worth watching for history enthusiasts or anyone interested in a getting an inside story of an African American activist group that has often been relegated to being a footnote in U.S. civil rights history.

1091 Pictures released “The Invaders” on digital and VOD on November 1, 2022.

Review: ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,’ starring Jeffrey Robinson

November 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jeffrey Robinson, Hank Sanders and Faya Ora Rose Touré in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (Photo by Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”

Directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler 

Culture Representation: The documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” features a predominantly African American group (with a few white people) of civil rights activists, entrepreneurs, historians and authors discussing the racial prejudices and challenges experienced by people of color, particularly African American men, in the United States.

Culture Clash: The documentary, led by civil rights activist/attorney Jeffrey Robinson, has the premise that people cannot truly be honest about racism in America without acknowledging that America was built on white supremacy that oppresses non-white people in entrenched systems that still exist today.

Culture Audience: “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” will appeal primarily to people interested in historical accounts of racial bigotry in America that have a personal touch (due to Robinson’s on-camera narration and interviewing), but don’t expect there to be much discussion about racism against people who aren’t African American men.

Jeffrey Robinson in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (Photo by Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” is partly a filmed lecture by scholar Jeffrey Robinson, partly a historical account and partly a personal journey taken by Robinson to retrace past experiences with racism and race relations. The movie features compelling interviews and information but puts an overwhelming emphasis on bigotry inflicted on black men. The documentary should have been more inclusive of other people of color who experience racism too.

For example, the documentary has almost no acknowledgement of the genocide of Native Americans that allowed white Europeans to take over the land that is now known as the United States of America. You can’t have a truly comprehensive discussion about racism in America without including the brutally honest but necessary history explaining how white people became the dominant race in a part of North America where Native Americans were the dominant race for centuries. The documentary also does not cover the well-documented and shameful examples of U.S. government-sanctioned racism and other forms of bigotry experienced by Latinos and Asians in America.

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (directed by sisters Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler) is nevertheless a well-intentioned film and addresses many important topics about racial discrimination. The title is just a little misleading though. A more accurate title would be “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism Against Black Men in America.” That’s because almost all of the examples of racist hate crimes that are examined in this documentary are crimes in America against black men. This documentary packs in a considerable amount of information in its 118-minute running time, but the vast scope of what this documentary intended would have been better-suited as a docuseries instead of a feature-length film.

“Who Are Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” made the rounds at several film festivals, including the SXSW Film Festival, Hot Docs, AFI Fest and DOC NYC. It’s the type of movie that is supposed to make people uncomfortable because it covers uncomfortable truths that many people want to deny or forget. The documentary sounds an alarm that there’s still a lot of work to be done in healing from and preventing the damage of racism that is still pervasive today.

If it seems like “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” has a well-articulated and methodical tone of attorneys presenting a case, that’s because several attorneys or people with legal backgrounds were involved in the making of this film. Jeffrey Robinson, the movie’s on-screen narrator and interviewer, is an attorney who founded the Who We Are Project non-profit group to combat racism. Proceeds from this documentary will go to Who We Are Project. He has a background working as a deputy legal director and the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Trone Center for Justice and Equality, as well as a public defender and an attorney in private practice.

Robinson, Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler are among the producers of “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler (who co-founded the social-justice film production company Off Center Media) are two of the daughters famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler. Sarah is a practicing attorney. Emily’s mother is attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler.

When white directors make a documentary or any project about white supremacist racism, some people will automatically question the validity or authenticity of the project. Emily Kunstler responded to this skepticism by making this statement in the “Who We Are” documentary’s production notes: “Throughout the making of this film, one of the questions we often get is why are two white women making this film? Our answer is that the history of slavery in the United States is not Black history, it is American history; a history of white supremacy and white complicity as well as a history of Black oppression and resistance. Growing up, Sarah and I were taught that it was our moral responsibility to stand up against racism and fight for justice. This responsibility includes learning and sharing our country’s painful history.”

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” has three distinctive types of footage that are all interwoven seamlessly throughout the film:

  • (1) A filmed speaking appearance about American racism that Robinson did in June 2018 at New York City’s Town Hall. This footage was directed by Gbenga Akinnagbe, who is one of the producers of this documentary.
  • (2) Archival footage of many of the people, places and events discussed in the documentary.
  • (3) Interviews about racism in America that Robinson conducted in various U.S. cities.

Robinson has an engaging style of public speaking that is partly like a scholarly history teacher, partly like an intellectual sociologist and partly like an impassioned civil rights activist. He infuses his recitation of alarming statistics and data about racism with his own personal anecdotes, in order to make the information more relatable. He sometimes cracks sarcastic jokes to lighten the mood. Other times, his facial expressions show the emotional pain of remembering being the target of racism and feeling empathy to others who’ve also experienced this type of hatred and discrimination.

In the documentary’s opening scene, Robinson is seen on stage at the Town Hall appearance addressing a common argument that some people have when trying to minimize the damage caused by slavery in America. Robinson says that these deniers often say, “‘Slavery is not our responsibility.’ But it’s our shared history. And when we try to turn it into something that it’s not, when we try to make more light of what it was, then we are denying who we really are and are impeding our ability to move forward as a community and as a nation.”

As an example of how divisive people’s opinions are about how slavery in America should be remembered, the documentary mentions the ongoing debates of whether or not certain slave owners in American history should be celebrated. Controversies over which public statues should be removed or which architectural structures should be renamed indicate that this is a hot-button topic that won’t be going away anytime soon. Oftentimes, when people talk about not removing these statues or other tributes, they say it’s about “being patriotic.” But does “being patriotic” mean embracing historical racists as heroes?

In the documentary, Robinson shares his opinion on where people should draw the line: If a historical figure (especially a slave owner) is best known for doing things that advocated for keeping slavery and/or racial segregation legal, then those historical figures should not be celebrated with public statues, structures or any government-funded institutions named after them. If a historical figure’s accomplishments consist mainly of progress for the United States that’s greater than the fact that the historical figure participated in enslaving people when it was legal in the United States, then it’s best to not remove the statue or tribute. Robinson cites former U.S. presidents who were slave owners (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few) as examples of historical figures who shouldn’t be “erased” or “cancelled,” because their legacies for what they did in U.S. history far outweigh the fact that they owned slaves.

Several of the flashpoint events in civil rights history are mentioned during Robinson’s Town Hall speaking appearance, which includes a Power Point-type visual presentation on stage. These tragedies include the 1921 massacre and burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till, who was brutally slaughtered by two white men in Money, Mississippi, after Till was wrongfully accused of whistling at a white woman; and the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. For many of these tragic events, Robinson goes to the scene and/or interviews people who were associated in some way to the victims of these hate crimes.

In Tulsa, Robinson interviews Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of the last known survivors of the Tulsa massacre. Even though she was a little girl when the massacre happened, she still has horrific memories of this tragedy. She witnessed people being shot and bodies piled up on the street. “I never want to see anything like that again,” she says with a haunted look in her eyes.

Also in Tulsa, Robinson visits Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, the twin sister of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed college student who was killed in 2016 by a white police officer named Betty Jo Shelpy, who claimed self-defense. Dr. Cruther says that her brother was not identified as a suspect when Shelpy arrived on the scene and that the media “dehumanized” him as a criminal when in fact he was not a criminal. “He laid on the street like an animal,” she says bitterly about how her brother’s dead body was unattended to for hours.

While in Memphis (Robinson’s childhood hometown), Robinson visits the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination. Robinson describes his own father as someone who was involved in the civil rights movement, and he has vivid memories of being taken to protest marches as a child. Also in Memphis, Robinson has an emotional reunion with Robert “Opie” Orians, a former classmate and friend of Robinson’s when they both attended St. Louis Catholic School and were on the school’s basketball team. Jeffrey Robinson and his older brother Herbert Robinson (who appears briefly in another part of the documentary) were the first black students at the school.

Opie’s father Richard Orians is also part of the reunion with Opie and Jeffrey. Richard, who used to coach the school’s basketball team, talks about an incident when the St. Louis team was barred from entry for a game at a rival school because a black student (Jeffrey) was on the St. Louis team. All three men get emotional, with eyes tearing up and voices cracking, when Richard says that, out of principle, he removed the team from the premises because he didn’t want to the team to be associated with a school that would make this racist decision. At the time, Richard says that he protected the team by not telling them the real reason why they were withdrawing from the game.

Jeffrey also remembers another racist incident he experienced as a child during a basketball game, when someone on the other team called him the “n” word. Jeffrey’s father was watching the game nearby, so Jeffrey went to his father to complain about the racist insult. Jeffrey remembers his father’s empathetic but stern response: “What do you want to do about it?”

His father asked Jeffrey if he would rather quit the game and let the racist feel superior, or stay in the game to prove to the racist that a racist slur wasn’t going to stop Jeffrey from playing the game. Jeffrey decided to stay in the game. He said it was an early lesson in not letting racists get what they want when they using racist insults and other forms of racism to make the targets of their hate feel inferior or defeated.

Jeffrey shares another personal story when he meets up with Kathie Fox, whose mother-in-law Mildred was the realtor of the Robinson family. The family—Jeffrey’s parents Herbert Sr. and Lameris; older brother Herbert Jr.; and younger brother Larry (who appears briefly in this documentary); and Jeffrey—couldn’t move into a mostly white neighborhood until Mildred enlisted her married white friends Lib and Pat Smith to buy a house in the neighborhood and then transfer the deed to Herbert Sr. and Lameris. Jeffrey remembers the look of shock on some neighbors’ faces when his family moved into the neighborhood. It was not uncommon for African American families to have to ask white allies to be their proxies to buy a house in a white neighborhood, because racist realtors would not sell houses to black people.

Also in Memphis, Jeffrey meets up with Tami Sawyer, a Shelby County commissioner of District 7, who led the charge to take down a statue in Memphis of Nathan Bedford, a Confederate Army general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Sawyer says there’s no legitimate excuse for any past or present member of the KKK to be honored with a publicly funded statue that makes that person look like a hero. Still, the people who successfully lobbied to have the statue removed got a lot of resistance from those who say statues like that represent “Southern pride.” To other people, these types of statues are symbols of racist white supremacy.

While visiting Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Jeffrey interviews Carolyn Payne, whose unarmed brother Larry Payne was shot to death by a cop when Larry was 18 years old. Larry was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time, since there was no evidence that he did anything wrong. Nothing ever happened to the cop who killed Larry. Carolyn says that she and her family will probably never know what really happened because she thinks there was a racist cover-up by the police who were involved. Sadly, there are too many other incidents like this to put into just one documentary.

In Alabama, Jeffrey visits author Josephine Bolling McCall, whose father Elmore Bolling was murdered in 1967, for being “too successful to be a Negro,” according to a newspaper report that she reads out loud and which is shown in the documentary. She describes how her family found her father shot to death in a ditch. “It’s ingrained in my memory,” she says with heartbreak. No one was indicted for this crime.

While in Selma, Alabama, Jeffrey speaks with retired Alabama senator Hank Sanders and activist Faya Ora Rose Touré, who are part of a group of citizens who want the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to be renamed the Freedom Bridge. Edmund Pettus was a Grand Dragon in the KKK. Considering the historical significance of Selma in the civil rights movement, many people think it’s an insult that there’s a bridge in Selma (or anywhere, for that matter) named after someone who was proud to be a racist.

While in Charleston, South Carolina, Jeffrey visits the Old Slave Mart Museum, where operations manager Ista Clarke gives a harrowing, detailed description of what it was like for slaves to be bought and sold there. Also in Charleston, Jeffrey accompanies Sights and Insights Tours owner Al Miller on a trip to the Ashley Avenue Oak Tree, which was the site of numerous lynchings, mainly of African American men. It’s mentioned that in almost all of these lynching cases, the victims were lynched not for doing anything wrong but for not being white.

African Americans are the vast majority of people who are interviewed in this documentary, but one white person is interviewed who represents people who think that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of racist hate. In Charleston, Jeffrey talks to one of three white men standing outside on the street while holding the Confederate flag. The three men are from a pro-Confederate flag group called Flags Across the South. It should be noted that although these men claim to be proud to stand up for their cause, they’re all wearing hats and sunglasses, as if they don’t want their faces to be fully exposed.

Jeffrey talks to Flags Across the South chairman Braxton Spivey on the street. And what Spivey has to say can only be described as being making excuses for slavery. Spivey comments, “Slavery had nothing to do with the [Civil] War. It was about money.” Spivey adds, “Slaves were treated like family,” and he believes that enslaved people “chose to stay” in captivity.

Jeffrey looks visibly disgusted at Spivey’s historically inaccurate rhetoric and blatant racism. When Spivey is asked if he would ever want to be owned as a slave, he admits he would not. But the subtext of what Spivey believes is that he thinks that white people shouldn’t be the slaves in society. Jeffrey shakes his head as he walks away and comments on Spivey: “Facts are not important to that gentleman.”

While in New York City, Jeffrey talks to law student Darren Martin, who had the cops called on him when he was moving into his apartment. Apparently, an unidentified neighbor assumed that because Martin is African American, his moving activities were thieving activities. Martin says that six police officers responded to the complaint as if he were a criminal, even though he showed proof that he was a new resident of the building and he was moving in. Like many people who experience this type of racism, Martin took out his phone and video recorded the incident. His video went viral and made the news.

Also in New York City, Jeffrey interviews Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, an unarmed African American man who died in 2013 after a police officer put Garner in a chokehold and Garner repeatedly yelled, “I can’t breathe!” The cop acted with this type of force in response to seeing Garner illegally selling loose cigarettes. That incident was captured on video, made international news, and became a touchstone tragedy that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.

Carr describes her slain son: “He was a gentle giant.” She also says that she went into a deep depression after his death but then had a spiritual awakening: “The Holy Spirit spoke to me one evening” and asked if she was going be dead like her son, or if she was “going to get up, lift up his name, and let people know exactly who he was, and not let the media demonize him. Even though it’s too late for my son, we have to save other lives.”

While in New York City, Jeffrey interviews Inside Out Tours managing director Stacey Toussaint, who talks about how slave labor was the backbone of New York City, which was a financial hub for insurance and financing of the slave trade. Toussaint says that she wants more people to understand that even though Southern states are often singled out as the worst states in America for racism, the reality is that racism can be anywhere.

Other people interviewed in the documentary are Chief Egunwale F. Amusan, president of the African Ancestral Society in Tulsa; Reverend Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of Historic Vernon Chapel A.M.E. Church in Tulsa; Kristi Williams, a Historic Greenwood/Black Wall Street historian; and Jeffrey’s nephew Matthew Liam Brooks, whom Jeffrey raised as a son after Brooks’ mother died.

During his Town Hall speaking appearance, Jeffrey says that dealing with racism means dealing with the ugly fact that many people are too heavily invested in keeping white supremacist racism in the economy and other systems that affect people lives. And when it comes to stopping racism, he makes this pointed observation: “A lot of people say they want change. They just don’t want the change to cost them anything or require them to change anything about the way they are living.”

One of the best ways to sum up the point of this documentary is from something that Jeffrey says in his Town Hall speaking engagement: “America has demonstrated its greatness time and time and time again, and America is one of the most racist countries on the face of the earth. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. It is not an either/or. And the reason I’m asking us to think about this is that literally, the future is at stake.”

Sony Pictures Classics will release “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” in select U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Uncorked,’ starring Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked”

Directed by Prentice Penny

Culture Representation: Taking place in Memphis and Paris, the comedy-inflected drama “Uncorked” has a diverse cast of African Americans and white characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An African American man in his 20s is torn between wanting to become a master sommelier and his father’s wishes for him to take over the family’s barbecue restaurant business.

Culture Audience: “Uncorked” will appeal mostly to people who want to see a relatable drama about family relationships, as well as what it’s like to try to break into the competitive and elite world of master sommeliers.

Mamoudou Athie and Courtney B. Vance in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked” takes an authentic and sometimes humorous look at the journey a young man goes through in pursuing his dream to become a master sommelier, even though it conflicts with family obligations. In telling this unique story for the screen, writer/director Prentice Penny just happened to make the protagonist an African American. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t take the cliché route of making the movie about racism or about an underprivileged person of color who gets help from a “white savior.” Instead, the movie touches on universal themes of family tensions and self-doubt through the lens of African American middle-class culture.

The two conflicting worlds of central character Elijah (played by Mamoudou Athie) are made abundantly clear in the opening credits, which alternate between montages of people making barbecue and people making wine. Elijah, who appears to be in his mid-to-late-20s, is holding down two jobs in his hometown of Memphis: He’s a sales clerk at a wine shop and a cook in his father’s casual barbecue restaurant. He’s a lot more passionate about his wine job, and he only works at his father’s place because he feels obligated to do it.

Elijah’s father Louis (played by Courtney B. Vance) inherited the barbecue place from his own father, and Louis expects to Elijah (his only son) to take over the restaurant someday. It’s truly a family business because Elijah’s mother Sylvia (played by Niecy Nash) also works there, as a waitress. Louis also has plans to open a second, more upscale barbecue restaurant in a “gentrified” neighborhood. Elijah’s close-knit family includes Elijah’s cousins, Elijah’s older sister Brenda (played by Kelly Jenrette), Brenda’s husband and their three kids,

However, Elijah’s passion is really for the wine business. It’s evident in how he lights up when talking about wine and recommending selections to customers at the wine shop. One customer in particular sparks more than just an interest in recommending wine. He meets a young woman named Tanya (played by Sasha Compère) when she comes into the store with a friend to get a bottle of wine for a party.

Tanya doesn’t know much about wine, but Elijah puts her at ease by asking her if she likes hip-hop. She says yes. In helping her make her choice, he explains that chardonnay is like the Jay-Z of wine, pino grigio is like the Kanye West of wine and riesling is like the Drake of wine. (She ends up getting riesling wine.)

It’s no surprise that Tanya comes back to the store on another day and takes Elijah’s suggestion to join the store’s wine club, which is how she gives Elijah her contact information. They begin dating each other soon afterward. (Their first date is at a roller-skating rink.)

Tanya encourages Elijah to pursue his dream to become a master sommelier—a title that, as of this writing, only 269 people in the world have ever held, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers. Elijah’s boss at the wine store, Raylan Jackson (played by Matthew Glave), also encourages Elijah and says he will put in a recommendation for Elijah if he ever wants to go to sommelier school. Raylan is a master sommelier, and Elijah looks wistfully at the sommelier diploma that Raylan has.

Meanwhile, there’s increasing tension between Elijah and his father Louis. When Louis tries to get Elijah to do things that will prepare Elijah to take over the barbecue business, Elijah makes excuses by saying he has other plans, usually related to his wine job. Over a large family dinner, Elijah mentions that he’s thinking about going to sommelier school. Louis then makes a snide comment to Elijah by expressing doubt that Elijah will follow through on that goal. He reminds Elijah that he’s had other career goals (including being a DJ) that Elijah eventually abandoned.

Elijah’s mother Sylvia, who’s completely supportive of Elijah, later scolds Louis in private for embarrassing Elijah in front of the family. The back-and-forth banter and conversations between Louis and Sylvia are some of the funniest parts of the movie. Their dialogue rings true for a longtime married couple.

What also rings true is the way that the movie shows that when it comes to pursuing a dream, sometimes people can get in their own way, through self-doubt and making excuses. Tanya essentially tells Elijah that’s what he’ll be doing if he doesn’t take a chance and apply to sommelier school. It’s the extra encouragement he needs to take the entrance exam. And he gets into the school—but not without a major sacrifice. The only way he can pay for the tuition is to use all of his savings.

Even though Elijah tells Louis he can still work at the barbecue restaurant while he attends school, both father and son know that Elijah is now on a path that will change their relationship forever. Elijah is a talented student and a quick learner. But it’s one thing to graduate from sommelier school. It’s quite another thing to pass the extremely difficult test to become a master sommelier. (Based on the small percentage of master sommeliers in the world, most people who take the test don’t pass.)

While attending sommelier school, Elijah meets the three other people who end up in his study group: neurotic and obnoxious Richie (played by Gil Ozeri); cocky and intelligent Eric (played by Matt McGorry), who’s nicknamed Harvard because he went to Harvard University; and sensible and sarcastic Leann (played by Meera Rohit Kumbhani). Another challenge comes when Elijah’s sommelier class goes on a trip to Paris that he can’t really afford. 

Will Elijah get to go to Paris? Will he pass the master sommelier test? And how is his relationship with his father affected by these sommelier ambitions? Those questions are answered in the movie, which has a few twists and turns along the way.

“Uncorked” is the first feature film by writer/director Penny, who’s a former writer/director for the HBO comedy series “Insecure,” starring Issa Rae. The movie is an admirable debut that shows Penny has a knack for entertaining writing and making the right choices in editing and casting. (All the actors adeptly handle the movies comedic elements as well as the overall drama.)

To its great credit, “Uncorked” doesn’t get bogged down in stereotypical tropes of an African American trying to break into a predominantly white industry. There are no racist villains in the story, nor does Elijah have a negative attitude about the extremely small percentage of African Americans who end up being sommeliers. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t water down the African American culture that’s shown in the movie. (The soundtrack is hip-hop and there’s plenty of realistic dialogue in the film.)

As the central character Elijah, Athie carries the movie with a significant deal of charm and empathy. He makes great use of facial expressions to convincingly portray the inner conflicts of someone who wants to please his father and yet be his own man. The father-son relationship is complicated, but there’s also enough respect between the two of them that they don’t deal with conflicts by having obscenity-filled shouting matches, which are over-used negative stereotypes in movies about African American families. “Uncorked” is ultimately about more than just pursuing a dream. It’s also about understanding that in order to stay true to yourself, you have to know you really are in the first place.

Netflix premiered “Uncorked” on March 27, 2020.

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