A century after the Tulsa massacre, there are still many stories to be told about one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history. Setting out to help fill that void and remind Americans of the devastating event exactly 100 years later is DeNeen L. Brown, the award-winning veteran staff writer at The Washington Post, who investigates the Tulsa tragedy in the PBS documentary Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten.
“What happened in 1921 was a horrible atrocity. And for nearly 100 years, it was covered up; it was left out of textbooks, and many survivors wouldn’t talk about it. Many survivors only whispered about it,” says Brown. “For generations, I believe there’s been a desire for this story to be told. Stories have power, and if they’re told, they can change the future, and they can provide some healing.”
In the documentary, Brown—who has familial ties to Oklahoma—examines the the deadly attack by an armed mob of white residents on a prosperous Black community of businesses and homes dubbed as “Black Wall Street.”
The two-day frenzy of racial unrest from May 31 to June 1, 1921, which was instigated by unsubstantiated claims of an alleged assault of a white woman by a young Black man in an elevator, resulted in hundreds of injuries, 10,000 displaced residents, the destruction of 35 city blocks, and approximately 300 deaths of Black residents. One hundred years later, no one has been convicted or charged for the siege of the Black-owned town.
Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, which airs at 9 p.m. on Monday on PBS, is just one example of the underrepresentation of Black stories in textbooks, TV and movies. People of color account for approximately 50% of domestic movie ticket buyers, yet there are relatively few Black-led projects or films that adequately tell Black stories. According to a McKinsey & Company study, the dearth of those kinds of films costs the film and television industry an estimated $10 billion in annual revenue. Per the report, “fewer Black-led stories get told, and when they are, these projects have been consistently underfunded and undervalued, despite often earning higher relative returns than other properties.”
The documentary’s spotlight on the omission of Black perspective in American history points to a larger exclusion of Black voices and stories in media and entertainment as a whole.
“The handful of Black creatives who are in prominent off-screen, ‘above the line’ positions (that is, creator, producer, writer, or director) find themselves primarily responsible for providing opportunities for other Black off-screen talent,” the McKinsey & Company study says. “Unless at least one senior member of a production is Black, Black talent is largely shut out of those critical roles.”
“There’s this whole concept of, ‘We need change in the industry,’” says Christina Faith, founder and director of production company Creative Thought Media. “But in order for the industry to change, it has to do something that is outside of its norm.” According to Faith, that “norm” is little to no Black representation at the highest level.
Beyond the lack of Black representation at the highest levels, access is further impaired by ad spend inequities. Black-owned film and media companies lack support from advertisers and major industry players like ViacomCBS and Netflix. According to Nielsen Ad Intel, less than 2% of ad spend has historically gone to Black media companies, while Black consumers make up 13% of the population. Royal Jackson, chief brand officer of Impact Network—which has grown its audience from 200,000 to 93 million households over the last 10 years—says diversity commitments from media giants typically don’t come to fruition.
Even if Hollywood puts more funding towards Black talent, it will pose a challenge for Black- and Brown-owned media companies. Jackson says investing in Black media without Black ownership “chokes out the entrepreneurship and the thriving of a Black-owned business in this space to actually be able to grow.”
True systemic change will come from partnerships with Black media and film entrepreneurs from major content providers, sponsors and advertisers, Jackson says.
Faith agrees that the current system is, “is rigged.” Describing that system as one in which Black Hollywood is fighting for what they have,” she says,“you see people like Lena Waithe, Ava DuVernay and Issa Rae popping out almost seven or eight projects at a time because the door will only be open for a limited amount of time. So how do we get through the door as fast as possible, with as much as possible, with as many people as possible?”
Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten premieres nationwide at 9 p.m. on PBS, pbs.org and the PBS Video app.