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Banished

In 1890, public records showed that 1,288 African-Americans were living in Forsyth County, Georgia. In 1920, that number was down to 30, and by 1960, it had dropped to four. Between the Civil War and the civil-rights era, dozens of communities across the country—and not all in the South—organized pogroms of a kind, driving out black families and seizing their land. None of this gets talked about much any more, but neither is it secret. The local newspapers covered the stories at the time, and the descendents of those exiled families have had anecdotes passed down to them as a warning: Don't get too comfortable, because one day, this may happen to you.

Marco Williams' documentary Banished digs deeper into incidents of racial cleansing in America: the one in Forsyth County, one in Pierce City, Missouri, and a succession in Harrison, Arkansas. He considers both what happened a century ago and how it still affects the communities in question and the people driven out. One black family takes their case to the real-estate offices and public-records rooms of Forsyth, looking to find out who bought the property that should've belonged to them. Two St. Louis brothers petition a Pierce City cemetery to dig up their grandfather's unmarked grave, so they can move his bones to a spot with better memories. And in Harrison, town leaders begin reaching out with scholarships and commemorative plaques in an effort to defray their reputation as the most minority-unfriendly spot on the U.S. map.

Williams' presentation of this material is relatively unimaginative, from its mournful jazz score to his own presence as a narrator and interviewer. But Williams does push a little further than he has to, especially when he considers the issue of reparations. Banished's Pierce City story seems to reach a happy end when the mayor agrees to grant the disinterment request, but once the job is done, the brothers ask the town to reimburse all their expenses, and immediately sour any feelings of rapprochement. Williams isn't afraid to ask—without providing any definitive answer—whether black people are owed something for the legacy they were denied, and whether the grandchildren of the people who denied it should be properly held accountable. People on opposite sides of the issue sit in rooms together and ask, "If you were me, what would you do?" The question is worth raising, even if the answer makes both races uncomfortable.

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