By now, everybody and their dog is familiar with the series The Walking Dead on AMC, so you’ve probably seen the part where Rick Grimes rides into Atlanta, only to find it full of dilapidated corpses, shambling to and fro with a glassy-eyed stare, rotted flesh hanging from their faces, seeking only their next kicking, screaming meal. There’s a part of Runaway Slave eerily similar to that scene. Rev. C.L. Bryant, seeking answers to his questions, arrives in Atlanta, former commercial center of slavery and political center of the Confederacy, also the birthplace of MLK and, arguably, the Civil Rights movement. As he begins conducting interviews, he meets many people with the same glassy-eyed, hopeless stares, their bodies bearing tattoos and other scars of a pointless, nihilistic existence of government colonization. But of course, this isn’t some theoretical apocalyptic scenario. This is real life, and these are real Atlantans.
Runaway Slave is a documentary by Bryant, the great, great grandson of slaves in Louisiana who purchased 64 acres from their former masters upon emancipation. He lives on the same 64 acres today, when he’s not speaking at rallies around the country. Earlier in life, Bryant was a loyal member of the NAACP, and was climbing the hierarchy with some success, until he refused to speak at a pro-abortion rally. For his refusal, he was forced to resign from the organization. He was later fired from the church that he pastored for speaking out against big government. He made this film in 2010 and 2011, during the initial outrage that boiled up over Obamacare being rammed
through Congress. At that time he was speaking, among other places, at Tea Party rallies all over the country, and receiving hate mail calling him an Uncle Tom and a house n**ger.
The film opens with footage of the Restoring Honor rally on the Washington Mall the 47th anniversary of MLK’s famous march on Washington, featuring the likes of Glenn Beck and Dr. Alveda King (MLK’s niece). It zips back and forth between this event and Al Sharpton’s Reclaim the Dream rally at the White House, both happening at the same time. (Something that was odd, but cool, to note: At one point at the Beck/King rally, the camera zooms in on an American flag someone is carrying. Just below it on the same poll is a Nebraska Cornhuskers flag. Don’t know how it got there, but I paused the movie and it is definitely a Husker flag. Rex Burkhead would be proud.) Bryant is at the Sharpton rally, and interviews several people there, including Black Panthers. Afterward, he asks why, when the two groups profess to want most of the same things, Sharpton’s flock spews so much bile and seems to have so much hatred for those at the Honor rally.
As Bryant explains early on in the film, he is plagued with questions such as why, in an age when someone’s race doesn’t hold them back from walking into any business, voting, or holding any job, black Americans still believe they are not “free at last,” or why, after the Democrats fought to keep slavery legal, fought to keep schools segregated, sicked dogs on black protesters, and shot history’s greatest black leader, black Americans now vote 95% Democrat. He says “I have to find out if there are other people out there who think the way I do.” (If he’s been speaking at rallies for years, I think he probably knows, but every documentary needs a kickoff.) He then travels the country, interviewing people of different races and different political stripes. He interviews Jesse Jackson, and the aptly named Ben Jealous (he tries to interview Sharpton, who blows him off). However, the largest group that he talks to is black conservatives, such us Star Parker, Alfonzo Rachel and David Webb.
Runaway Slave is not just an excuse to plug the books and web sites of people Bryant agrees with. It’s a well-made documentary that takes on some tough questions, generates some good discussion, and leaves room for the audience to do its own thinking. The editing can be a little bit rough. Sometimes, Bryant will be talking to someone, and their lips won’t go with the words, as if we’re looking at an establishing shot, while we’re hearing dialogue from a more central shot. Bryant can come off as just a tad narcissistic as well, as there are some shots were he appears to be interviewing himself. But in fairness, this is because he feels the need to explain why he is making this film. This is a documentary with a view point, but that doesn’t make it any less worth watching. I’d say the most interesting part is about 1 hour in, when Bryant covers the decision by a school board in North Carolina, under the strain of budget limitations, to stop cross-city busing. The reaction of certain people is quite telling. And disturbing.
Runaway Slave is a gusty and in-your-face move, but also carefully done and thoughtfully presented. It’s a movie that everyone should see.