Starting with a modest proposal framing Black power as the erasure of systemic white supremacy, Sam Pollard and Llewellyn M. Smith’s South to Black Power, written by and featuring New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, proposes a roadmap forward: a reverse great migration back to southern states with Black populations. Citing Vermont as a successful case study, Blow tells the story of how the counterculture changed the rural, conservative state by simply doing the math and moving in. Born and raised in the racially mixed rural town of Gibsland, Louisiana, Blow returns home to find some signs of encouraging process, discussing with relatives their plans for redeveloping their town by obtaining power through official channels.
Herein lies the problem studied extensively in the documentary: while achieving strength and agency at a municipal level is possible, Blow uses his new hometown of Atlanta as a successful case study. But the Blackest cities in the nation are still governed by mostly white state legislators who can usurp the power of local councils and mayors. Drawing from Blow’s 2001 book The Devil You Know: A Black Manifesto, the filmmakers set out on what is partially a book tour, partially a road trip examining solutions at a mostly local level. Along the way Blow gets pushback, in some meetings telling a racially mixed audience he’s not promising Wakanda. He also receives resistance in some interviews, positing that if you’re comfortable and feel safe then you should stay in your community.
Along the way, Blow also visits grassroots organizations like Chicago’s RAGE (Resident Association of Greater Englewood). Founded by Asiaha Butler, the organization looks to turn their blighted neighborhood into a campus to address problems around food insecurity, crime-stable housing, and recidivism. For Butler, the way forward is owning the block, staying put, and fighting to rehabilitate a neighborhood school closed for the vague reason of “redundancy.” Butler is reluctant to move––after all, the ability to be mobile for opportunities belongs to those who are middle-class. When discomfort is expressed with his overall idea, Blow counters that all states (excepting Hawaii) are majority-white and no one has an issue with that.
In their sprawling, often engaging adaptation of the book, Pollard and Smith have taken a work of political science and made it quite personal, highlighting organizations enacting change at grassroots levels, following in the lead of Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project starting to flip a purple state more blue. An informative passage concerns Aimy Steele, inspired by Abrams’ success, founding the New North Carolina Project with the goal of bolstering candidates left behind by the Democratic National Committee.
South to Black Power is a fascinating example of making the political science documentary personal, with Blow inviting the filmmakers to meet friends, family, New York Times colleagues, and even his son who was racially profiled in New Haven while completing a residency at Yale. The stories are indeed intimate, at times heartbreaking––as is a journey to Jackson, Mississippi, which we’re told has surpassed Detroit as the nation’s “Blackest” city. Blow spends time with its young, charismatic mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, son of a pioneering and controversial Black nationalist. Lumumba finds himself locked in a power struggle with plainly corrupt state politics that leads to a life-and-death water crisis in a state where an absurd welfare scandal diverted millions from programs for the needy and to celebrities and public officials. The latter is a strand the film doesn’t follow, but nevertheless is central to its thesis.
South to Black Power premiered at DOC NYC and is now streaming on Max.