“Greenwood,” directed Jairus B. Burks, features spoken-word poet Dacember Traylor as she passionately explains the significance of the Tulsa Race Massacre and what was lost when one of the most prominent concentrations of African-American businesses in the country was destroyed.

There’s probably no community in America that represents the four eras that have shaped the lives of people of color — slavery, lynching, segregation, mass incarceration — more than the community of Memphis, Equal Justice Initiative Founder Bryan Stevenson told MLK50 this week. Progress on racial justice can’t happen until citizens take a deep look at the legacy of slavery and how it evolved.

With the past — and future — in mind, the Indie Memphis Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 1–6, offers a special slate of films evoking themes commemorated by the upcoming 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis. A series of short films and documentaries by Memphis-area filmmakers will be showcased at a Friday night screening from 9–10:45 at Playhouse on the Square, and audience awards plus a special award by the National Civil Rights Museum will be presented, according to festival organizers.

Productions include a documentary called “An Accidental Drowning,” which looks at the brutal 1939 lynching of Jesse Lee Bond in nearby Arlington, directed by Matteo Servente. The film received support from The Lynching Sites Project, dedicated to learning the “whole and accurate truth” about Shelby County history as a truth-and-reconciliation approach to racial healing.

“We’re seeing activism in Memphis, and that’s why it’s an important city in the story of the struggle.” 

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative

Also on tap is director Katori Hall’s “Arkabutla,” a narrative short about a champion bull rider confronting the stubborn legacy of race when he gives his children a jet ski as a gift. “The BLM Bridge Protest: One Year Later” looks at Memphis-based activism through the lens of the July 10, 2016 Black Lives Matter protest when more than 1,000 demonstrators — mostly young and black — shut down the Hernando de Soto Bridge following the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota.

Protesters face off with Memphis police officers during the July 10, 2016 bridge protest. Photo by Andrea Morales

It matters that Memphis filmmakers are excavating themes about race and justice because the city was a prime slave-trading space because of its proximity to the Mississippi River, said Stevenson, whose own Montgomery, Alabama-based justice project has produced an exhaustive record of lynchings across the South, including 233 in Tennessee between 1877 and 1950. More than 4,000 lynchings were carried out across the country during that time, mostly in the South. The Great Migration to the North from 1916 through 1970 is largely attributed to this reign of terror of black citizens, according EJI’s research on the practice.

Stevenson describes Memphis as a place where the legacy of terror and racial violence was used to subordinate a community of African-Americans for decades: “It’s a place that was comfortable with racial segregation and the apartheid laws and statutes that perpetuated white supremacy.”

He continued: “And of course, it is now a place where you see some of the highest rates of incarceration for communities of color, in which children are being pulled from schoolhouses and placed in jailhouses. So if we’re trying to understand the story of slavery and lynching and segregation and mass incarceration, there’s no community that represents that history more painfully than Memphis.”

Where there’s pain associated with the past, there’s hope for the future, he said.

“There’s also no community that represents the hope of what we can do to overcome that history than Memphis because we saw progress in Memphis, Dr. King went to Memphis,” Stephenson said. “We’re seeing activism in Memphis, and that’s why it’s an important city in the story of the struggle.”

Now that’s the ticket!

Following is a list of MLK50 offerings Friday night at Playhouse on the Square, 66 Cooper St., which may be screened for the cost of one $10 ticket. The festival offers more than 200 films through Nov. 6.

“An Accidental Drowning”
Category: Documentary Short
Director: Matteo Servente 
Running Time: 6 minutes
On April 28, 1939 Jesse Lee Bond was brutally lynched in Arlington.

Category: Narrative Short
Director: Katori Hall 
Running Time: 14:27 minutes
Chauncey Wright, a champion bull rider, has been risking his life on the weekly to give his kids the ultimate gift — a jet ski. But when he takes Annie Sue and Tommie on a weekend lake trip for a joy ride on their new toy, they are all forced to confront a stubborn legacy swimming just beneath the surface.

“Girls Like Me: A Self/Love Story”
Category: Experimental Short
Director: Aisha Raison 
Running Time: 7:03 minutes
A woman’s poetic video diary journey speaks of trauma, abuse … then enlightenment.

“Get Off the Bus”
Category: Documentary Short
Director: Robert Rowan 
Running Time: 6 minutes
A view into the world of a Memphis Bus Rider Union organizer as she fights to save a dying bus route.

Category: Narrative Short
Director: Mark Goshorn Jones
Running Time: 7:29 minutes
The family doesn’t want Henry included.

Category: Documentary Short
Director: Sarah Fleming and Joann Self Selvidge 
Running Time: 7:48 minutes
This short film shares the story of a young man who is incarcerated at the Shelby County Division of Corrections. He was transferred to criminal court at the age of 15, and he’s spent the past four years in adult detention centers as a youthful offender.

“The BLM Bridge Protest: One Year Later”
Category: Documentary Short
Director: Yalonda M. James
Running Time: 7:16 minutes
On July 10, 2016, over 1,000 demonstrators shut down the Hernando de Soto Bridge during a Black Lives Matter protest in Memphis following the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, in addition to all Black lives taken by law enforcement.

Category: Documentary Short
Director: Jordan Danelz
Running Time: 11:30 minutes
“Overcome” offers a glimpse into World Relief Memphis and the refugees they’ve helped resettle in Memphis.

“Senescence Lost”
Category: Documentary Short
Director: Kathy O. Lofton 
Running Time: 7:08 minutes
“Senescence Lost” is a short documentary that takes a graphic look into the nuances of elderly abuse. Shelby County is the backdrop for a global topic.

Category: Experimental Short
Director: Jairus B. Burks
Running Time: 5 minutes
This short film features spoken-word poet Dacember Traylor passionately explaining the significance behind one of the most prominent concentrations of African-American businesses in the United States and how it was forcefully erased in one of the most devastating massacres in the history of U.S. race relations. Dancer Camille Hagen provides a visual representation of the hurt and the pain African-Americans feel today as “Black Wall Street” still has not been reclaimed.

Category: Narrative Short
Director: Kevin Brooks
Running Time: 7:35 minutes
A young man embarks on a day full of skateboarding with his friends, to only return home with a different outlook on life and how he’s truly seen in society.

“An Accidental Drowning”
Category: Documentary Short
Director: Matteo Servente
Running Time: 6 minutes
On April 28, 1939 Jesse Lee Bond was brutally lynched in Arlington.

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.