Justice  /  Film Review

Two Recent Movies Help Us Connect the Dots Between Jim Crow and Fascism

With Kanye and Kyrie Irving dominating the news, the connections between victims of white supremacy are more relevant than ever.

Both Till and the U.S. and the Holocaust are structured around stories of victims who ascended to the status of historical avatars. Viewed together it becomes clear: Jim Crow killed Emmett Till. And Jim Crow with a foreign accent killed Anne Frank.

Part of the reason the stories of Emmett and Anne endure is because of the universal recognition of the innocence of children. This is one of the elements Chukwu captures with heartrending delicacy as she follows Mamie throughout the course of Till. Living in Chicago, Mamie raises a charismatic teen who who is largely free and unafraid, whose back has not been broken by a racist social order. Emmett is more than the barbarism he endured. He’s sweet, clever Bo, whose laughter and mischief filled his mother’s house and heart.

But Chukwu also illustrates, with a quiet power, the terrorism that reverberates from Emmett’s slaying at the hands of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the two white men who admitted to kidnapping, torturing, and killing Till in a magazine interview after they were acquitted by an all-white jury. Portraying Emmett’s open-casket funeral in Chicago, Chukwu starts with the camera following the face of each mourner who has come to gaze upon Emmett’s swollen, disfigured countenance. The camera pulls away to reveal a church full of people, all focused on Emmett’s casket. In that moment, he is the center of this particular universe. And no one in this universe is safe. The terror spreads throughout Mississippi and up the river that shares its name all the way to a Chicago sanctuary.

Anne’s innocence endures in one of the most memorable quotations of her bestselling diary: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.” In The U.S. and the Holocaust, those who knew her and survived suggest that Anne likely would not have written that line had she been able to record her thoughts while imprisoned at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

Projects such as Till and The U.S. and the Holocaust, however rigorous, struggle to compete with the current pop culture discourse led by a few massively famous men bent on painting Jews not just as global puppet masters, but as opponents of the project of Black liberation. It is strange to witness rapper Kanye West or Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving truck in lies and antisemitic stereotypes aimed at driving a wedge between two communities that have long worked together in the pursuit of racial justice to the point of sacrificing their lives to do so. On a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, Dave Chappelle seemed to delight in tweaking the more ridiculous behavior and pronouncements of Irving and West, all the while winking at the antisemitic tropes they espoused, tropes that are used to justify violence against Jews.