Disclaimer: Cultural Revue was provided a Screener Copy of the Film to Preview by the film’s Producers
It’s curious that Shelby Steele’s new documentary would happen to drop just months after the George Floyd riots. This is a fact that’s addressed in the film’s epilogue where Steele condemns the death of Floyd and calls out the riots as ultimately destructive to the goals of advancing poor black Americans. Of course, That’s merely providence. What Killed Michael Brown primarily uses the death of its titular figure Michael Brown as a means to explore the multitudinous issues in the modern black community today.
As He proves, there are a litany of issues that created our modern firestorms surround anti-racism and black oppression.
Steele doesn’t come at these topics from the traditionally media approved angle. He’s a conservative journalist at the Hoover Institute. Like his college Thomas Sowell, he’s a black activist who went through a phase of youthful radicalism that he grew out of with age. This hasn’t earned him much popularity. He’s an outlier in these discussions as a critic of leftist anti-racist polices and anti-poverty programs.
This sets him firmly outside the mainstream. The 2013-2020 cultural discussions on racism in America preclude solutions that don’t fundamentally start from the idea that black disenfranchisement is caused by systematic oppression and white supremacy. Steele himself acknowledges the nature of these forces as he did when he himself was a youthful radical and a follower of black nationalists like Stokely Carmichael. His experience as a former black radical hasn’t helped the film’s prestige.
Famously, this film was briefly banned from Amazon Prime because of its controversial approach to sensitive subject matter.
It’s not hard to see why the film proper would rustle people. What Killed Michael Brown is a thorough expose that’s interested in breaking down the narratives surrounding America’s most infamous police shooting. He starts the film by beginning a personal he begins a personal pilgrimage to Ferguson, Missouri where he begins doing the hard work of investigating why this small St. Louis suburb became such a powder keg for racial tension.
Black activists we meet throughout the film offer their laundry list of complaints such as the Ferguson police department’s higher rate of pulling over black speeders and ongoing tension between the local black majority and its white Republican government.
Steele breaks through these narratives cleanly. As becomes clear, Ferguson just so happened to prove a convenient powder keg for preconceived biases and media coverage to blow up into a massive controversy that was already feeding off of long held problems in the United States.
For one, He describes how most disenfranchised young black children are primed from a young age to perceive an ongoing atmosphere of racial hostility as the primary cause of their inter generational poverty and crime issues. Even when the evidence proves that the situation wasn’t created by anti-black racism, the narrative has flown halfway around the world already. When you believe that “white supremacy” is the only thing keeping you down, a police shooting without context will inflame those preconceived notions.
Such an atmosphere might be possible to deconstruct but the incentive structure currently in place makes such a discussion impossible. The Obama justice department put all of the resources they had into securing a guilty verdict against Officer Daren Wilson but the forensic evidence and witness testimony all came down against Michael Brown’s innocence. Put simply, the evidence showed definitively that Brown was in the wrong and that Officer Wilson had no choice but to respond with his weapon to protect himself.
For the media and activists on the left, these facts were irrelevant. Racial Activists like Al Sharpton and Eric Holder had no interest in the evidence. They descended on Ferguson ready to align with black activists who took one look at the body of a dead black man on the streets, in the context of their decades of priming and perspective, and saw only racial hatred and injustice.
Events like these serve double purposes for the left. First and foremost, they create an opportunity for young out-of-state radicals to flood into a firestorm and unleash their pent up discontent with the system. Secondly, they allow the left to deflect from the fact that leftist policies following Johnson’s Great Society have created the circumstances trapping black people in cycles of poverty.
That’s not so say injustice doesn’t happen. Even in cases that Shelby Steele agrees were unjustified like the George Floyd shooting, Steele ultimately comes down against the activists who would prefer to side with “poetic truth” than to see legal justice through to its end. So long as that narrative exists, the country will only continue to extend these problems into the future.
Much of Shelby’s arguments likely sound inflammatory and egregious but the work he and his son Eli Steele did for this documentary is comprehensive. Much of it comes from the perspectives of local black activists and interviews with major actors like Al Sharpton himself who speak quite plainly about the cynical nature of the media firestorm that descended upon this small town. Much of it was defamatory and incorrect.
As much as the need for justice prevails, America’s quest to root out racism can’t succeed along the lines of this narrative. As Steele would say, so long as the “poetic truth” of black oppression remains in the ether, the actual objective realities on the ground that created black disenfranchisement will be preserved.