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Gripping Documentaries Mark The 100th Anniversary Of The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre


This is FRESH AIR. Monday, May 31, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Tulsa massacre in which white mobs attacked the prosperous community in Tulsa that was known as Black Wall Street. This Sunday, the History Channel presents its documentary called "Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre." PBS will air its Tulsa documentary Monday, and the National Geographic Channel will present its documentary on Tulsa and the Red Summer June 18. Our TV critic David Bianculli has a review of all three.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: When the fantasy TV series "Watchmen" premiered two years ago on HBO, it opened with a prologue set in 1921 in Tulsa, Okla. It dramatized a brutal attack on the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood with thousands of angry white people targeting the town and its citizens in a concentrated wave of violence that included murder, shootings, the looting of homes and businesses, fires set by torches, even incendiary explosive devices dropped by a small fleet of airplanes.

Some viewers who saw that opening "Watchmen" sequence were unaware of it at the time, but its depiction of the racist destruction of what was called the Black Wall Street of Tulsa was based on fact. For much of a century, even in Tulsa itself, that history seldom was shared. Yet this weekend, as we approach the May 31 and June 1 centennial of that attack, the word and the story is spreading.

I've previewed three new documentaries about the Tulsa tragedy key to the centennial. The first to arrive, Sunday's "Tulsa Burning - The 1921 Race Massacre" on the History Channel, is the best of the three, but all are worthwhile and take slightly different approaches. Monday's "Tulsa: The Fire And The Forgotten" on PBS stresses the reporters and historians who serve as guides to walk us through the evidence, including picture postcards of the burned-out neighborhood that were sold by and to bigots to spread proof of what had happened. Narrator Michel Martin explains.


MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: A number of the more graphic photographs were printed after the massacre as postcards. Members of white supremacist organizations displayed them as trophies and mailed them to sympathizers around the country. White supremacy flourished after the massacre. In 1922, some 1,700 Ku Klux Klan members paraded through downtown Tulsa, cheered on by 15,000 spectators. In 1923, a Tulsa Klan holding company erected a meeting hall, a fortress of racism. It was painted white and towered over the ruins of Greenwood. It was nicknamed Beno Hall for its restrictive admissions policy - be no Negro, be no Jew, be no Catholic, be no immigrant.

BIANCULLI: A third documentary, National Geographic's "Rise Again: Tulsa And The Red Summer," doesn't premiere until mid-June. It covers similar territory to the other two, including the recent excavation of a local cemetery in search of an unmarked mass grave. Washington Post reporter DeNeen Brown, who's written about the Tulsa story for years, figures prominently in both the PBS and National Geographic programs. And the Reverend Dr. Robert Turner of Tulsa is very present in all three. For the National Geographic show, he talks about racism and revisionist history in ways that span and link the two centuries.


ROBERT TURNER: And that's one of the curses of the ideology of white supremacy, which is you make an idol out of whiteness, and whiteness has to always be superior to everybody else. And so what does a lie do when it confronts the truth, right? It either awakens to the truth or it destroys the truth and continues to believe the lie.

BIANCULLI: What Sunday's "Tulsa Burning" program on the History Channel does, though, is tell the story most clearly and dramatically. Producer-director Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams lay out the narrative with so much intensity, their documentary comes with a viewer-discretion-is-advised label.

One particular story I'll never forget. It's the account of a prominent Black newspaper publisher who fled to Boston after the massacre. Local KKK members were so incensed by this, they captured his brother, a deputy police officer, and cut off his ear, then made him eat it. And no one in Tulsa, for that or anything else, was ever punished by the law or the courts. History Channel's "Tulsa Burning" includes original music by Branford Marsalis that strikes just the right moods. It also uses fast-paced editing to cram together the accounts of historians as events happen more quickly.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Right after dawn, there is this weird siren that is heard downtown.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And when that siren went off, there was just a full onslaught of gunfire, of airplanes flying and dropping incendiary devices, which we now know are turpentine balls, onto the tops of buildings. And it was just an all-out massacre of Greenwood.

BIANCULLI: And that account was followed quickly by this one.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Planes began to fly over. Machine gun fire begins. And then white men rush into the community, firing into homes...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Firing into front parlors and kitchens and children's bedrooms.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This was an intentional military-style attack.

BIANCULLI: All three programs include recent footage about Black Lives Matter protests and succeed not only in bringing a century-old story to life, but in making it disturbingly relevant.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon Reed about Juneteenth, or with Yusef Salaam, who was one of the five teenagers falsely accused of brutally raping a woman in Central Park in 1989 and later exonerated in 2002, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.