Judge Clark Douglas demands the annual observation of Film Critic History Month.
It is a film about discovering oneself.
Shukree Tilghman's documentary special More Than a Month opens with an interview clip that received quite a lot of attention just a few years ago: actor Morgan Freeman insisting that he thinks Black History Month is ridiculous. "You're going to relegate my history to a month?" the actor scoffs. This clip is quickly followed by a series of random folks on the street echoing the usual talking points that tend to come up whenever the subject is discussed. Some claim that Black History Month is condescending to African-Americans, as it encourages others to confine their contribution to history to a brief portion of the year. Others claim that without Black History Month, African-Americans would be ignored to an even greater degree. Tilghman uses these clips as a form of cinematic shorthand, quickly getting us up to speed on a debate many of us have heard so he can start digging a little deeper.
Tilghman is the son of black activists, who took him along to a variety of protest rallies and other politically-charged events when he was young. He speaks candidly about the manner in which his childhood affection for Black History Month eventually curdled as he grew older. As he entered adulthood, Tilghman grew frustrated with the fact that a handful of individuals (Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman) were the only ones being celebrated, that schools felt free to ignore black history outside of February, that corporations exploited Black History Month in gimmicky marketing campaigns aimed at African-Americans and that the month essentially informed black Americans that they weren't part of "real history." As the documentary begins, Tilghman determines to begin a campaign to end Black History Month.
However, he's more interested in starting a conversation than in actually following through on his campaign. "You're just trying to be provocative," one interviewee sighs. That's true, but this is a subject that merits a bit of provocation. Over the course of the documentary, Tilghman attempts to determine the value of Black History Month and ask whether it's still necessary in the 21st Century. His quest leads to a variety of thoughtful, compelling interviews and conversations. Public surveys are conducted, experts are consulted, data is analyzed…there's even a visit to Virginia to speak to a group of Civil War enthusiasts hoping to institute a Confederate History Month. It's remarkable how many angles are covered over the course of this hour-long special, and even more remarkable that few of Tilghman's insights seem thin or underdeveloped.
While Tilghman effectively outlines the numerous weaknesses and negative side effects of Black History Month, he eventually comes to terms with the idea that its removal would ultimately do more harm than good. Toward the conclusion of the documentary, he notes some ideas that have been implemented by certain educational institutions that might eventually render Black History Month unnecessary (requiring that students pass a course on the subject before they're permitted to graduate). However, we're a long way from nationwide acceptance of such ideas. Until we get there, the month remains a flawed necessity. "It's not about ending Black History Month; it's about transcending it," Tilghman says.
It should be noted that Tilghman's skills as a filmmaker are considerable, permitting More Than a Month to make a stronger impression than the typical classy-yet-anonymous PBS production. He inserts cleverly-staged re-enactments that add a great deal of humor to the proceedings; there are moments in which Tilghman's thoughtful satire resembles The Daily Show at its finest. A debate over the necessity of Black History Month may sound like a dry subject, but the director's snappy pacing and playful style make the documentary an immensely entertaining viewing experience. Yes, it turns completely earnest during its closing moments, but by that point it's earned the right to do so.
The DVD transfer is solid enough, and the film offers an appealing mix of talking head interviews, traditional documentary footage, archival clips, photographs and staged re-enactments. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track captures all of the conversations with clarity. These PBS documentaries aren't generally accompanied by supplements, but this one gets a handful of deleted scenes that are well worth checking out.
More Than a Month is a terrific piece of edutainment that questions some of the ways in which Black History Month is celebrated while ultimately reaffirming its considerable value. I'm looking forward to seeing what Tilghman does next.
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