‘This is the story of the most cynical political game in history…’ says a knowing, male, English voice, over the top of a montage of historical footage. The kind of music that indicates establishment intrigue laced with a little irony follows. Since we have no clue what cynical game the narrator is talking about (other than it refers to the perpetually tense mess of US race politics), we therefore assume the Adam Curtis-esque documentary style promises the typically convoluted journey through multiple narratives of power and political correctness and the fringes of our own nervous system. Surely this can only end with uneasy ambiguity about systemic and historical wrongdoing and fatalistic doom for the 21st Century?
But in Durkin’s hands, the slightly hypnotic effect of video montage coupled with the almost cheeky musical score immediately sets off with all the certainty of an American marching band, in one, unapologetically unequivocal direction; blaming the Democrats.
The combination of visual impressionism, with the emphatic delivery of a well justified, yet significantly underrepresented viewpoint of black American conservatism – unanimously agreed upon by the film’s almost entirely black contributors – is powerful. We are not used to this much conviction from the cancellation-prone non-woke.
The picture painted is (I suspect) purposefully simplistic – or is it just refreshingly simple? We are told with ample statistics and testimony delivered by eminent economists, a civil rights campaigner, political scientist, broadcaster, ex-policeman and an entrepreneur, that in the decades that followed slavery and well into the first half of the twentieth century (i.e. before the successes of the civil rights movement) black Americans were self-sufficiently on-the-up. They had a higher in-wedlock birthrate than any other group (at approximately 85%), were devout Christians, were not significantly disproportionate perpetrators of crime (especially given the challenges of abject racism and poverty they faced) and had a substantial and growing ownership of businesses and property (including media outlets, banks and insurance companies). Increasing access into top professions was afforded via more than one hundred colleges of higher education and fifteen black universities.
The engaging, pre-civil rights archive footage of well-dressed black men, women and children promenading and going about their business, flashing confident smiles at the camera, should not be surprising to us, but one cannot help but notice it is. In fact, we realise there is a gaping hole in the common understanding of quotidian black American experience at this time, since the popular movies of the era told us little-to-nothing of it, and although some of the footage smacks of optimistic US government propaganda, one nevertheless starts to realise this is a seldom told story and a few tectonic shifts can be felt beneath the contemporary narrative of black American history which would have us believe it is an unrelenting tale of oppression from 1865 to Martin Luther King.
No lack of attention is given to the cruel and systemic opposition these Americans experienced, and we see hanging effigies and be-gowned Klan members patrolling the streets in sunglasses, backed up by police and podium pounding politicians, but emphasis is placed on the fact that despite that, substantial progress was being made.
We are then reminded, with a perhaps intentionally provocative frankness, that in the second half of the 20thC century, a pivot of fortune occurred that has resulted in the “terrifying, lawless black ghettos of today”. Black crime rates soared (black-on-black crime being disturbingly high, in particular), drug dealing became a norm and single parenthood is now experienced by a truly staggering 75% of black babies. The descent of the nuclear family in particular seems undeniable, the imagery of degradation is persuasive and upsetting, and the timing is obviously odd given the big steps forward in the 1960’s and the reduction in overt and institutional racism since then.
Employing common sense, key data and personal testimony instead of popular academic theories of systemic disadvantage, the film’s contributors rule out racism as the determining factor of this decline. As an alternative explanation, we are provided with a brisk run through of the remarkable reversal of position in the Democratic Party. From supporting slavery, segregation and Jim Crow – and once boasting the Klu Klux Klan as their Terror Wing – we are told the Democrats flipped to masterminding a ballooning welfare state and an almost obsessional and demoralising patronisation of black Americans. (Durkin successfully lampoons Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden with a quick-fire repetition of their chronic overuse of the term ‘systemic racism’.) By contrast we are informed that by 1930, all twenty-one of the black politicians in the House of Representatives were Republican.
It is proposed that with Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ the Democrats set out in desperation to purchase the black vote they had historically denied, yet was becoming essential to their electoral survival. And they achieved their objective when millions of black voters rapidly entered the welfare system, resulting in the distorting effect of no longer needing to work for a living, whilst the state stepped into the role of father to a proliferation of single mothers rewarded with benefits, many of them teenagers.
This in turn produced an expanding bureaucracy of self-serving administrators, which has since evolved into a powerful race-grievance industry that gains from perpetuating a vision of systemic racism. Thomas Sowell suggests, with his trademark acuity, that it is notable that the same tool of dependence that held slaves trapped in submission in the Democratic south was being reemployed by the welfare state to tame black votes and ambition.
And in case we are thinking that this counter-productive welfarism was at least delivered with some newly found best-of-intentions, we are informed of the utterly damning assertion that Johnson said “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they’ve never had before… political pull. We’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down – not enough to make a difference.” His reported objective being “I’ll have them Niggers votin’ Democrat for 200 years”.
Of course, there are criticisms to make of this stark and polemical claim. Some of Johnson’s words are not to be found in official government texts but were reported by a colleague and he was known to expediently shift his language from the reasonable to the bigoted, as he sought to make a coalition of Democratic support for his political vision, in a time when his Southern representatives would have thought it strange if he didn’t talk this way. And likewise, the Republicans have not provided any great answer to the black Americans’ troubles themselves, whilst the vast majority of ordinary Americans who administer welfare programmes, do so in good faith.
Moreover, I think one has to question the halcyon image Durkin projects, of happy church going black Americans pre-1950, experiencing overwhelmingly wholesome communities and families, despite what is described elsewhere of alcoholism, idleness, grinding poverty and a lack of access to education; the background of exclusion and gross miscarriages of justice must have proved insurmountable for many. Likewise, a welfare dependent, materialistic, cultural vacuity is not the preserve of contemporary black Americans alone.
All the same, it seems Durkin is daring to choose the most compelling route through the complexity – making a claim of an important objective meta truth, over a chaos of subjective ones – or perhaps he is applying the kind of polemical force he thinks is needed to bring the juggernaut of critical race theory and endless grievance to at least a hesitation, if not a halt. Certainly, by the time his commentators have explained that recently arrived Nigerian or Somali Americans avoid welfare and outperform whites in average incomes; that something like 75-85% of race rioters in Minneapolis were white liberals playing identity politics and that black run public schools, under black area governance leave only 13% of black children reaching adequate literacy, it’s hard to deny he has proved his case that ‘systemic racism’ cannot be the key cause of all black Americans’ ills in the 21st century.
So once one has exhaled the kind of intake of breath required at the throwaway use of the ‘N’ word by a Democrat lauded for forwarding civil rights, and have comprehended the degree of cynicism at work and the extent of the suffering that resulted, the full earthquake of the documentary has been achieved. But it would never have reached its fairly substantial point on the Richter scale without its highly charismatic star, Bevelyn Beatty.
Beatty, notably the only main female contributor, supplies more voltage to the argument than her nine, eminent male co-commentators put together. Whether she is yelling accusations of being frauds at shocked white BLM activists for rioting upon black businesses, or throwing herself to her knees to spread black paint to cover up the BLM sign painted by Democrats outside Trump Tower, shouting “Refund the Police!” – even as a confused policeman carts her away – she is clearly a one-woman reality check for the fundamentalising group-think of the US social justice project.
With an unquestionably high qualification in ‘lived experience’, this onetime resident of the ‘hood’, who has been shot, stabbed and committed a felony, knows she is uniquely well placed to cut through the silencing tactics of BLM and their affiliation with the Democrats – or as she calls them ‘the Dixiecrats’. Beatty has clearly taken BLM’s advice and ‘educated herself’ in black history and has come up with some deeply unfashionable answers. She spares no criticism for her gangster neighbours and their bad attitudes, she talks openly about how much less trouble she experiences at her new, majority white home in Maine. Her Christianity forms a clear part of the narrative Durkin builds, corroborated by Glenn Loury, who explains that many black Americans practice a passionate faith that is underrepresented and puts them thoroughly at odds with the majority white BLM liberal activists, who take it upon themselves to align the black American cause with queer lifestyles and an anti-capitalism movement that are anathema to Beatty and her community.
Given centre stage throughout, as well as the last word, the documentary depends on Beatty’s personal daring and righteous energy. But at the film launch, at which Beatty and Durkin took questions, a divergence was evident between Durkin’s more socially liberal, moderate conservatism and Beatty’s firebrand Christianity, despite their clear mutual admiration. In the film, Durkin describes the religiosity of Beatty and her fellow black Americans as an almost unquestionably good force and yet he does not permit Beatty’s entire fundamentalist, evangelical story to unfold, even though he has employed her passion, sass and articulacy to support his own narrative.
At the launch, Beatty who is a smooth and powerful operator, waited until the last question to introduce her full argument against the Democrats, which includes an opposition to their support for abortion through Planned Parenthood, which she notes is killing awful amounts of black babies. This is perhaps the most sinister accusation of the state patronisation of black people, following their mistake of race-targeted welfarism, which Durkin is supposedly analysing. But although the subject is briefly hinted at by Glenn Loury in the film, this controversial (and actually vitally important) argument is glossed over by Durkin, who prefers to freeze the left-right dispute in the Reagan era, seeing the matter through the prism of a small versus big state and in terms of economics and jobs. Beatty, a passionate, religious woman, is on a very different moral tramline.
Durkin seems to fail to communicate that things have moved into a darker dispute since Reagan and to the acute observer of US politics they can see the arguments are becoming something more tribal and fundamental than tax and spend. Early in the film, Beatty’s friend shouts with fury of BLM ‘It’s a demon… it’s a devil!’ leaving us in no doubt of their absolutist approach, but nevertheless Durkin contains this zeal within what we assume is his own preferred narrative of wholesome Christian communities. How very C of E. But the ascribing of demonism, witchcraft and evil to the social justice project is arguably an equally illiberal and potentially de-humanising phenomenon that has grown in parallel alongside the social justice movement’s own intolerant quasi-religious success in the secular void. It takes an established religion to spot a competing new one, so it is no wonder its exponents are first to the culture war frontline and spectacularly passionate when they get there.
America is arguably a republic on the edge of democratic failure, in fact Trump supporters fear they are already past it – Beatty explained that she cried when the election was stolen from Trump because it ended democracy that day. Whether she is right or wrong about that, the USA is veering towards a post-truth, post-rational, post-cohesive nation, with some states refusing to do business with each other whilst others are trying to escape the dictates of federal law – notably over the abortion issue. They have a tendency to either idolize or have a deficit of democratic consent for their Presidents and are increasingly openly ruled by oligarchical interests, which are simply ‘managing’ the divergent forces of the people, rather serving them – and in that kind of state, superstition and tribalism flourishes.
Because the largely liberal, Western media has been so obsessed with promoting one version of that superstition (i.e. the socially liberal, pro-BLM, pro-LGBTQ, toy-Marxist agenda – which itself is manifesting as a full-blown pseudo-religion of the clerical class) we don’t hear enough about the growing success of the opposition to that – at least not until it spills forward in the charismatic form of Bevelyn Beatty. This means it is easy to mistake her for an almost miraculous, truth-telling force of nature. But actually, the evangelical US Christian movement is well developed, hugely powerful and has a lot more going for it than BLM; not least that it has God on its side! Not to mention the tried and tested successful social teachings of two millennia. There are more battles to come in this culture war.
Britain has a way of thinking it knows what America is, like a parent knows a child. Then America surprises Britain with the extremism of what it is capable of, often before influencing old Britain to try the same. That dynamic sometimes occurs between older men and younger women too and I wondered if Durkin was just a little too enamoured with Beatty to remain analytically impartial? She featured more heavily than any other commentator – some of whom are the greatest black academic thinkers of the age. Personally I would have given the last word to Glenn Loury, particularly the advice he directed to all the race baiters, grievance peddlers or the merely resentful or paranoid, saying ‘We’re already home… just stop it.’
Clare Page is a writer and Don’t Divide Us supporter.