Washington Post journalist DeNeen Brown, widely noted for her reporting on the Tulsa massacre and its legacy, including ongoing excavation efforts to identify mass grave sites, serves as the film’s principal subject and de-facto narrator. The camera follows her as she speaks with community activists and massacre descendants both in Tulsa and Elaine, Arkansas, where what was likely the deadliest massacre of the Red Summer—a period of widespread white supremacist terrorism that occurred in the summer and fall of 1919—took place. Considering the historical events occurred when cameras were still relatively new, and therefore archival images and footage is rather limited, the amount of B-roll from the present day feels like a move made both out of necessity and as a creative choice to emphasize the focus on exploring how the legacy of this history continues into the present.
In Tulsa, Brown watches archeologists in the distance at work in the Oaklawn Cemetery, where a mass grave is eventually discovered in late 2020. In Elaine, Brown speaks with James White, the director of the Elaine Legacy center, and Lenora Marshall, the VP of its board, overlooking a rather forlorn empty field. They tell her that somewhere out there is a mass grave from the Elaine massacre; it is thought that hundreds of Black lives were lost in just one late September night in 1919 at the hands of white supremacist rioters, although massive efforts to cover up what happened, and then deny the massacre even took place, mean the true numbers will never be known. It’s more implied than directly stated that Elaine lacks the media attention or resources to mount excavation efforts similar to Tulsa. They did try planting a commemorative tree, though. Someone came and chopped it down.
The way the documentary handles the moment leaves no room for feeling angry. In general, perhaps in seeking to encourage engagement, to handhold and not alienate or make uncomfortable, “Rise Again” allows minimal room for anger, even when very earned. I often wish it would have. In avoiding that emotion, though, the rare mentions of such realities really stand out. At one point, J. Kavin Ross, a photojournalist and descendant of a Tulsa massacre survivor, recounts how his great-grandfather was unable to rebuild after his home was destroyed—or sell his remaining land to save his business—and lost everything after building a comfortable life for his family. “He left the state of Oklahoma, never to return, and died angry,” Ross states simply. It’s one of the most effecting lines in the entire documentary, due in part to how the documentary seems to consider it more of a throwaway and therefore doesn’t make Ross compete with a swell of ham-fisted dramatic stock music (this, unfortunately, does prove an issue elsewhere.)