Posted by Ken Spivey
“The History of Black New York” thematically explores various aspects of the black experience through the use of historian testimony and period specific media. The documentary begins with the early arrival of the Dutch on Manhattan Island and their fair treatment of black slaves. With the arrival of the English, morality and race became intertwined in New York, as with the rest of America, leading to the ensuing years of black oppression and segregation. Quickly, the DVD jumps into an analysis of the role of blacks in the American military, ranging from the Colonial & Civil Wars to the rise of Colin Powell to military prominence. Then the film shifts focus from the blacks’ martial experience to the social, with a brief discussion of the Harlem Renaissance and its impact upon the evolution of modern black culture. A brief biography of congressional pioneer Adam Powell, a glimpse into the life and rhetoric of Malcolm X, a tip of the hat to baseball legend Jackie Robinson, and various other black heroes highlighted the portion of the documentary which touched upon the Civil Rights movement.
As a documentary viewed in a vacuum without prior knowledge of the history of blacks in America, this film would make little sense. Yet, most Americans are familiar enough with at least the basic story of the the civil rights movement in the United States to understand a good portion of “Black New York.” Perhaps the filmmakers bore this in mind when they left out key transitions between subject matters, jumped around in time to further a topical point, and chose to include obscure anecdotes by historians instead of the bare bones structure of narrative.
In addition, the title “The History of Black New York” only occasionally applied to the film. When discussing any of the film’s disparate topics, I found the often times forced attempt to relate the analysis back to New York distracting. The filmmakers should have chosen one subject matter relating to New York and discussed it in greater detail, such as “The History of Blacks in New York in 1969” or “The Role of Blacks in Civil War-era Warfare.” As the film stood, it was more of a generic glimpse of the history of black America, as opposed to a history of blacks in New York. however, the film would make an excellent supplement to a high school or entry level college course wishing to close out a several week long section in their curriculum with something to remind them of various aspects of northern American blacks.