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Sunday, July 24, 2016

MFF Review: Yazoo Revisited: Integration and Segregation in a Deep Southern Town

In light of current events, it is always important to look to the past for answers, and perhaps more questions. Though the history books relegate the civil rights movement to a few chapters covered during Black History Month, it's clear that this is a battle that is unfortunately not yet won. We at GeekRex have talked very positively about films that examine a small event in great detail rather than than trying to somehow portray the entire life of an individual, films like 2014's Selma. This weekend at the 2016 Macon Film Festival, I got the chance to see such a film that looks at an important part of civil rights history, and questions what is to come.

Despite it's lengthy title, Yazoo Revisited: Integration and Segregation in a Deep Southern Town has a pretty narrow focus: it seeks to explore the history of public school integration in the small Mississippi town of Yazoo City. Director David Rae Morris comes to this with a unique perspective, as his father Willie Morris, a former editor for Harper's Magazine, wrote a book about segregation in Yazoo City where he grew up. The film draws on passages from the book as a starting point, but also pulls in dozens of perspectives from local students, community leaders, politicians, and academics from both past and present to provide an in depth historical presentation of the situation as it evolved from the antebellum period to present day.

Yazoo is largely very compelling, and does so by building the story chronologically with first person accounts and news articles and just enough historical background peppered in to make it feel pretty thorough without getting bogged down. Among the most fascinating bits are where we are privy to the facts of the situation that are totally separated from what was reported at the time; Yazoo City was often praised as a model city for integration, but at times this was far from the truth. In a similiar way that Selma examined how Martin Luther King, Jr. used potentially inflammatory tactics in the quest for peaceful resolution, Yazoo questions the ethics of community leaders who fought against direct integration with the reasoning that they wanted to make it gradual to keep the Klan from getting involved. It is these kinds of uncomfortable moments that make the film a unique one.

This film is one that gives a remarkably singular view of a story that most Americans probably think they already know from their high school education. Instead of a simple answer, the film seeks to explore every angle, and really forces the viewer to think about how public opinion changes, the real and practical notions that slowly change over time. Yazoo subtly asks the question: from an outside perspective reading about it in the papers, does it matter how the whole community feels when an outspoken group of politicians and community leaders spout off their opposition? It shows hope in the courage of the black and white families alike that embraced integration despite the very real risks; it also asks whether this problem is really one of the past as it looks at the problems that Yazoo City High School still faces to this day.

Despite a few touches of amateur filmmaking (this is Morris's first film), the captivating and relevant subject matter and the way it is handled are enough to relegate those quibbles to the background. This is one of those films that unfortunately might be difficult to see, but I would encourage any and all to seek it out; Yazoo Revisited is a film that is important right now and deserves some recognition for the timeliness and heart with which it looks at civil rights in America.

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