“Banished” attempts to redefine the ever-controversial and hazy issue of reparations for slavery by transmitting the issue to another, more concrete story of people robbed in racism’s name. The film is about the aftermath of a series of incidents in the the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s in which white communities ran black citizens out of their counties after an accused rape or other lynch-mob-worthy scandal.
While it doesn’t come to any really convincing conclusions, the film offers some insight into race relations in modern America through three stories: a family’s quest to rediscover their ancestor’s lost property, two brothers’ effort to remove their lynched ancestor from his burial ground and a town that remains an all-white haven for racists who don’t want to live with black people.
A lawyer argues convincingly that banishment reparations are different from repairations for slavery because there are clear records of the location and size of the ancestor’s land. But the people who own it now obviously feel that they bought the land fair and square. Most interesting, however, is the townspeople’s consistent reluctance to admit their unpleasant history.
Director Marco Williams goes halfway to halfway to making the movie a self-narrated journey of personal discovery, but his presence drops in and out without him experiencing any real personal transitions. He comments that it’s a difficult to resolve the the issues between the current property bought their land fairly and the descendants who were forced off it, but describes any other efforts as not being enough.
In one scene, when a mayor is discussing his refusal to pay a few thousand dollars of a bill for the excavation and transport of a lynched man’s grave, Williams suggests putting an ad in the paper. I assumed the ad might call for the townspeople to contribute to a fund to help the town pay for the project, but instead Williams resembles the tired metaphor of the guy who gets turned down for a dollar and asks for a 20: Tell all the victims of the banishing that they can come have their land back and make Pierce City a diverse, vibrant community.
Williams does have some balls, however. The black man talks to Thom Robb of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan about whether he taints the town’s image, or the town is simply an ideal location for the klan. A look into a town meeting about whether to put up a plaque acknowledging the spot of the tragedy reveals a rather shocking inability to accept responsibility for anything. “It won’t be enough” is an excuse not to do anything.
While Williams fails to create a compelling argument or discovery about the reparations issue, “Banished” contains enough insights into race relations to be worth watching.