The 'Banished' Explores Racial Cleansing in America

Filmmaker sheds light on little-known part of American history

'Banished' tells the story of racial cleansing in three American communities.
'Banished' tells the story of racial cleansing in three American communities.

Marco Williams' 2007 documentary "Banished" takes on one of the overlooked stories of American history: racial cleansing during the early 20th century where African-American inhabitants were expelled from dozens of communities and their property confiscated. 

"Banished" follows the descendants of expelled communities in Arkansas, Georgia, and Missouri. Each family looks for answers and closure in its own way, but all three are met with the opposition of members of the all-white communities.

Screened at the Smith Warehouse on Thursday evening, the documentary was followed by a panel discussion featuring Williams and historian William Chafe and moderated by Pauli Murray Project director Barbara Lau.

During the discussion, Chafe said the "fundamental question" of historical ownership is central to the resistance of the all-white communities featured in the film.

"To what degree do we own the history of our foremothers and forefathers?" Chafe said. "I can't tell you how many times I've argued with somebody who says, 'Why blame me? I didn't do any of that, why are you making me feel responsible?'"

America's legacy of racism raises questions about reparations. During the Q&A portion of the event, audience member Edward Kwon shared the story of his family's banishment from Mississippi and Louisiana in the early 1900s. 

"I personally don't feel like there can be any repair," Kwon said. "We were cut off from the land. We were disassociated from our community, our family, everything. The money part of reparations is something we've moved beyond. The only thing we would really like is an acknowledgment that a wrong was done."

Chafe agreed that repair and acknowledgment are not the same as healing.

"Repair does not mean healing," Chafe said. "It may mean justice, but it does not mean healing. Acknowledgment means coming face-to-face with what has happened. Healing is something different. Healing involves camaraderie, trust, love. The only way you get healing is a very different kind of personal process."

Lau said "Banished" challenged viewers to act on their knowledge of American racial cleansing.

"It's upsetting and disconcerting for people to realize how many towns this happened in and how much this is a part of our history," Lau said. "Now that we know this, we can't un-know it. We can't unlearn it. What do we do with it?"

"Banished" was the first film in the "Rights! Camera! Action!" series, presented by the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. For more information and a list of upcoming film screenings, visit the series website.