Today I was accused of being a racist.
You need to know that, because that's been on my mind all evening and that's what I went in with when I watched Meeting David Wilson, which just premiered on MSNBC. And it would be doing a disservice toward my opinion about this film without disclosing what's going on in my gray matter this evening, especially in light of the fact that much of Meeting David Wilson takes place here in Reidsville, North Carolina and the surrounding area.
The circumstance in which it happened, it doesn't matter. Nor does it particularly bother me that I was accused of being a racist. I know better of myself than to let something like that bring me down. When I meet a person for the first time, the color of their skin or their creed or where they're coming from... that doesn't matter to me and it never has. I just see a person: someone made by God, worthy of all the respect that's due the potential He’s given them. And I like to think that God gives all of us such wonderful potential, being no respecter of persons.
No, what bothered me about being called a racist was the fact that in 2008, it's still too easy to call someone a racist without even bothering to understand what that really means.
I wasn't angry about it. Having anger would not have helped. It would not have enlightened the person who labeled me a racist, and it would have clouded my own judgment and vision. Anger would have solved nothing.
More than anything else, I was disappointed with the person who told me that. Because I know something that this person doesn't understand nearly enough: that this person is better than this. And just because they may have been born in a situation, doesn't mean that they have to endure that situation for the rest of their lives. Anyone can work toward escaping and making something better of themselves, if they want that. But they have to freely choose to want that, and then choose to strive toward it.
I hate to see anyone surrender from using his or her own free will. And I sure as hell cannot stand to see anyone make excuses for giving up without even trying.
I wish that I could have said something. To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. And even if I had known... what then?
As it turned out, I didn't have to say anything. David A. Wilson, the talented filmmaker from New Jersey who produced Meeting David Wilson, said it all in his documentary. And I absolutely hope and pray that Meeting David Wilson might make its way into every classroom and church in the country, because I sincerely can't remember watching a film quite like this one, ever.
The hype was well-justified, folks: Meeting David Wilson delivers.
And less than 16 hours after admittedly feeling crushed about wanting to believe that we as a people can rise above wherever we might be coming from, Meeting David Wilson has restored my hopes.
David A. Wilson, from one filmmaker to another: if that ain't the fulfillment of what we aim to achieve with our craft, then I don't know what is. My hat's off to ya, dude.
If you've been reading this blog over the past few days, then you know the premise of the film: David A. Wilson is a 28-year old journalist and filmmaker from Newark, New Jersey who took some time off to delve into his family's history. David A., a man of African descent, knew that his lineage stretched back to Reuben Wilson, an emancipated slave from Caswell County, North Carolina who after the Civil War founded that county's oldest predominantly black church.
David A. Wilson took to the Internet and made phone calls. And it wasn't long before he made a discovery that as he put it "knocked the wind" out of him: he shared a name with a man in North Carolina whose great-great grandfather had owned Reuben Wilson, the great-great grandfather of David A. Wilson.
And so David A. Wilson of Newark, New Jersey sets out to meet David B. Wilson of Reidsville, North Carolina.
Graced with sage wisdom and occasionally laced with cutting-edge humor ("You going to ask for reparations?" if the white David Wilson is rich, asks co-director David Woolsey. "You are my reparations," David B. tells his white friend, who is about to drive him twelve-some hours to North Carolina), Meeting David Wilson is a very personal and utterly personable journey in self-discovery from start to finish. Upon his arrival in North Carolina, David A. Wilson sets out to understand the experiences of his family. He finds the church founded by his great-great grandfather. From Caswell County, David A. speaks on the phone with an uncle back home in New Jersey after a day of working in a tobacco field.
The hard labor was going to purify him, his uncle tells David. He could have been talking about the cathartic nature of the entire project.
These scenes alone make Meeting David Wilson compelling to watch. It's almost enough to make you forget momentarily that per the title of the film, this is a story about meeting a man named David Wilson. And when the two Davids finally have their encounter on the grounds of the plantation where their respective families lived and worked, the film becomes something quite unlike anything that I can remember being broadcast on American television in recent memory.
David and David talk about their families' shared history. David of the Tarheel State points to some overgrown woods where the slave quarters were said to be, which prompts Newark David to go traipsing through dense foliage looking for it. The quarters are soon discovered, a moment that proves particularly humbling.
David A. probes David B. with questions about issues such as reparations, but it's never with an intent to convey or even suggest any pre-determined agenda. In other hands... in anyone's hands... this could have become a work of raw propaganda. Meeting David Wilson doesn't "avoid" that trap at all. It doesn't even need to try. Because it becomes exceedingly obvious during the course of conversation between the two Davids that in flagrant disregard for everything this world screams and expects about "the way it's supposed to be" between white and black people, here are simply two men, each as comfortable with examining his own psyche as he is with sincerely trying to understand the other's perspective.
Stripped of agenda and bereft of "expert commentary", Meeting David Wilson become about two men with the same name and no pretensions about what their conversation should become. Indeed, Meeting David Wilson is one of the most refreshing dialogues that I've ever seen in a documentary. Others looking to attempt this kind of filmmaking would do well to not only study it but take it to heart. I would even dare say that the film suggests that we as a people don't need some among us who profess to be our "leaders", because Meeting David Wilson amply demonstrates that we can take care of this sort of thing ourselves, simply as the individuals that God made us to be.
The North Carolina scenes are by far the most powerful of Meeting David Wilson. It's especially fun to watch David B. Wilson treating his northern counterpart to a meal at his Short Sugar's restaurant in Reidsville. Not long afterward, David A. returns to New Jersey, then buses his entire family back down to the Wilson plantation in Caswell County, where the two Davids have an extended family reunion.
And then toward the end of the film David A. makes a pilgrimage to Ghana, on the west coast of Africa. David A. visits the trading fortress where his ancestors were pushed through "The Door of No Return" and onto the ships that would take them to distant shores across the Atlantic. This is David A. Wilson's great victory, and that of all of his family and those of African descent who live in America. That he is able to return to this place, and that those of his generation have the opportunity to make a better life for themselves than that which their parents knew, is how God answered a prayer.
This was perhaps the weakest segment for me as a viewer. But that's with a caveat: as much as I would have liked to have seen more of the North Carolina material, as a filmmaker I can also understand why David A. perhaps felt not just moved but personally obligated to take this step. This was something he needed to do for sake of himself as much as it is for his project. And in that regard, Meeting David Wilson is as much about the filmmaker becoming introduced to himself as it is about an encounter with another man sharing his name, related by history if not by blood.
Meeting David Wilson is being touted as a documentary about race relations. Don't believe it one bit. I didn't see a film about race or ethnicity at all here. Instead Meeting David Wilson is about coming to terms with a minority more despised than any other in this world: the individual. And it's as much about daring to examine one's self as much as it is about daring to look past something so ultimately meaningless as factionalism. That point is brought home in, what was for me personally anyway, the most powerful moment of the film: David A. Wilson and David B. Wilson, standing side by side during a service with their families at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Caswell County. They take communion together and remember who they are in Christ: their movements in perfect unison. I can't imagine something like that being choreographed. It's as perfect a moment as has ever been captured in a documentary.
I've known David B. Wilson for a long time. Everyone in Reidsville eats at Short Sugar's on Scales Street. My sister worked there for a number of years. We even filmed the final scene of Forcery at Short Sugar's a few years ago. People literally come from all across the country to try the barbecue there. It was already world-famous and after tonight it's going to become even more renowned. And speaking of which: David B. and his boys had darned well better have brewed eight or nine batches of the Short Sugar's Barbecue Sauce, because there is going to be a stampede for it. Short Sugar's special sauce is one of the most exotic concoctions you will ever find and I'm glad to see this establishment get nationwide airtime tonight.
So everyone here knows David B. Wilson. And right now, tonight, I would like nothing better than to meet David A. Wilson and shake his hand, and thank him for this remarkable and powerful film that he and his crew have crafted.
All afternoon and evening, I've harbored a lot of frustration from things that happened today. If I hadn't watched Meeting David Wilson tonight, I would have probably gone to sleep with those things still on my mind, and I wouldn't have wanted that. That's not what God would have wanted me to do, either. I can let go of anger, but frustration is a whole 'nother animal that's hard for me to wrestle with. After seeing this film, I think that for once tonight that won't be a problem.
And wouldn't it be wonderful if Meeting David Wilson was someday looked upon as being one of the definitive benchmarks in our culture's maturity regarding how we respect each other as real individuals? If it can ever be said that the turning point finally came and that it happened in Caswell County and here in Reidsville... then as a proud son of this town, I'll be even more proud of it still.
What else can I say about Meeting David Wilson? Only that it comes with my highest recommendation.