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The Big Payback shines a spotlight on a piece of history that the right doesn’t want you to know about

The opening minutes of Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow’s new documentary The Big Payback features the imagery staples of forehead furrowing, heart rate-raising cinema about crimes against Black Americans: Kidnapped Africans sardined onto Westbound ships. Slaves, in sepia tone and surrounded by white slaveholders, building America’s wealth.

In short, The Big Payback, which premiered on June 11 at The Tribeca Film Festival, starts with the history that The Right—among others—doesn’t want you to know, in part because even reasonably imagining what happened to slaves and their offspring pains one’s soul.

“By the time the slaves were emancipated,” says author Ta-Nehesi Coates at a Congressional hearing on HR 40, the reparations bill that’s languished in committee since its 1989 introduction. “They comprised the largest single asset in America — $360 billion 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets, combined.” One Illinois organizer says, “There is no amount of money that can pay for what we’ve endured” and another person adds, “You can’t pay my grandfather back, he’s dead.” A seasoned viewer senses what kind of film experience they’re in for.

Instead, this plainspoken, no-BS new film, settles in on the struggle of one woman, an Evanston, Illinois alderman named Robin Rue Simmons and her unpredictable struggle to establish a local reparations fund through cannabis taxation. Simmons battles naysayers from the right and skeptics from the left, traditional single mother challenges, and the Covid shutdown. As their point of entry into a complex, charged subject, Alexander and Dow give us a heroine in a legitimately unique situation.

Rather than a laundry list of bleak history and failed federal legislation, The Big Payback’s gift is what co-director Dow called on a recent Zoom call, “An object lesson on how to get things done.”

Before settling into Simmons' journey, the filmmakers introduce stand-ins for Evanston’s local stakeholders: the activists, without whom Alderman Simmon’s campaign would be hopeless; a standard white racist who appears not to know that he is one as he flaunts the historical ignorance that inflames American white superiority; a white South African whose fresh eyes on centuries-old repression has the woman digging into her wealthy lifestyle, so as to figure what she owes (This sort of freelance reparations is indeed a thing); and the The Big Payback’s second-most compelling character: Local barbecue entrepreneur Hecky Powell.

Powell is of the no-handouts school of Black conservatism, a James Brown type. He’s charming, but Hecky Powell’s opposition to Black citizens receiving financial repair has the telltale superficiality of knowledge that’s been mimicked, not parsed or deeply examined. He talks and we wonder whether his positions are born of personal philosophy or is a mental health condition, like Stockholm Syndrome.

“I think it’s a little of both and maybe a lot of the second,” Alexander said. “We as Americans, especially as African Americans, we’ve done everything to accommodate white people, so much that we won’t be [comfortable].”

Meaningful financial repair of former slaves is in most settings an uncomfortable subject. It’s telling of the film’s humanist intentions and holistic perspective that when Powell is lost to the virus the only available reaction is of sadness.

At the center of this midwestern ideological mix is Simmons, a mother and daughter here. Mostly, she’s a leader, speaking publicly and researching deeply to make ground-breaking reparations policy happen. When Black progressive political opponents attack the proposed it, both sides of the woman’s strength are on full display: That which allows Simmons to push her project forward, and the power that allows her to be vulnerable on camera.

“One thing that isn’t shared is that my mother has Stage Four, inoperable lung cancer.” she said. “I was emotional. I didn’t really think about it in the moment, because we were so close—me and the members of the team—that I was not really thinking about myself or being careful.”

As the Tribeca festival approached, “I did have some reservations about being so vulnerable and transparent.” Once the film screened it was obvious that viewers appreciated the clarity.

In May of last year, Evanston became the first American city to make racial reparations available to its citizens. While lawsuits are reportedly in the works, so are efforts to improve upon it. On Monday, 16 of the city’s churches announced they’ll join the movement to repair through both fundraising and community education. A free Juneteenth screening of The Big Payback was shown at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, an event sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s.

One in six Americans support reparations, reportedly. One film won’t invert those numbers. But the fight put up in and by The Big Payback does move the needle. The great composer Adrian Younge gives Simmons Mary J. Blige vibes through portions of his subtly powerful score. In places, we’re lured into traditional watching, then blindsided by the appearance of an historical figure such as Callie House, who originated the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1897. House sued the federal government for $68 million in 1916. The wildly underrecognized figure was arrested for fraud and jailed that same year. Her movement then faltered to its end.

One can easily oppose reparations when they don’t know the devastating effects of redlining or the truth about George Washington’s teeth (spoiler: they came from slaves!) or how much of a thing was infanticide as a form of resistance. Time may reveal that the CRT scam was really a cost-cutting measure.

At a time of high inflation — when expense within the cannabis industry threatens to wipe out government-sanctioned cannabis’ wobbly middle class — a film like The Big Payback may be bound to play like a turd in a punchbowl, a legal weed party pooper. This doesn’t make it not required consuming.

Simmons finished her term and now runs First Repair, non-profit aimed at developing local reparations policy. What’s reflected in her breakthrough experience may summarize the nature of this crucial justice project.

“The more I learn and the more I get accomplished the more work there is to do.”

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