Banished is a fascinating profile of three American towns, all shadowed by a history of “banishing” black citizens (or “racial cleansing,” as it is often phrased) in the early twentieth century, forcing families to abandon valuable land, livestock and, often, the bodies of relatives. Director (and NYU film professor) Marco Williams aptly avoids any dense historical accounts, instead focusing on the effects past injustices have on the present. The subject matter is unnerving and he does it justice by putting the entire communities on camera: civil rights activists, Klan members, and even white-haired bingo players offer insight.
Though time has stifled some bigotry, descendants of the banished struggle in pursuit of reparations. One family tries to recoup lost land; another man makes an effort to exhume his ancestor’s body from the town that shunned him.
The black parties have specific requests in mind, but exactly how reparations should be paid out remains the film’s tortuous central question. The current town leaders aim to appear empathetic, but balk at the prospect of taking away from residents born well after the injustices at hand. The passage of time reveals itself as the biggest obstacle: land changes hands, records are lost, bodies decompose. The towns remain mostly white to this day, and while segregation is not something most constituents claim to pursue, their racial makeup is considered merely a facet of their identity — like a losing football team. Even local KKK members try to justify their collective reputation — one de-hooded Klansman considers the act of “cross-lightings” an unthreatening Scottish tradition. Though racial hostility is less aggressive than in past decades, the recalled injustices are heartbreaking. These families undoubtedly deserve something from the communities that drove them out, but no one in the film — not even Williams — is able to conclude what that something might be.
Opens September 26 at Film Forum