Reviews Short Documentary

The Black Bottom (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Ivy Williams

Running time: 11mins

To see the full film, or find more information on the films of Ivy Williams, visit her website.

The age-old conflict of land ownership is at the heart of the historical process that led to the social and economic models which currently dominate the world. Conflicts arising from the access to land – and seizing it from those subsisting from it to allow for its accumulation as a means to enrich a privileged few – provided a base from which to realise modern capitalism. In Tudor England, for example, enclosure saw smallholders and pastoralists forced from common land, while the soil that had been designated for communal use was consolidated into the hands of landowners to realise profits on commodity markets. This also created the conditions for the modern labour market, by forcing former pastoralists into working as wage-labourers for consolidated land-owners, or face starvation.

This process of accumulation and displacement has been replicated throughout history, either via bloody conquest, legal wrangling or when deemed necessary, a generous helping of both. During the Manifest Destiny years of US history, white settlers claimed ‘barren’ and ‘deserted’ land would be better used by them, while butchering and later legally entrapping the Native Americans who actually subsisted from that land. Aborigines in Australia and Palestinians caught in the sights of Israel’s gradual annexation of their home have born witness to similar campaigns. Meanwhile, even in modern cities across America and Europe, the process continues under the guise of ‘gentrification.’

This is where Director Ivy Williams’ powerful short documentary The Black Bottom comes in. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, during her studies Williams witnessed a clear disconnect between the Penn community and the West Philadelphia community – something which caused her to delve deeper into the city’s history. What her film uncovers is the sad and angering story behind that divide; Penn’s University City stands on the ruins of a close-knit black community known as the Black Bottom – an area destroyed by a partnership between the universities of West Philly and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in the early 1960s.

Williams deserves a great deal of credit for bringing to light a great historical trauma on a local level, and an key example of the process of displacement and exploitation that the world’s economic and political elite depends upon to assert its dominance. In just over 10 minutes, she manages to orchestrate a compelling historical case study, the understanding of which can highlight and explain a great number of the injustices present in contemporary society. This includes anecdotal testimony from former Black Bottom resident Robert Edwin Carter Jr, and social and legal contextualisation from Ryan Peterson, a Pennsylvania-based academic specialising in Africana studies.

Carter’s accounts of his family being forced to leave their home in the late 50s lends the film an authenticity, an emotional weight which can help better connect lay members of the public to the cause than if it were just a purely academic recollection of events. Meanwhile, Peterson’s expert testimony helps lead viewers to join the proverbial dots together, placing the events of the film in a broader framework of 20th century ‘progress,’ and helping us to understand how events like this played a role in exacerbating the racial and economic divides of the modern world.

With that being said, it is also true that Williams could have done more to build the story into an even wider context. As it is, the case remains hyper-localised, and does not manage to draw in much of the broader upheaval in the US, either around that time, or leading up to it.

The case of the Black Bottom brings to mind a number of other historical cases; particularly the events of Seneca Village was a 19th-century settlement of mostly African American landowners in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, within what would become present-day Central Park. Founded in 1825 it was the city’s first community of free black citizens, and at its peak had 264 residents. By the 1840s, members of the city’s elite were publicly calling for the construction of a new large park in Manhattan – something which, via a process of legal manoeuvring and ultimately police violence – saw Seneca razed, and Central Park put in its place.

By drawing in more examples like this, The Black Bottom might have been able to draw up a more comprehensive picture of American classism and racism than it actually manifests – something which slightly blunts its impact. Indeed, it could have tied into other aspects of oppression which prop up the current vices of modern capitalism, just as James Baldwin did when he astutely pointed out:

“It comes as a great shock around the age of 6-7 that when Gary Cooper killing off the American Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, the Indians are you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country, which is your birth place, and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality involved any place for you.”

At the same time, with regards to Carter’s first-hand accounts of his family being forced from the area, it is hard not to feel that Williams might have pushed him further on certain topics. We don’t ever really get to hear what made his or his family’s connection to the area so strong, beyond it carrying the emotional attachment any home carries. At the same time, we don’t get a strong sense of how being wrenched from that area impacted him or those around him; what the material impacts of being uprooted like that were, whether there was work or adequate housing in the new area they moved to, etc.

At the same time, the elements of The Black Bottom which do work are slightly undermined by technical details. The soundtrack, for example, is more than a little inconsistent – fading in and out during moments of important testimony, in a way which serves to distract from what is being said. Meanwhile, the sustained shots of two talking heads are a little dry to say the least. If Williams does undertake more projects of this kind, she would do well to break these up more regularly; either with footage contrasting modern Philadelphia and the old Black Bottom days – or photographs of the old district. They also need to be of a higher quality than the highly pixelated historical images which do make it into the final cut here.

While the film does manage to build a solid base for an interesting examination of class and race in America, or under capitalism, then, The Black Bottom ultimately feels like a film half-made. Perhaps that is because, as Williams’ director-statement claims, The Black Bottom is “the start of broader work that is justice-based and considers reparations of the Black community in sharing our narrative of the several Black Bottoms throughout the United States.” In that case, once all the pieces fall into place, this project could become something truly remarkable. As it is, this is a solid – if under-developed – first proof of concept.

There is real potential here; Ivy Williams clearly has the academic and humanist instincts necessary to make a thought-provoking and empathetic documentary on the themes at the heart of The Black Bottom. While this isn’t quite the finished article in that respect, The Black Bottom does serve as an excellent jumping-off-point for a bigger, more incisive project – one which I keenly await.

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