Sunday, February 12, 2012

28 Days Later: More Than a Month

Shukree Hassan Tilghman has guts. He wore a sandwich board advocated the abolition of Black History Month around New York City, including 125th Street. He was expecting something like what happened to Bruce Willis in Die Hard with a Vengeance. However, the diverse reactions to his message are part of the story in his documentary More Than a Month (promo here), which airs this Thursday on Independent Lens, as part of their special programming for, you know, February.

Tilghman never belabors the fact that February is the shortest month of the year. He simply finds the concept of “Black History Month” ghettoizing and even condescending. When he solicits opinions on the streets, a surprising number of people seem to agree with him, at least to some extent. Of course, there are plenty who do not.

Indeed, opinions vary, but viewers will notice a generational divide within the African American respondents. According to Tilghman’s hypothesis, those of roughly his parents’ age are less likely to consider themselves fully integrated into America writ large and therefore more inclined to preserve the month in question.

Although Tilghman shifts his position during the course of MTAM, he shows a willingness to ask politically incorrect questions. He frequently challenges the practice of identifying African American history solely in terms of slavery and the Civil Rights movement through a focus on the figures he calls the “Big Four:” King, Parks, Douglass, and Tubman. It is a point well taken. For instance, the contributions of James Reese Europe and Lionel Hampton are not nearly as well known as they should be outside jazz circles.

At times, one wishes Tilghman had delved deeper into some of issues his film raises. However, he earns credit for his honesty, readily admitting the results when a psychological study he administered shows Black History Month had little statistical effect on subjects’ self-esteem, regardless of race. He is also rather fair and evenhanded in his treatment of the organized descendants of Confederate veterans whom he interviews about their hopes for a Confederate History Month.

There is an awful lot of Tilghman in MATM. However, his somewhat loopy sense of humor wears quite well on television, but it might not feel particularly cinematic on the big screen. Regardless, MATM is in no way a kneejerk film. In fact, it offers up a considerable amount of food for thought. It is definitely recommended this Thursday (2/16) as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens. It also screens conventionally at the Maysles Cinema on Leap Day (2/29), but the brief sixty minute running time and conversational tone might not be particularly suited to theatrical showings, even with the Q&A afterward.