Mo’ Reviews: ‘The Changing Same’

Directed by: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson

Featuring: Lamar Wilson, LaDray Gilbert, George Little, Pam Peacock Little

Synopsis (PBS): In the Florida Panhandle lies the provincial town of Marianna, Florida, where one native resident runs a particular marathon in hopes of lifting the veil of racial terror caused by the town’s buried history.

Winner of the Special Judge’s Award for Short Documentary at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival.

My review:

The story of The Changing Same might seems like it begins in the present, with a simple run through the town. But the story actually begins in 1934, when Claude Neal was violently lynched and dismembered because of a supposed wrongdoing against a white girl. The legacy of that lynching, and others before it, has entrenched Marianna even today. But the city has yet to reckon with its violent past and racist hierarchy. This led poet Lamar Wilson to establish a marathon with the pointed intention of reminding Marianna about its crimes. Wilson wants his hometown to face what it and its people have done.

But the question is, will it be willing to face such horrors? Is it ready for change? That’s the question at the heart of The Changing Same. It’s a 25-minute short film, but within those 25 minutes, an intense punch of reality and sobering truth is dealt to the audience.

In full transparency, I personally know Wilson, who also acts as associate producer of this film. I came to know Wilson through my sister Ashley, who is also a successful poet. I loosely knew about his participation in this film, but I was unaware of what the subject matter was until now. After watching The Changing Same, I feel as if I know another side to him, a side that is deeply connected to his home, despite the hate it has shown him and other Black people in return. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to the relationship most Black people have with the United States–it’s the only home we know and love, but it’s a parent that mistreats us the more we try to mold ourselves for it to love us.

Much of that mistreatment has been perpetuated by the white citizens that exist at the top of the racial totem pole in American society. If you get offended by this, then it’s time you adjust how you view your particular privilege in society, because what I’m speaking are facts as well as my lived experience as a Black person. From what The Changing Same shows, white society has created a power structure which exists by utilizing the tools of racism, fear, violence, subjugation and discrimination to keep what it calls “order.” That “order,” in reality, is pure chaos, the most intense gaslighting you can imagine. On the one hand, you’re given overt and subtle threats against speaking out, defending yourself, or fighting back. Such is what Neal’s daughter, Allie Mae Neal Smith, felt for much of her life, including the years in which Wilson’s marathon was active. But on the other, the veneer of society is “polite,” that is, the white power structure acts as if what they are doing–holding picnics under the bodies of lynched Black people, selling postcards with images of those same Black bodies, using lynched victims’ fingers and toes as trinkets–is normal.

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Everything I’ve listed is what is covered in The Changing Same. Yes, even the alleged talk of Neal’s appendages being preserved by unknown people in Marianna as keepsakes from his lynching. What’s also put on display is white America’s slow, yet growing realization that they must reckon with their past in order to move into the future. This is exemplied in the Littles, a white couple who have ostracized themselves from others in their circle, others who have racist views. However, even if they ostracize themselves from friends, they can’t ostracize themselves from family ties; both husband George and wife Pam recall racist family members. George goes as far as to say that one of his estranged relatives talked of having a bloody baseball bat that he supposedly killed a Black person with.

Pam, on the other hand, speaks of her parents, whom she said did believe in a racial hierarchy, but somehow, according to her, never taught her hate. It’s this kind of double-think statement, as well as George’s reticence to talk on camera about who still has Neal’s appendages, that show how much white people as a collective still have to learn when reckoning with the society they have been brought up in and, in some cases, perpetuated.

Can a loving parent somehow not teach their child not to hate others if they themselves believe white is right? For me, it’s a lot of mental acrobatics, because believing in a racial hierarchy and exhibiting that to your child is teaching them hate. Just because a parent doesn’t outwardly say “hate this person” doesn’t mean they aren’t still informing their child about racism. Should George have talked about the rumor regarding Neal’s poor mutilated body? Personally, I think so, and it’s easy for me to say that since I’m not white and I don’t risk being ostracized from friends and family. However, it’s that very risk that should have made George think about why he’s trying to cover for people if the right thing to do is out them on camera.

George’s decision not to talk about the rumor exhibits the main issue many white people run into when trying to confront racism; they fail to realize that fighting against racism does require putting yourself out on the line. There’s no way to fight against the status quo and remain comfortable. It’s failing to grasp this that white people often fall into the category of simply being “nice.” The Littles are “nice” white people. But do they have the fortitude to keep going in their journey of being active against racism? For me, that remains to be seen. If they need a reminder about the dangers of white complacency, let me use a quote Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from The Birmingham Jail:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

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Contrast the Littles to LaDray Gilbert, a local attorney and Wilson’s childhood friend. He has put his life on the line as a social and racial activist, and refuses to back down.

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His refusal–and the refusal of many Black people like him–is because he knows that his very life is on the line if he doesn’t fight back. He, like a lot of Black men in Marianna and elsewhere, has been a victim of overpolicing. That overpolicing helps keep the “order” Marianna is hooked on; it’s an “order” that affects Black voters, Black business owners like Gilbert, who owns his own practice, and the everyday Black citizen. It’s that same overpolicing that helps embolden the local KKK chapter and other KKK chapters and Proud Boys and white nationalists and neo-Nazis all across the country. It keeps Black people seen as expendable, troublesome, and dangerous. In reality, all we are trying to do is live our lives like everyone else.

Perhaps if the Littles knew why being “nice” and “moderate” isn’t an option for people like Gilbert, they would feel more emboldened to up the ante on their own personal growth. Perhaps they’re also doing the best they can; they are of a certain age, after all, and are fighting against baked-in ideologies they learned through no fault of their own, but by osmosis from their surroundings.

But, with all of this said, they did help Wilson spread the word about his marathon meant to resurrect the memory of Neal. They did support a Black man in an attempt to start righting the wrongs of the past. While that’s a drop in the bucket of the type of work more white people in Marianna–and in America as a whole–must do to quell the rising tide of racism, it’s at least a start. It’s at least one step in the long marathon towards the finish line.

You can watch The Changing Same on PBS online as part of its POV Shorts series.