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Black Film Streaming Pick: Strange Victory
Leo Hurwitz' frank antiracist documentary is just as urgent today
I’ve been contemplating a semi-regular streaming pick series that would allow me to write about new watches of either little-known classics or contemporary films. For those familiar with my action streaming column for the New York Times, the iteration for this Substack will greatly vary.
For one, this column will focus on Black films, specifically highlighting one per piece. I might expand to more selections if the appetite exists or if an event occurs that requires a deeper dive. But for now, this series will draw from Criterion Channel, Mubi, and a few other places and will sometimes tie in to contemporary events or concern movies that I’ve always wanted to write about but couldn’t place at an outlet. For instance, the first selection for this column is Strange Victory. Next time it’ll be Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts. With many more to come!
There’s a provocative moment, one of many in Leo Hurwitz’s Strange Victory, a frank, ahead of its time documentary essay, that jolted my breath away. It’s a montage of Americana images — fields of grain, flourishing factories and flat Western plains — accompanied by a speech of Adolf Hitler. It’s one of the many unflinching parallels Hurwitz strikes between a fallen Third Reich and a booming post-war America whose only kept promise is the recurrent prejudice it inflicts on segments of its population.
Filming in 1947 and 1948, this anti-racist film is wholly uncensored: Newsreel footage of bodies frozen in the snow, men set ablaze by a Molotov cocktail thrown from stories on high, and soldiers tattered by shells and bullets — fill the frame. With daring editing Hurwitz leaps from scenes of war and the Nazi regime to jubilant sights of celebratory victory crowds: The crowds are white, Black, Asian and so forth. And for a moment, it appears the promise of America feels real as the country nears an industrial, infrastructural and baby boom.
My favorite sequence in the film involves Muriel Smith (singer on South Pacific) narrating the promise of newborns entering the world. Hurwitz focuses on a group of Black kids playing baseball in an empty lot. One is brandishing a mitt that’s almost too big for him as the score swells with patriotic strains. You’d almost get the sense that Hurwitz buys into the American mythos as he fashions sequences that feel nostalgic in spite them being contemporary to his time.
The second half of Strange Victory moves with heavy intentions as the director reveals the unbroken truths about America: “Hopelessness is next door to hysteria,” the narrator explains. He uses the phrase to explain the antisemitic wave that rushed across Germany, causing Hitler’s rise to power; but, of course, it could equally apply to the US. Hurwitz hammers the point through montages of lynchings in the South, gaggles of teenagers posting antisemitic stickers across New York City, and the stream of KKK members openly inflicting state-sponsored terrorism. Meanwhile, few documentaries, before or since, has so eloquently explained the origins and results of structural racism as the scene where Hurwitz’s camera looks at several babies of different races to explain how from their first breaths, society has already governed their respective futures.
How the director breaks away from his newsreel frame to a fictional reconstruction of a former Black pilot passed over for a job at a white airline is another metaphor for an entire population of Black folks during the 1950s restricted from flourishing jobs and schools and relegated to menial labor, a society led mandate caused by fear that sprung animosity, and later violence.
While I was watching Strange Victory I thought about the Texas school shooting at Robb Elementary from earlier in the day. During the early afternoon hours of Tuesday, two days prior to summer break, an 18-year old gunman named Salvador Ramos, a high schooler and employee at Wendy’s, stormed into the quiet confines of Robb, barricaded himself inside a classroom, and with copious ammunition, scant body armor and a rifle, opened fire. Authorities later killed him at the scene.
The people inside the classroom, however, weren’t Ramos’ first victims. Earlier that day Ramos shot his grandmother, leaving her critically wounded. In the wake of his siege, interviews with co-workers, friends and acquaintances have caused a familiar picture to emerge of a disaffected teen who didn’t speak to many and felt like an outsider in his own community and school. It’s another mass shooting caused by inadequate gun laws and hate, and part of a cycle of tragedies decided by a series of legislative inactions plotted long before any of us were born. It’s also indicative of a wound not only left opened but widened.
It began with Columbine High School in 1999 when the images of teens tried fleeimg from death by climbing out of windows led to thoughts and prayers. It occurred again in Red Lake, Minnesota in 2005; with still more thoughts and prayers. It happened again at Virginia Tech in 2007; Northern Illinois University in 2008; Sandy Hook in 2012; Parkland, Florida in 2018; and Santa Fe, Texas in the same year. Still, more thoughts and prayers. The only item produced with greater regularity in America, other than bullets, is thoughts and prayers. So the pattern remains the same: a nation mourns, politicians either plead for time or ask for the deaths not to be politicized, yet the result is the same — inaction, until the cycle begins again. The right to continue murdering is a strange victory won by America out of a series of wars.
Hurwitz, in fact, opens Strange Victory with a shot behind a newsstand as passersby wear a sullen expression. In the words of the narrator: “Why are the ideas of loser still alive in the land of the winner?” That is, why is the popular discourse in America dominated by the ideologies we fought against over 80 years ago? Hurwitz is well aware of the power behind information, and makes the connections between racist propaganda newspapers and the disinformation of radio news programs following World War II from which further brutality arose in America. It’s the desire to evade change by finding someone else to blame for murder — undocumented immigrants, mental health — without fixing the root cause: guns. Or in the case of Strange Victory: systemic racism, antisemitism, economic equality — doctrines often furthered by violence inflicted by guns. It’s unfortunate that Hurwitz would recognize today. He lived it. And with any effort we can’t seem to get away from it.