The Big Payback shines a spotlight on a piece of history that the right doesn’t want you to know about

The opening minutes of Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow’s new documentary The Big Payback features the imagery staples of forehead furrowing, heart rate-raising cinema about crimes against Black Americans: Kidnapped Africans sardined onto Westbound ships. Slaves, in sepia tone and surrounded by white slaveholders, building America’s wealth.

In short, The Big Payback, which premiered on June 11 at The Tribeca Film Festival, starts with the history that The Right—among others—doesn’t want you to know, in part because even reasonably imagining what happened to slaves and their offspring pains one’s soul.

“By the time the slaves were emancipated,” says author Ta-Nehesi Coates at a Congressional hearing on HR 40, the reparations bill that’s languished in committee since its 1989 introduction. “They comprised the largest single asset in America — $360 billion 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets, combined.” One Illinois organizer says, “There is no amount of money that can pay for what we’ve endured” and another person adds, “You can’t pay my grandfather back, he’s dead.” A seasoned viewer senses what kind of film experience they’re in for.

Instead, this plainspoken, no-BS new film, settles in on the struggle of one woman, an Evanston, Illinois alderman named Robin Rue Simmons and her unpredictable struggle to establish a local reparations fund through cannabis taxation. Simmons battles naysayers from the right and skeptics from the left, traditional single mother challenges, and the Covid shutdown. As their point of entry into a complex, charged subject, Alexander and Dow give us a heroine in a legitimately unique situation.

Rather than a laundry list of bleak history and failed federal legislation, The Big Payback’s gift is what co-director Dow called on a recent Zoom call, “An object lesson on how to get things done.”

Before settling into Simmons' journey, the filmmakers introduce stand-ins for Evanston’s local stakeholders: the activists, without whom Alderman Simmon’s campaign would be hopeless; a standard white racist who appears not to know that he is one as he flaunts the historical ignorance that inflames American white superiority; a white South African whose fresh eyes on centuries-old repression has the woman digging into her wealthy lifestyle, so as to figure what she owes (This sort of freelance reparations is indeed a thing); and the The Big Payback’s second-most compelling character: Local barbecue entrepreneur Hecky Powell.

Powell is of the no-handouts school of Black conservatism, a James Brown type. He’s charming, but Hecky Powell’s opposition to Black citizens receiving financial repair has the telltale superficiality of knowledge that’s been mimicked, not parsed or deeply examined. He talks and we wonder whether his positions are born of personal philosophy or is a mental health condition, like Stockholm Syndrome.

“I think it’s a little of both and maybe a lot of the second,” Alexander said. “We as Americans, especially as African Americans, we’ve done everything to accommodate white people, so much that we won’t be [comfortable].”

Meaningful financial repair of former slaves is in most settings an uncomfortable subject. It’s telling of the film’s humanist intentions and holistic perspective that when Powell is lost to the virus the only available reaction is of sadness.

At the center of this midwestern ideological mix is Simmons, a mother and daughter here. Mostly, she’s a leader, speaking publicly and researching deeply to make ground-breaking reparations policy happen. When Black progressive political opponents attack the proposed it, both sides of the woman’s strength are on full display: That which allows Simmons to push her project forward, and the power that allows her to be vulnerable on camera.

“One thing that isn’t shared is that my mother has Stage Four, inoperable lung cancer.” she said. “I was emotional. I didn’t really think about it in the moment, because we were so close—me and the members of the team—that I was not really thinking about myself or being careful.”

As the Tribeca festival approached, “I did have some reservations about being so vulnerable and transparent.” Once the film screened it was obvious that viewers appreciated the clarity.

In May of last year, Evanston became the first American city to make racial reparations available to its citizens. While lawsuits are reportedly in the works, so are efforts to improve upon it. On Monday, 16 of the city’s churches announced they’ll join the movement to repair through both fundraising and community education. A free Juneteenth screening of The Big Payback was shown at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, an event sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s.

One in six Americans support reparations, reportedly. One film won’t invert those numbers. But the fight put up in and by The Big Payback does move the needle. The great composer Adrian Younge gives Simmons Mary J. Blige vibes through portions of his subtly powerful score. In places, we’re lured into traditional watching, then blindsided by the appearance of an historical figure such as Callie House, who originated the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1897. House sued the federal government for $68 million in 1916. The wildly underrecognized figure was arrested for fraud and jailed that same year. Her movement then faltered to its end.

One can easily oppose reparations when they don’t know the devastating effects of redlining or the truth about George Washington’s teeth (spoiler: they came from slaves!) or how much of a thing was infanticide as a form of resistance. Time may reveal that the CRT scam was really a cost-cutting measure.

At a time of high inflation — when expense within the cannabis industry threatens to wipe out government-sanctioned cannabis’ wobbly middle class — a film like The Big Payback may be bound to play like a turd in a punchbowl, a legal weed party pooper. This doesn’t make it not required consuming.

Simmons finished her term and now runs First Repair, non-profit aimed at developing local reparations policy. What’s reflected in her breakthrough experience may summarize the nature of this crucial justice project.

“The more I learn and the more I get accomplished the more work there is to do.”

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Why your left-out uncle hates Dr. Dre’s Super Bowl halftime show

In the mid-1990s, the producer Dr. Dre began seriously studying piano. He had many millions in the bank and more raw-sounding hit rap records than anyone. By a lot. That’s when he began studying music theory lessons and made The Chronic 2001, which is so sonically superior to the original that it’s not even a conversation worth having.

That’s what jumped into mind upon seeing the Compton-born producer sit at a white piano during Saturday night’s Super Bowl halftime performance. Andre Young’s ambition. Upon possibly the most stunning made-for-TV concert stage I’ve laid eyes on, Dre—presenting as orchestrator of the entire affair—played a few live opening piano notes from his Eminem Peloton crowd rouser “Lose Yourself.”

And this Angeleno was so moved with pride that it genuinely surprised. Not just for Dre was I proud, but for the city’s role in making the worldwide-cash cow and cultural force called West Coast hip hop.

Noisy conservative fans of America’s big game, many of whom were already finding the professional sport too black, were left wishing they had just fired up That Beatles doc, again.

Pride was the last thing they felt.

That magnificent So-Fi stage told the story of hip hop in Dre's early 80s Los Angeles. The sign for Eve After Dark made me gasp a little bit.

Eve is the nightclub where Dre began deejaying, back when suggesting there would become something called the hip hop industry might earn you an Angel Dust-abuse allegation. His first group, the World Class Wreckin' Cru toured California.

I caught Dre’s first group, the World Class Wrecking Cru, on a Sacramento night in January of 1985. A week earlier I had moved to California from Ohio. Less than a week before that I had watched Prince perform at the Coliseum of Richfield. And I didn’t know what to make of what the Cru were doing. The entire show was turntable-based. A unique vocalist named Egyptian Lover wandered on to do some popped on and did some songs. Not quite rapping. A named DJ Yella would go off for long periods of just… scratching.

A rap show on the 50 of any televised football game? Insist upon that reality back when Dre came up and you might have to meet your new therapist.

Mentally healthy people understood there was no map from Compton to what happened in Inglewood this weekend.

There is no pride in feeling left behind.

The NFL doesn’t go for risky music. Whether Prince or U2 or The Who, the halftime acts must pass the corporate muster. The last time this league tried to recognize actual edginess, the singer M. I.A flashed a miss finger and chaos ensued. If your songs aren’t two decades past having an edge, you’re not gracing the world’s biggest stage.

It takes a lot of effort to be blindsided by 90s hip hop’s aesthetics at this late date, Charlie Kirk.

The entrepreneur-MC Jay-Z brought the So-fi show into being. As sure as Mary J. Blige played like a hood energy palette cleanser between rich Black male stylized braggadocio and rhyming urban tales Jay was behind the scenes maestro-ing.

After Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protests, players had begun speaking out about the Black American predicament. Erosion of conservative fan support followed. Black players pressed for fairness.

The NFL brought in Jay-Z to provide optics and no one was sure what else.

Among fans who say they’ve been turned off by the pro game, the league “doing too much for Black players” is a top reason why. “Too much” by a league that’s the target of a class-action lawsuit on behalf of grotesquely underemployed Black head coaches.

A wealthy manufacturing league that hasn’t approved one Black among 32 owners, despite a workforce that's about 70 percent Black.

Sunday halftime was Jay-Z’s first impression. But what it means is still unclear. Dr. Dre on stage with Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Eminem, and relative youngster Kendrick Lamar—whose intense performance of 2018’s “Alright” must have made Fox News fans feel foreign—was landmark entertainment, but no substitute for fair employment policy.

Redemption Songs

Whether Dre wants this weekend’s triumph to be viewed as a redemption saga’s culmination or not, it has to be viewed as that.

A drunken abuser who was wildly irresponsible with money and lyrical content, that was set to be his legacy 30 years ago.

Bill Cosby had hits too, you know?

A billionaire now, he followed the Eve After Dark years with a historic relationship with businessman and near-novelty rapper Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. The pairing led to the opening of hip hop in the Midwest and changed hip hop as young people like me knew it.

Team redemption’s core of N.W.A was that engineer who knew a little piano (Dre), the street pharmacist (Eazy), and the high school reporter en route to Arizona architecture school (Ice Cube). Together they made songs like the indelible “Fuck tha Police”—penned by a 10th grader, which says something—and would fuse the ideas of art and commerce like only creatures of Hollywood could.

In Compton, Andre Young and Eric Wright sold vinyl at the local swap meet. Across town, in Beverly Hills, he would team with Tom Petty producer Jimmy Iovine to platform gangsta music so hard that other genre subsets gave up and retired.

Even if you bought the iconic Dr. Dre solo CDs, you might not have seen that he was making over the culture with their music. Because the willful could miss it, pretend that music’s changes hadn’t happened. When Dr. Dre made Snoop and then Tupac the most raw stars America ever saw, they could deny that stardom’s definition had been radically redefined.

People say and hear “bitch” far differently than they did when Andre Young was still working Eve, for better and worse.

Post-Game

The Gen Y old-timers jokes got a lot out of my attention. But it was Dre’s ambition that kept at me.

A musician from some 1992 sessions told me that Dre wasn’t much of a pot guy then. Mostly just around screwing. But dude told me that Dre burst into the studio one day and announced that his next album would be called The Chronic. Chronic as in weed, an album for riot-era to chill out to.

And I thought of all those uptempo Dre hits from the 50, *and our state of mind. A healing set of Gangsta rap, for those who prefer their tonic ironic. You cannot feel sorry enough for those who missed that.

Donnell Alexander was a 2021 USC Center for Health Journalism fellow. He is co-author of Rollin’ with Dre (Crown, 2008).

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