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This Black Soil
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by Aaron West

"Good documentary subject, boring interviews, bad filmmaking."
2 stars

Back in 1865, as Sherman was making his infamous passage through Georgia, he issued “Special Field Order #15,” which promised a 30-mile inland tract of land for former slaves (naturally all African Americans). The area extended from Savannah to Charleston, and could have resolved many of the economic woes for the recently freed slaves back in the day. Unfortunately, it was rescinded during Reconstruction, and the Southeastern coastal landscape has been an economical mess ever since.

The setting for This Black Soil is just north of Sherman’s designated area, a small impoverished, predominately African-American Virginian town near the Chesapeake peninsula tip called Bayview. In 1994, the area was a literal cesspool, even by today’s rural standards, with only 1 source of water, garbage dumps scattered throughout the city, and inadequate housing. Added to the already low class of living, there was a proposal to build a prison within the city’s residential area. This was where the citizens reached their limit and banded together to stop the further destruction of their living area. They organized groups to not only block the prison, but also to improve their living conditions.

The movie follows their progress, year after year, most of which is futile. Most of the commentary comes from the citizens themselves, as they point out their problems, and express their anger. Others chime in on the problem, such as a local real-estate agent, several civic officials and even the children.

This is the type of movie where the viewer wants to rally behind the oppressed, as I did, but certain problems make it nearly impossible to do so. Most of them have to do with the presentation and the scope.

Regardless of how one feels about the resident’s accomplishments, it’s difficult to muster the energy to watch a tale of city beautification. The civic officials are, quite frankly, boring to watch, as one would expect from the profession. You wouldn’t ask a zoning expert about his job at a dinner party, and it’s wearisome to watch them carry on about such details here. The interviews with the residents are far more interesting, but due to their own impoverishment and subsequent lack of education, they don’t make for the best spokespeople. I recall another documentary, Dirty Work, where they used subtitles due to one of the subjects’ difficult accent. Doing so here might be insulting to the residents, which begs for yet another solution. The one element sorely lacking is something I wouldn’t always recommend, a voiceover. Images usually speak louder than words, but words are necessary in this case to connect the narrative from point to point, year to year, and maybe to bring some of the more notable details to light.

The documentary follows the city from 1994 to the near present, yet it only clocks in at a mere 58 minutes. That’s far too short to cover a story of this magnitude. We’re left with an incomplete story of survival, which, again, is hard to fully absorb. That said, with all the presentation problems, an hour and a half version would be practically unwatchable in its present form. If the filmmakers had expanded the scope of the project, perhaps interviewing some of the higher-up officials in the Virginian government, challenging them as to their reasons for inaction, and perhaps probing some of the indirect charges of racism made throughout the film.

I can’t help but respect and admire the courageous citizens of Bayview, VA. Their story is truly inspiring, and hopefully they’ll motivate other problematic towns into taking similar action of their own. If their story had been told with different methods that minimized the monotony of the civic process, it might be worth watching. I understand there’s a book in progress about the city’s history. Having watched the incomplete documentary, my interest is peaked, and I’m looking forward to a more comprehensive version.

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originally posted: 08/14/05 06:27:01
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