On Thursday, May 26th, BET premiered a 42-minute-long special on the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) titled Stay Woke: Black Lives Matter. Director Laurens Grant (who also directed Black Panthers– Vanguard of the Revolution) and Executive Producer Jessie Williams created a stunningly powerful documentary covering the movement’s past, present, and future.
Stay Woke is a cursory time-lapse of everything we as a people have faced in the past decade – all the moments that made us mourn and rise together. From DeRay McKesson’s campaign for mayor, to Darren Wilson’s infuriating non-indictment, to the abysmal conditions protestors faced all around the country – all of the most important moments encompassing the BLM Movement were included.
This documentary eradicates the “glitz and glamor” associated with being an activist; enduring a daily fight for justice and equality is no cushy job. It’s blood in the streets, pepper-spray in the eyes, dirt under the fingernails. It’s constant pain – pain associated with the same exhausting battle that black people have been fighting for centuries: the battle for the right to live.
Honestly, at times, this documentary was hard to watch. For part of the film, several clips and pictures of murdered black people were strung together to create a haunting memorial. It made me cry. Mostly because I remember crying while listening to Robert McCulloch explain Michael Brown’s death like it was nothing. I remember the feeling tension between the older Civil Rights Leaders and the new, young BLM leaders. I remember praying for the residents of Baltimore as the city burned to the ground from grief. And I remember all the ways those events were skewed by mainstream media to demonize us even further.
The documentary made a point to elucidate the gray areas in a movement that many people consider black and white. It highlighted the nuances and complications that BLM holds, like every other human rights movement. It shone a light on many names and faces at the forefront of the movement, known and unknown. Although 42 minutes is nowhere near enough time to give every member her proper praise, the film made an effort to cover its bases, especially in recognizing the founders of BLM, ensuring that their names and faces would be remembered by the viewers.
To me, that’s what the film was about: collective memory. Black people making history and then documenting it themselves, as relying on a white-supremacist society to properly record and recount black history has never been a very effective strategy.
Twitter immediately erupted with reactions from the public. Both DeRay and Jessie acknowledged the shortcomings of the film, as well as their optimism for what the film could lead to. Most celebrated the documentary for telling stories that need to be told, more specifically, told by the people involved instead of some disconnected outsider looking in (cough – I’m looking at you, Don Lemon).
This documentary is a rejection of the news segments, articles, and headlines formed against us, the ones twisted to foster animosity towards us. And it sets a precedent for us as black people to document our own stories. Obviously, our stories are not monolithic, and not everyone will be pleased with the representation – but it’s a start. So I encourage everyone to watch and remember together. I encourage deep thought, criticism, and debate. For that is the only way to get closer to the goal of putting our own pens to the paper, and archiving our histories the way we want them to be archived.