White protesters clash with police outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1920. Left photo by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/ Washington Post via Getty Images; right: still from “Buried News”
In 1978, a Pentacostal minister and occasional backhoe operator in Dawson City, Yukon, was digging through the frozen earth where a hockey rink once stood when he hit wood. He stopped to check it out and found piles of discarded sports gear and garbage—as well as reels and reels of long-lost silent-era film.
Known as the “Dawson City Film Find,” the films from the early 1900s—preserved for nearly a century in the permafrost—have since been restored and provide a captivating glimpse into a bygone era.
Made of highly combustible nitrate, it was too dangerous—and too expensive—to return the reels to the faraway states where they originated. The films began to pile up in the basement of a bank until 1929, when the bank manager filled the town’s swimming pool with the films and other debris to help level the surface when the pool was converted to a hockey rink.
New York-based film director Bill Morrison has long been fascinated by the find. In 2016, he released the critically acclaimed, feature-length documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time.
In Dawson City, Morrison uses a combination of the archival footage, old photos, and text to tell the story of the northern Yukon town and other events of the time: like the Klondike Gold Rush, when nearly 100,000 goldseekers from all over the world flocked to Canada’s north. He even touches on the origins of the Trump family fortune, when Donald Trump’s grandfather opened a brothel along the gold rush trail to Dawson City.
Now, he’s back with another film, once again featuring the footage found buried in the permafrost—but this time focused on U.S. race riots.
“I found these four newsreels that dealt with race relations in the U.S. 100 years ago, the time around what is known as the Red Summer of 1919,” said Morrison.
The Red Summer was characterized by dozens of violent attacks on Black communities in many cities across the U.S. during a period of economic downturn following the First World War.
Morrison’s 13-minute short opens with footage of the scene of the race riots in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917. Remnants of charred buildings protrude from decimated neighbourhoods, alluding to the magnitude and chaos of events.
Buried News then cuts to black and white footage of thousands of neatly dressed Black men and women marching down New York City’s Fifth Avenue during the Silent Parade of 1917, a mass protest in response to ongoing racial violence. From “Make America Safe for Democracy” to “Your Hands are Full of Blood,” the protesters’ signs are hauntingly familiar.
When the third newsreel begins, viewers are transported to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1919. The water-damaged footage shows a local courthouse littered with rubble and shattered glass, shortly after a white mob stormed the building to lynch a Black man being held inside.
The climax of the film depicts extremely rare footage showing thousands of white men descending on the Lexington, Kentucky, courthouse in 1920, where a Black war veteran is on trial for the murder of a young white girl.
With a handful of police and a small rope barricade standing between the mob and the courthouse, the tension is palpable as the crowd grows restless. Members of the National Guard are stationed further back, perched atop large machine guns. Violence erupts and the mob presses forward, jostling with police who are trying to hold the line.
The anger of the era is on full display when the mob momentarily breaks through the line. Police slowly retreat up the steps of the courthouse as the mob pushes on. Shots are fired, six lives are lost, but the crowd is ultimately repelled.
As the credits begin to roll, Morrison incorporates recent video of the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill, which bears an eerie resemblance to the historic footage.
“On Jan. 6, I saw the insurrection at the Capitol here in Washington, D.C., and was struck by how the same forces were still at play,” said Morrison. “Here we are 101 years later and not much has changed. Even the faces seemed the same.”
Morrison said the Capitol Hill images were a last-minute addition. “People would have gotten it anyway, but the timing was so perfect and the actions were so egregious on Jan. 6, I thought it bore memorializing.”
Morrison paused for a second when asked about what the film tells us about the United States.
“This country was really built on a fault line of slavery and race. We continue to wrestle with it without directly acknowledging it head on,” he said.
“Until there are confessions made, and, more than anything, vocal acknowledgement of some of the inequality in our society, we’re going to continue to stoke the same sort of flames.”
Buried News premiered at the Dawson City International Short Film Festival last month, where it was projected drive-in-style on the exterior wall of the historic Palace Grand Theatre, only a few hundred metres from where the old film reels were originally discovered. It shows next at the Kronos Quartet Festival online in June, and at a number of film festivals in Europe this summer.