“Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” a new documentary that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a vivid testimonial of the power of education. However, as a history of black colleges and universities, it feels a little incomplete.
Stanley Nelson’s 85-minute documentary begins its chronological history around the time of the Civil War, explaining how slave owners deliberately kept their slaves from the kind of education that could empower them. The value of education, the documentary explains, was the driving force behind the numerous black colleges that were founded throughout the South in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Though progress was being made, “Tell Them We Are Rising” asserts that there were still problems in the early going. For one, though the colleges were exclusive to black students and featured black faculty, they were still run by white administrations.
“Tell Them We Are Rising” also takes aim at Booker T. Washington, a figure usually held in high regard when it comes to racial progress. Washington, who founded the Tuskegee Institute, initially pushed students toward industrial positions, a compromise in his mind that the documentary goes so far as to describe as “neo-slavery.”
The tensions that resulted eventually led to altercations like the Fisk University riot of 1924 against the oppressive rules of President Fayette McKenzie, before emerging in a “golden age” in black education through the 1930s and ’40s. From here, the civil rights era becomes the heart of “Tell Them We Are Rising,” drawing parallels between civil rights protests and other hot-button issues of the time.
The period immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in the early 1970s, becomes especially important as tensions between students and local segregated cafes lead to conflicts between students and school administrators. Here we learn about the 1972 tragedy at Southern University — a public school in Louisiana — where two students were killed by gunfire during a demonstration.
Throughout the film, Nelson packs the screen with testimonials from various academics, historians and, for elements of more recent history, actual witnesses to the documented events. In most cases, still photographs capture the images and figures of each era and, in the case of Southern University, they offer vivid results.
After Southern, “Tell Them We Are Rising” takes a massive leap forward to the present day and viewers meet some of the students who enjoy the benefits of 21st-century black colleges. Here, black institutions are described as “safe spaces” where, according to one enthusiastic student, “They all look like you.”
But Nelson also acknowledges that many black colleges have fallen on hard times, and have struggled to maintain enrollment. The only excuse offered for the downturn is competition with other schools, and “Tell Them We Are Rising” doesn’t spend much time tracing the history of black schools over the last 40 years or examining the possible causes for their decline.
The content viewers receive in 85 minutes is insightful, particularly for a branch of academia that is not very well-known outside of a couple of prominent schools like Howard University. But the modern gap in the narrative suggests there is more to the story.
“Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities” is not rated, but would have a probable PG-13 rating for some violent images, running time: 85 minutes.