The Ghosts of March 21. A Documentary Film by Sam Stroker: A Review

mixon “An interrogation of race, power and justice in the contemporary United States, The Ghosts of March 21 focuses on the death of 26-year-old Lovelle Mixon and the factors that led him to kill four Oakland police officers before losing his life in the deadliest confrontation in Bay Area law enforcement history. Retracing the events and aftermath of March 21, 2009, this documentary examination of the encounter’s underlying contradictions challenges the mainstream narrative of the confrontation and sheds light on the profound consequences of America’s legacy of racial oppression and white supremacy.”– Cornistas Website I saw, The Ghost of March 21, when it previewed at Quilmbo in Oakland. The film is a documentary short that runs thirty minutes. It concerns itself with the life and death of Lovelle Mixon who fatally shot four police officers on March 21, 2009. Lovelle Mixon, who was also fatally shot in the incident, made national news. The film is a composition of documentary footage, interviews, and quotes from authors that provide inter-textual connections that expand the film’s intentions by the inclusion of historical context.  The work offers a counterpoint to the mainstream coverage of the events the media dubbed “the bloodiest day in Oakland’s history.” The film is compelling, provocative, ambitious and unapologetic. It serves the work to be curious about the film’s creator. It is important to know how he came to this particular story and what he wanted to achieve in the telling. Sam Stroker a product of UC Santa Cruz’s Masters in film program. Born in the Central Valley and transplanted to Oakland his work is a demonstration of his stated desire to use art to alter perceptions. Stroker is interested in invisible narratives. He ultimately wants to use film as a tool in the Central Valley to tell the stories of youth whose lives echo his own. He remembers feeling marginalized by racism and his disconnection to his heritage.  He did not speak Spanish, but his ethnicity, made him a target for racism. He wants to empower youth in the Central Valley by connecting them to their heritage, the story of where they come from, and the fullness of a history in which they can place pride. He was in Oakland when Oscar Grant was murdered. He had decided his master’s project would deal with perceptions of police violence. He co-founded a General Assembly during the Occupy days. He learned the geography of struggle from the ground as a student of film trying to capture a story about the tension between law enforcement and activist concerned about police violence. His project originally had a much wider focus however, the plethora of events, the requirements art has for cash, and the desire to make a coherent statement sharpened his focus. Stroker is a storyteller who understands the power in well-told story. He is in fact interrogating narratives embraced in the public sphere.  A good storyteller knows that the story itself should be the star in its telling. Stoker is almost as invisible, in the telling of this story, as the narrative he seeks to make visible. Art is a conversation, artists are in dialog with those who encounter their art, and Stroker is facilitating multiple discussions. You will take from this work what your own assumptions allow you to see. What is communicated as a result of seeing Stroker’s work will not be the same for all viewers. If the only thing that one comes to know is that there are multiple ways to view and interpret the events of the day then it will have accomplished some of what Stroker envisioned as the film’s work. It is our range of assumptions, the subconscious cues that guide how we see the world that Stoker challenges. There is a need for such discourse if we are ever to comprehend the invisible narratives that compose the boundaries and margins of our lived realities. The challenge for viewers of this film is to see and set aside your assumptions and hear the story. “It is dreadful to be  so violently dispersed.  To dare hope for nothing,  and yet dare to hope. To know that hoping and not hoping  are both criminal endeavors, and, yet, to play one’s cards.” –James Baldwin    Stoker has picked an unimaginably difficult subject to perform the onerous task of helping us see the invisible. However, maybe the provocative nature of this event and the reasons it is so inflammatory make it the ideal subject for Stroker’s intended use. There are monsters in the closet and Stroker dares us to look. Stroker does an excellent job of giving substance to a ghost. A man many of us met for the first time after he died. In Ghost, Stroker traces the actions of Lovell Mixon and tries to uncover how he became the lead in a tragedy. Stroker’s view is wide enough for us to see all of the tragedy not just what was considered important in the mainstream reporting of the event.  Mixon was quickly vilified in mainstream media, clearing the path to the acceptance of his death as right, proper, just, and beyond all solely as a result of his own choices.  Stroker’s work provides the space for Mixon’s loved ones to tell their story of a young man with promise who struggled to right himself and found himself between the perpetual rock and hard place of urban streets and the carceral system.  The film gives their grief a place to live in the public along side the well-publicized grief attributed to the city in the media at the death of the police officers. Watching the mainstream news might give the impression that the city grieved in solidarity over the death of the officers. Stroker’s, Ghost offers a more complexified accounting of public reaction to the event. It considers the fact that not everybody in Oakland grieved for the same reason on the bloodiest day in Oakland’s history. Stroker asks you to ask why. Four police officers and their assailant died. Five human beings lost their lives on March 21st. Tragic. Seven people were killed in the Oikos University in Oakland. The Oikos shooter was arrested. A sixteen year old was arrested for shooting eight people and killing an infant in West Oakland in 2011. Lovell Mixon killed four police officers. The police killed Lovell Mixon. Who decides which of these events is the most tragic, the most heinous, or dubs it the bloodiest? Mainstream media speaks for the American mainstream. However many narratives centered in very different points of view informed by polar realities have no media outlet.  One has an army, the others live under the unrelenting weight of unarticulated narratives, festering in invisibleness, growing unwellness inside of them like monsters trapped in the closet of their lives. What is the cost to young black men making a life in the shadow of the invisible narrative that is often their restricted and bound lives? Is there a psychological toll exacted from these men and the boys who follow in their wake? Is there a toll on society? Stroker questions the inordinate numbers of North American Africans in particular young black men who find themselves ensnared in the industrial prison complex. The struggle to thrive under the heavy weight of statistics that mark them as targets for oppression is a narrative in which their voices are missing. The equally invisible narrative of white hubris informs the oppression of black males and the suppressing of the narrative of their lived reality. If one is to engage with Stroker’s request that we look at the events though a wider lens then we must of necessity also engage the concept and reality of white supremacy in this country. “It is the young black male body that is seen as epitomizing this promise of wildness, of unlimited physical prowess and unbridled eroticism. It was this black body that was most “desired” for its labor in slavery and it is this body that is most represented in contemporary popular culture as the body to be watched, imitated, desired, possessed. Rather than a sign of pleasure in daily life outside the realm of consumption, the young black male body is represented most graphically as the body in pain.” Bell Hooks White hubris is almost invisible, embedded within the American public sphere; it enables the practice of racism to flourish even in the absence of conscious racists.  It is this hubris that enables the disease and fear that informs the diligence of the school to prison pipeline. The omnipresence of this hubris also informs the mental withdrawal from public education by thousands of young black males across this country in elementary school as verified by the high school drop out rates in the inner city of this country. Stoker asks us to attempt to look through their lens. The film draws an unabashed line from the history of slave catchers to the modern military influenced police departments of today. He offers the grim statistic that the North American Industrial Prison Complex imprisons one in fifteen North American African men in North America. He observes; America imprisons more people than any other country in the world. The film demands we accept that these facts affect segments of the public sphere unequally. He wants us to consider how the enactment of these statistics coupled with the suppression of the narrative of those who embody the lives articulated by the statistics equate to a one-sided story. To understand the whole of a thing, one must consider the entirety of the thing, in the presence of all its parts. He does not attempt to soften Mixon’s actions. He stands to ask why. Mixon cannot answer. Stoker does not attempt to speak for him. He does create a space to frame some questions about what makes monsters. I, too, sing America.  I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen When company comes, But I laugh, And eat well, And grow strong. Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table When company comes. Nobody’ll dare Say to me, “Eat in the kitchen,” Then. Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed— I, too, am America. –Langston Hughes If men spend equal time in the carceral system, equal to the time spent in the systems of their families, are not the systems that confine them equally responsible for the human being produced? The family system is without question severely challenged by systems of incarceration, which by default overpowers the system of family. How do the communities most affected by incarceration, its history within the community, living the reality of it, internalize the narratives offered to justify mass incarceration. Stroker understands that we do not all have the same monsters.   If we must die—let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! What though before us lies the open grave? Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! –Claude Mc Kay Stroker’s work wants to move us to some better place, beyond our assumptions, where we might begin to understand the underpinnings of the separate realities in America. There is a moment in Stroker’s work that haunts me: Mixon’s younger sister taken from the apartment that he died in moments before gunfire exploded his life along with all his  dreams and possibles, shares her last moments with her brother. He sent his love to his family and removed a ring from his hand giving it to her to remember him by. His actions and words a grim acknowledgement that he accepted the fact that the events of the day would end in his death.  The telling is chilling. For me at least, it is impossible not to want to understand what put him in this story. What perfect storm of events in his life made his death a viable solution? Perhaps it is an unforgivable error not to try to comprehend the whole of this story.  Stoker’s, Ghost of March 21, challenges viewers to look in to the shadows and consider the price of monsters in the closet.  “No society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side.”  ― Gabor Maté Photo from Colorlines article:http://colorlines.com/archives/2009/04/lovelle_mixons_funeral_too_sad.html

About Ayodele Nzinga, MFA, PhD

I create; therefore I am.
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