How “Who Killed the Fourth Ward?” Challenged the nature of documentary cinema
One of the great modern documentaries is hiding in plain sight. “Who Killed Fourth Ward?” », directed by James Blue, from 1978, is available on YouTube, on a channel devoted to his work. He is also part of a blue retrospective at Metrograph, starting Friday, with his most famous film, the rarely screened and recently restored feature-length drama “The Olive Trees of Justice,” from 1962. This feature is vital, but “Who killed the fourth quarter?” life-changing: it upends long-standing and deeply rooted expectations about the practice and outcomes of documentary filmmaking. Additionally, although “Who Killed the Fourth Ward?” is in three parts, each about an hour long, it’s the fastest three hours I’ve seen at the cinema in quite a while.
Filmed primarily from July to September 1976, the film centers on Houston’s oldest black neighborhood, the Fourth Ward, which was settled by former slaves in the 1960s and formalized by segregation laws in the 1920s. At the time of filming, Houston was in the midst of a substantial expansion of its downtown business district – and the Fourth Ward, which was adjacent to a new set of high-rise office towers, was indeed dying. Its housing stock was deteriorating; landlords did not improve or maintain the buildings they rented out to residents and local business owners. Instead, they demolished houses and shops in order to have bare land to sell to developers. As a result, the neighborhood’s population had rapidly dwindled to about seven thousand people. Most of the houses that remained were dilapidated and subject to demolition, and the most important black church, the Missionary Baptist Church of Antioch – the heart of the black community – felt the pressure to sell to developers whose skyscrapers -ciel already crowded near her.
Blue, a white man in his forties, lived in Houston and taught film at Rice University in the mid-seventies. As he drove past the neighborhood, he noticed that one side of the freeway was part of the gleaming downtown business district and the other side was a series of small shops and dilapidated houses, and – like he had a commission to make a film on a subject of his choice, he decided to investigate. To begin, Blue and his team – cameraman Brian Huberman and sound engineer Ed Hugetz, who are also white – show up in the Fourth Ward and, as seen in the film, begin their investigation by approaching the residents in the street and questioning them. them on their neighborhood. (The film was shot in amateur Super 8 format, then the main medium for amateur films.) The interviews lead Blue to a much broader investigation, both of his subject and his method.
Early on, Blue, Huberman, and Hugetz are seen and heard in the film interacting with interview subjects. Besides Blue’s physical presence in the film, he’s also disembodied almost constantly, in the form of his own voice-over, retrospectively created in the editing room. This comment adds to the film not exactly a stream of consciousness but rather a narrative of consciousness. He talks about his motivations for making the film and his apprehensions about it. He remembers his thought processes while filming particular sequences. He considers in retrospect how events on screen appear to him after a year or more (the film was completed in 1978). Above all, he questions his own intentions, practices and results, transforming the film into a self-questioning that affirms his own – and his – inadequacy to the important and complex matter to be treated.
Blue quickly realized that he was in a position to offer the poor residents of Fourth Ward their only chance to be heard publicly. But he also saw himself and his crew as “three white fools with a camera parachuting in for ten minutes asking for the truth in twenty seconds and then rushing back to their middle-class neighborhoods.” He wondered, “Why wouldn’t they put us in?” Yet it seems that the residents speak candidly to him, and as he discovers the appalling conditions in which many residents of the Fourth Ward are forced to live – because the owners, awaiting the demolition of the houses they own, refuse to pay for their upkeep – he realizes that it is not enough simply to show what is happening to the black residents of Fourth Ward. He decides to investigate why this is happening to them and who makes the decisions leading to the elimination of the neighborhood.
Blue meets Tom Wright, a black journalist who had reported on the plight of the Fourth Ward. Wright believes the ongoing elimination of the black community in the Fourth Ward is the result of a “conspiracy” between city officials, business interests and landlords. Blue is shocked – the charge is too vast to be done casually, and so he steers the film towards some deep thinking about it. Wright becomes a near-constant presence in the film, Blue’s Virgil: not only his guide to the Fourth Ward, but the city’s business and government institutions and, as a reporter, the film’s frontline interviewer.
The filmmakers have remarkable access to government officials (including then-Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz, whom Wright also persuades to appear at a meeting with Fourth Ward residents), business leaders, property developers and local owners. The long and incisive questioning of these representatives of power and wealthy interests brings abundant answers, but these answers turn out, in their generous plenitude, nevertheless evasive. It becomes clear that past decisions (such as the placement of the freeway) led to the current circumstances – even Hofheinz and other officials admit this – but now, it seems, they have become irreversible and their results inevitable. (For example, Houston had no zoning laws, and so officials claimed they could not dictate land use at all, whether for residences or business.)
The mystery behind the so-called natural economic forces that the city fathers blandly blame for the dispersal of the Fourth Ward’s black residents is not undisputed by Blue and his associates, but it eludes the filmmakers’ comprehension. Blue had no subpoena power, access to documents or behind-the-scenes discussions. Indeed, he was filming a phenomenon that was everywhere and nowhere, out in the open but completely hidden, noisy but silent. He was making a film about white supremacy in the post-Jim Crow era – about replacing overt discrimination and enforced segregation with systemic racism.
There’s a pivot in the middle of the film – roughly in the middle of Part 2 – when Blue interviews Hazel Young, a parishioner from Antioch. She sees the church as an affirmation: “Here I am, as a black person. . . . This is black history itself. That was one of the things that black people wanted people to know: that we are here we were here, and we are always here.” It is this declaration of existence, presence and dignity that she sees as being assaulted by the continued encroachment of developers without government pushback: “We have this kind of feeling, that whatever we have can being taken away from us because we are black.
The essential fact of most documentaries is that the filmmakers show places they don’t usually go, in pursuit of a story, and present those stories as if they themselves had not been there to discover them. – or rather create them. The invisibility of filmmakers in so-called “observation” documentaries is a fiction that turns into a lie. What can be conceived as the quest for an objective relationship, or as a suppressed insistence on the experience of the subjects of the film, often appears as a mere facade. The paradox of so-called cinema verité is the ease with which its ostensibly objective and unmanipulated observation curdles, turning into cinema falsity, a falsification of the experience of the filmmakers – and the subjects – of the production of the film, the realization of the moments and events that the documentary shows.