‘The Commons’ captures protests of UNC Confederate statue

The documentary highlights the protests to remove the University of North Carolina’s Confederate monument following the Charlottesville riots.

Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky followed a series of protests that stormed Chapel Hill’s University of North Carolina between August 2017 and just a couple of months ago. The result of their recordings birthed “The Commons,” a documentary surrounding the events that led to the downfall of the University’s Confederate statue, Silent Sam.

Silent Sam was gifted to UNC by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913 and has since been seen as a looming reminder of racism and white supremacy to a vast number of students, alumni and local community members. Concerns over the statue date back as far as 1968, with the first protest beginning after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The rallies intensified in 2017 due to the Charlottesville riots and the urgent actions to remove Confederate monuments in Southern states.

“The Commons” does not follow any specific characters, include interviews or attempt to describe what is happening. Instead, the protests and the surroundings speak for themselves, thereby relying on the activists’ speeches and engagement with the statue supporters to tell the story. This makes for a highly immersive film that creates more of an experience than a viewing, prompting the audience to feel as if it were amongst the chaos.

The lack of detail is implemented purposefully, with the film only meant to acknowledge what is occurring in “the common space.” The space had become enraptured with this intense conflict that disrupted what was supposed to be an area for peaceful engagement.

The film displayed the fury and tension that crowded UNC’s campus day and night. There were countless chants aimed toward the racism and oppression that the statue symbolized and the demeanor of the people in favor of it. Counter-protesters were shown antagonizing the protesters by carrying Confederate flags and claiming that Silent Sam stands for Southern heritage. Although most of the attacks were verbal, some physical violence — mostly pushing — did occur.

Law enforcement’s concerning actions regarding the protection of the statue and counter-protesters are also highlighted in the film. Police stood guard over the outnumbered statue supporters dressed in riot gear during the protests, watching to make sure that the groups did not become violent. It is not distinctly exhibited in the film, but it is heard from multiple protesters that police deployed pepper spray onto the protesters.

The importance of communication and the neglect of civil conversations is a persistent implication throughout the film. Discussions, if you can even call them that, between the protesters and counter-protesters are feeble attempts to understand each other’s views. Most of the conversations from both sides end or begin in screaming insults and talking over one another. The few relatively peaceful engagements seem to go nowhere, only adding on to the situation’s distress.

During the Q&A portion of the screening at the True/False Film Fest, Hawley and Galinsky mentioned that UNC students filmed their own documentary, Silence Sam, in 2018 about the movement. The students formulated an intimate film complete with personal encounters and interviews with the leading activists and supporters, creating a different perspective from “The Commons.” Hawley and Galinsky actually gave them their own footage to use, believing it was not their experience to tell. They continued the documentary, however, after discovering that the students used only a few of their shots.

The filmmakers continued by describing their documentary as being “about people who achieved a goal.” The efforts of the students and supporters ended victoriously with the demise of the statue and the resignation of Chancellor Carol Folt, who had previously ignored all protest endeavors. This conclusion marks a reminder of the influential capabilities that action can bring, while also bringing into light the disconcerting reasons why these actions must happen in the first place.

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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