New Film Revisits the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots

As a college student, Dekoven Riggins came across an interesting exhibit several years ago at Langston University.

“I was just walking through the library and there was this huge display,” the Oklahoma City native told attendees at a screening of his feature film, Black Wall Street Burning at Tulsa’s Circle Cinema in February. “I walked past the display and then I moonwalked backwards and said, ‘What is this?’”

The display was about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, when White citizens destroyed the Greenwood neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.” Greenwood was home to a number of Black-owned businesses and Tulsa’s successful African Americans.

The riot started after Dick Rowland, a young Black man, was accused of assaulting a young white woman in an elevator. Rowland was arrested for attempted rape and a mob gathered at the courthouse where he was held. There was a standoff between White and Tulsa citizens and a riot ensued.

Over two days, Whites destroyed more than 1,400 homes and businesses in Greenwood and approximately 300 people died during the riots.

“I was staring and reading the information. And I thought, ‘This really happened in Tulsa?! Let me go and see what films are done about this, because clearly if THIS happened, someone has made movies about it.’

“I’ve seen Rosewood, know all about it, watched the movie, and have it in my collection. So, at the time, I thought I can have a Black Wall Street movie in my collection.”

Riggins began to research Greenwood, one of the most affluent Black communities of the time, and -the details that lead to the Tulsa Race Massacre.

“I found that there were a lot of documentaries done on the story of Black Wall Street but no feature films,” Riggins said. “For the younger generation, the most boring thing to watch is a documentary. You don’t usually care. It’s stock footage, and someone is narrating it. But a motion picture … there’s something different about it. It grabs your attention. It pulls you in. With a movie, you’re living it. You’re feeling it. You can attach yourself to character. Sometimes you don’t realize that these are real people, and for 70 to 80 minutes, you are immersing yourself into this world because you see it differently.”

Riggins gathered the material and had it compiled into a movie script. He formed the Oklahoma City-based production company Notis Studios last February with partners Marcus Brown, brother Jeremy Henry and Levonté Douglas.

Armed with a meager budget of $5,000, they produced Black Wall Street Burning. It features an unknown cast of Riggins’ family members and friends. The movie was distributed to theaters in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. All scenes were shot in six days, and editing was done in two and a half months.

“We don’t want people to think we rushed through this,” Brown said “We took our time because this was such an important story, and we didn’t want to do it for blazon entertainment. All the cast members are Oklahomans, so it was near and dear to everyone’s heart. We wanted to tell the story the right way – the way Oklahomans should tell it and not Hollywood. It should be us telling our own story because when you have skin in the game, it means more to you.”

Brown revealed that his stepfather’s family owned businesses in the Greenwood District and survived the massacre.

“The stories that my stepfather grew up hearing, you wouldn’t want to see on film,” Brown said. “We wrote a story around certain events that happened. Now that we’ve done this, our goal is to get funding so that we can do a Hollywood-level type of film because I believe there are so many storylines out there and we can really paint this in a broad way.”

After the successful film screening in Tulsa, Riggins says the production company plans to do a Black Wall Street Burning television series.

Movie goers had strong reactions.

“The most powerful moment that we’ve seen was while the credits were rolling … an older Black lady and an older White lady [were] consoling each other and crying,” Brown said. “I don’t mean little tears. They were letting their emotions out. It was amazing to see that. It’s affecting everyone and forcing us to come together and acknowledge something that has been buried for far too long. And when you see that, you realize that’s why we made this movie.”

— Natasha Mitchell

Video: Courtesy Notis Studios