Purge This Land ★★½


Lee Ann Schmitt's experimental essay film about radical abolitionist John Brown is a deeply personal work, and reflects her own position as a white woman working through the emotional politics of being a member of a mixed-race family. (Her partner is African-American, her children biracial.) In this regard, the focus on Brown makes sense. He was a white man who gave his life to the cause of racial justice, seeing all as equal in the eyes of God. This parallels, in its own way, Schmitt's motherly love, her unquestionable willingness to sacrifice for her own children, even unto death.

At the same time, Purge This Land inadvertently marginalizes African-Americans within their own struggle. The focus on Brown tends to construct a kind of super-ally who, as portrayed in the anecdotes recounted in the film, is more of a radical than his friend Frederick Douglass. Even if this is factually accurate, purely in terms of the political spectrum available to both men at the time, it seems as though this problem ought to be better contextualized in terms of Brown's greater freedom as a social actor.

In a sense, Purge This Land emphasizes what one man did with his white privilege, which is indeed extraordinary. However the film does not fully interrogate the privilege that made those extraordinary actions possible. This is an ambitious film, and clearly one that comes from a place of deep care and anxiety. The fact that it is not altogether successful in no way impugns it or its maker. In fact, I would say that Purge This Land, despite its flaws, is a film anyone concerned with social justice should see.