Amazon nixes new documentary from celebrated black author Shelby Steele

"What Killed Michael Brown?" dissents from the mainstream narrative surrounding the 2014 police shooting death that ignited riots in Ferguson, Mo.

Published: October 16, 2020 2:25pm

Updated: October 16, 2020 11:44pm

Amazon, like Netflix and Hulu, dedicated part of its streaming platform to black stories following the death of George Floyd.

The unspoken message on Amazon Prime's "Amplify Black Voices" section — black talent have been shut out of the cultural conversation for too long.

Now, the online juggernaut is nixing a documentary from a celebrated black author, saying the film "doesn't meet Prime Video's content quality expectations."

Shelby Steele's "What Killed Michael Brown?" dissents from the mainstream narrative of events surrounding the 2014 police shooting death of an African-American teen that ignited riots in Ferguson, Mo. Steele argues Brown's death, as well as other racially-charged incidents that have roiled the nation, play into victimization tropes that hurt, not help, the black community. 

The documentary, available on Vimeo Oct. 16, fired back at Amazon on its web site.

"Their generic explanation states that a film warrants a review if it has offensive content, illegal and infringing content, public domain contain, or poor customer experience offensive content. Our film has not violated any of the above conditions — unless offering a differing cultural viewpoint is offensive."

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment from Just the News.

Steele, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution and long one of the most respected voices in conservative intellectual circles, teamed with his filmmaker son for the project. Eli Steele's last film, 2018's "How Jack Became Black," offered a nuanced look at identity politics using his own mixed heritage as a starting point. The film argues against identity politics but lets those who support the trend have their say.

Shelby Steele has been tracking race in America for decades, including books like "White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era." He won the National Book Critic's Circle Award for "The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America," and received the Bradley Prize for his contributions to the study of race in America.

That work, and a hunger to explore one of the most explosive police shootings of the modern era, led him to star in and narrate "What Killed Michael Brown?"

"A lot of the elements that go into our racial tension in this country were vividly on display in Ferguson in the Michael Brown story," Shelby Steele says.

The Steeles were in production with "What Killed Michael Brown?" when Floyd's death sparked protests and riots nationwide, some of which endure months later.

For some, Floyd's death, like those of fellow black victims Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and Brown, "stands as a metaphor for American history, black oppression and so forth," Steele says.

The author wonders why the sheer volume of deaths in a city like Chicago, where young black men perish at an alarming rate, holds far less cultural power.

No presidents ever visit Chicago's South Side to address the loss of life, he notes of his formerly segregated hometown. Few press outlets outside the greater Chicago area, he adds, obsessively track the city's dramatic death toll.

Brown's 2014 death inspired a wave of protests, violence and activism, the latter featuring the emotional cry, "Hands up, don't shoot." That's what Brown allegedly told police officer Darren Wilson before he fatally shot Brown.

A Justice Department probe of the shooting found that both physical evidence and eyewitnesses backed Wilson's version of the incident. The officer testified that Brown punched him and attempted to grab his gun before he defended himself.

The "hands up" part of the narrative crumbled, but Steele understands why it emerged in the first place.

"It's a gesture that demonstrated black victimization in America, helpless victims before an evil white power," says Steele, an ardent opponent of affirmative action. "When you establish black victimization, you expand black entitlement ... these events and so forth become opportunities to gain power."

Said power extends to liberal politicians eager to exploit racial tension, he adds.

Eli Steele says he made sure "What Killed Michael Brown" didn't tell only one side of a complicated story.

"I know what my father stands for," Eli Steele says. "From the very beginning, my role as the director was to make sure we allow the people [in Ferguson] to speak."

His father's reputation as a conservative caused some headaches during the production. 

"We had people cancel on us at the last minute," the son says, adding his film still tapped critical voices more than willing to share. "We found really powerful and truthful individuals who, to this day at the Black Lives Matter 'left,' are committed to making Ferguson a better place. They're not political. They're open minded."

Those interviews gave Eli Steele faith that the wounds opened by Brown's death can lead to something constructive for the community.

"These people are doing the hard and dirty work," he says. "They're the true heroes. It's moving to sit down with someone like that, someone who's given so much of himself down on the ground to help the lives of real people, someone completely ignored by the media."

Shelby Steele expands on his son's message. The media, he says of the Brown case, "missed the story completely."

Amazon's corporate headquarters is in Seattle, a city where violence erupted following Floyd's death. Far-left activists from Antifa and Black Lives Matter literally took over a section of the city earlier this summer before more destruction, and death, convinced city officials to reclaim the turf.

Many media outlets downplayed the violence in the city's so-called "autonomous zone." So did Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who predicted it would yield a "summer of love."

Shelby Steele says "What Killed Michael Brown?" follows a similar, disruptive arc.

"We try to offer a counterpoint to the national narrative that surrounds events like this and takes over people," he says. "Our focus was to say, 'There's another story here that we think is more true, the real story.'"

Eli Steele notes his own children were taught the false "Hands up, don't shoot" narrative at their school, for example.

"What's the cost of that?" he asks.

Shelby Steele strikes an optimistic note regarding race in America despite the turmoil spreading from the Brown death and, more recently, Floyd's passing.

"Sometimes when things come to a head the way they seem to be doing these days, the upside is those are moments that are very revealing," Shelby Steele says. "There's an open-mindedness to it. How did we get here, what does this mean?"

"Ultimately, we both have faith in the future," he adds. "Life works itself out in crazy ways sometimes, but it does work itself out."

"We as Americans have to stop using race as a mean of power," Eli Steele adds.

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