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Black filmmaker points out inconvenient truth

Amazon initially rejects documentary by renowned screenwriter Shelby Steele

Shelby Steele Facebook/Shelby Steele

Black filmmaker points out inconvenient truth

At the height of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, Amazon Prime put up a series of billboards promising to “Amplify Black Voices.” It also added an “Amplify” branded carousel of African American films to its home page.

But Amazon deemed black filmmaker Shelby Steele unworthy of amplification, at least until the company faced a barrage of negative press.

Steele, a former San Jose State University literature professor and Hoover Institution fellow at Stanford, has an impressive resumé as a screenwriter. Along with winning a National Book Critics Circle Award, a National Humanities Award, and a Writers Guild Award, he received an Emmy Award for a documentary he co-wrote, produced, and narrated for the PBS news program Frontline.

Yet when Steele and his son, director Eli Steele, submitted What Killed Michael Brown to Amazon’s video-on-demand service, they received this reply: “Unfortunately, we have found that your title doesn’t meet Prime Video’s content quality expectations and is not eligible for publishing on the service at this time. We will not be accepting resubmission of this title, and this decision may not be appealed.”

The Steeles queried the Prime Video Direct service, the self-distribution arm of Amazon’s streaming platform. Launched in 2016 to compete with YouTube and Vimeo, a film’s acceptance there no more indicates Amazon’s endorsement than a self-published book would on its main retail site. Amateurish work from filmmakers with no previous credits fill the platform, but Amazon provided no further explanation, leading the Steeles and their supporters to guess the tech giant didn’t want to hear what the film had to say.

Using the 2014 death of the black Ferguson, Mo., teen at the hands of a white police officer as its central illustration, the movie argues that evidence does not support systemic racism as a cause in such killings. It also examines how inaccuracies such as the myth that Brown had his hands up just before he was shot—leading to the rallying cry, “Hands up, don’t shoot”—take root in the American imagination.

Steele told Fox News he knew he had a politically incorrect perspective, but it never occurred to him Amazon would reject the movie over content.

“It was shocking to me,” he said. “If you watch the film, you hear voices from all over.”

The move tracks with Amazon’s recent treatment of media that do not conform to left-wing views. In July 2019, the megaretailer began removing books advocating therapeutic or spiritual practices for dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction, as well as books from ex-gay authors. Last June, it blocked publisher Regnery from purchasing ads for Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. And in August, after 3½ years with no incident, it stopped selling the book Health Hazards of Homosexuality.

But Steele, a long-respected race scholar who has written a number of bestselling books and occasional op-eds for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, has a bigger megaphone than most authors or independent filmmakers. On Oct. 16, after the Journal, Fox, and other news outlets reported the rejection, Eli Steele received an email from an executive indicating Amazon had added the film to the platform. The message didn’t reveal why the company changed course or who made the decision.

The younger Steele pointed out in an open letter that the documentary had not violated any of the reasons Prime Video Direct gives for placing films under review, including offensive content, illegal infringements against copyright, or improper use of public domain material. “Unless, offering a differing cultural viewpoint is offensive,” Eli Steele said.

He believes the rejection by Amazon reveals much about our culture: “Black voices speaking truth to power have been repeatedly silenced in America when they do not fit the acceptable narrative. … Amazon has silenced those voices.”

Megan Basham

Megan is a former film and television editor for WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman’s Guide to Having It All. Megan resides with her husband, Brian Basham, and their two daughters in Charlotte, N.C.



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