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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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John Hale

I searched in our Prime Video account using the documentary's title and immediately found it. They are charging $19.99 for the HD version and, under "More purchase options," $13.99 tor the SD one. They provide the following summary for the video:

"Shelby Steele has long argued that systemic racism is more a strategy than a truth, and that the universal oppression of black Americans is largely over with. But the 2014 shooting of a black teen, Michael Brown, by a black cop shocked the nation. In 2020, America was once again rocked by the brutal killing of George Floyd. Didn't these killings, and others, put the lie to Steele's arguments?"




Reading the comments, I was confused as to what Prime Video Direct is, since we have a prime account, but I had never heard of that other term. I googled it, then figured I should just search the film itself, to see if they would have instructions on how to watch it. I saw the following on their (whatkilledmichaelbrown.com) website:

"While we were doing this, we had no idea that Amazon had decided to platform our film and make available to the public and at their own price. When Amazon unequivocally rejected our film without opportunity to appeal, they forfeited all rights to access our film. So, the film was put up without our consent. We had to incur the expense of reaching out to a lawyer for advice and he advised us that a cease and desist letter was the best step. We sent that out today (the afternoon of October 18, 2020)."


It appears like the $14 price is Amazon's, not Steeles.


I smell a radical LGBTQ cancer growing at Amazon. They are using classic communist tactics to crush all who oppose their views. My hope is that Amazon treats this cancer before it kills the company.

ljp in oregon

To view this film, you must activate a Prime Video Direct account (mentioned in the article). If you have an Amazon Prime account, you can sign in with that user name and password. (I just did this myself to test.) Just search for "Prime Video Direct" to find it. This service is in direct competition with Youtube and Vimeo, also stated in the article, and is primarily for non-professionals, just like those services.

Glad to help!

Shelley Tuttle

I, too, went to Amazon to see the documentary and got the same results as MB. They did not have the documentary available.