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Documentary Film Looks at the Legacy of the Great Migration

A Thousand Midnights looks back from the movement’s terminus in Chicago to its roots in the South.

Yesterday I published an interview with Ethan Michaeli, author of a new history of the Chicago Defender, in which he described how—and why—the paper got behind the Great Migration. Freedom was a part of it, but an underappreciated reason was to hurt the South by luring away its labor base. In many ways it worked on both counts, but its legacy is hauntingly mixed, best captured by Martin Luther King’s statement that “people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

Today I learned that Carlos Javier Ortiz, one of Chicago’s best photographers, had ventured into the realm of documentary film to explore the Great Migration’s legacy. Released in November to mark its 100th anniversary, A Thousand Midnights looks at both the South that millions of African-Americans left and the North, Chicago specifically, to which they came.

Ortiz is a master of black-and-white photography, as you can see in his Chicago magazine feature on the winter of 2012-2013, and in his book We All We Got, which documents the victims, survivors, and protestors of violence in Chicago and Philadelphia. This 12-minute short film takes this photographic style and translates it into motion, and into the South, where so many of his subjects can trace their roots.

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