Closer to the Truth makes hometown premiere

by Amy Kingsley

Organizers chose an incongruous setting for the hometown premiere of Greensboro: Closer to the Truth. The Carolina Theatre, with its domed vertical space and Corinthian columns is, after all, a refinished historical jewel, a point of municipal pride.

The Nov. 3, 1979 shootings of five members of the Communist Workers Party? Not so much.

The subject of Adam Zucker’s feature-length documentary is one that white city leaders have dodged for a full quarter century (although, to their credit, several agreed to be interviewed for the project). After two criminal trials that ended in acquittal and a civil verdict that implicated the city, the survivors feel like there is still some talking to be done.

Greensboro: Closer to the Truth paints a sympathetic portrait of survivors of the CWP massacre, which was perpetrated by Klansmen and Nazis, and of their efforts to organize a truth and reconciliation commission. Former Mayor Jim Melvin and City Councilwoman Florence Gatten, who, along with a brief appearance by Mayor Keith Holliday, represent official Greensboro, barely conceal their contempt for the process and survivors.

The film opens with archival footage of the shooting. Activists distribute picket signs and children on bicycles trace slow circles when the first car appears. News cameras fix on its Confederate flag novelty plate.

Anyone who’s spent any time in Greensboro knows what happens next: A stick fight breaks out, and then Klansmen pull out their guns. Klansmen fire several eerily muffled shots, some of the Communists fire back, and the protesters go down. Police appear after the bloodbath and find Waller and Johnson shouting revolutionary slogans over their slain comrades.

Fast-forward 25 years. Dr. Marty Nathan steers her sedan past highway countryside, a loose cord holding her glasses in place. Rev. Nelson Johnson heaves himself up the steps to a small, brickwork church. It appears the preacher of 20 years has traded his copy of Das Kapital for the New Testament.

The story is theirs, alongside survivors Waller and Paul Bermanzohn, and glosses over the interim between 1979 and 2004. Zucker also tries to implicate the city itself. Several times his camera lingers over the downtown skyline; it also captures the remnants of the textile industry, and the bustle of a growing business district.

Of course, making generalizations about a city from an event that happened 25 years ago is a tricky business, as both the filmmaker and the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission found out. His shots of modern-day Greensboro show a community that looks less conflicted than overfed. Seriously. The mayor should requisition those scenes for his next weight-loss campaign.

The filmmaker even captures the community’s widespread disinterest in the process. At the baseball stadium, the mall and on Elm Street, Zucker records residents’ flummoxed looks when asked about the truth and reconciliation commission.

But the film does excel as a character study, particularly of Johnson and the unlikely protagonist Gorrell Pierce, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Gatten in her interview compares Johnson to a leopard that doesn’t change its spots. The film offers compelling evidence that he does.

Pierce, on the other hand, never changes his pin-striped engineer’s cap. But he does change the hateful, bigoted thinking that raged underneath it in the years preceding the 1979 massacre (in which he did not participate).

When an ailing Roland Wood, a former Nazi, apologizes for his complicity on Nov. 3, the commission and survivors are visibly moved. The question that begs answering is what happened? What happened in those 25 years that changed Johnson, Nathan and Pierce into the people in the film? It’s a question a film, unlike a truth commission, is uniquely qualified to answer. And Zucker’s does – to some extent.

We may never get to the bottom of what happened on that day, or what it meant to the city. But we can learn more about the human actors in our midst. And for that, a sequel may be in order.

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