Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
1989, directed by William Greaves
Watch the film here:
Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice is a powerful look at the extraordinary life of the activist. The documentary follows her from her birth 1862, before the end of the Civil War, to her death in Chicago, Illinois in 1931. After both of her parents died during the Yellow Fever epidemic, she left school at 16 and became a teacher herself. After writing an article exposing the terrible conditions and corruption in the Memphis school system, she was fired from her teaching job. But that didn’t discourage her, Wells had found her calling as a journalist. She became an activist and used her journalistic power to challenge the racial inequalities she and her fellow Black Americans faced.
The director has done an excellent job of weaving narration, interviews, and excerpts from Wells’ memoirs. The excerpts are read by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, and are definitely one of the more intriguing parts of the documentary. The director has used newspaper clippings, photos, and engravings from the time to accurately portray Wells’ life. Because Wells was such a crusader for anti-lynching laws, there are a significant number of photos of Black men who were hanged. They are difficult to look at, but their inclusion in the documentary is clearly deliberate and important.
One of the experts interviewed is Wells’ grandson, and he is able to provide some unique insight into his grandmother’s life. The other experts give some great commentary on why Wells was such an important figure during the post-Reconstruction period. Overall this is an excellent film, but I do wish that her work with the suffragist movement was more prominent, instead of just a footnote. Though there is a bit about her somewhat contentious relationship with Susan B. Anthony, which was interesting to hear about. Wells was a crusader for justice on so many fronts, and I’m glad that this film exists to shine the spotlight on her and her legacy.