Sometimes the artist Winfred Rembert can’t sleep at night. His wife, Patsy, says that it has to do with his work. “Whenever he do one of those pictures, he gets sick,” she explains. “He has to double up on that medicine in order to get some rest.” Rembert first draws his scenes, full of faces and patterns, on paper, then carves the images onto a sheet of tanned leather by hand, texturing the surface with tools that look almost surgical, before filling in the etchings with vivid dyes. His paintings depict scenes of Black life in the Jim Crow South, and making them means dredging up painful memories from his youth, when he worked in cotton fields and on a prison-labor chain gang. Some artworks are healing or serve as sources of hope, Rembert says, in the documentary “Ashes to Ashes”—but not his.
When he was nineteen years old, living in Georgia and participating in the civil-rights movement, Rembert, now seventy-five, was lynched by a mob of white men. They shoved him into the trunk of a car, stripped him, hung him upside down, stabbed him, and made it clear that they intended to castrate him. The attack was brutal and dehumanizing—“There I am, bleeding like a pig, hanging up in a tree, ready to be slaughtered,” Rembert recalls. The attackers were moments from hanging him. They stopped, Rembert says, only because one man said they had “better things” to do. Rembert survived, but the scars have stayed with him.
Whitaker has a physician’s reverence for history. She says that, when patients come to see her, they may need to have difficult conversations about what has happened in that patient’s life. Those conversations can’t be ignored or elided, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. “Sometimes, patients come and they tell you horror stories. But I can’t discard it, because I need it in order to help that patient live,” she says. Without that information, she says, the patient will never get toward a cure. It’s a striking parallel to the words she delivered at the homegoing ceremony: “Some bad things happened in this country, where Americans tortured other Americans. . . . So we’re looking back in history,” she says, to a church full of mourners. “This patient”—and, here, the patient is something more collective than an individual in her exam room—“can only live and get stronger if we’re willing to look back.”
Taylor Rees, who directed the film, told me that working with Rembert and Whitaker has expanded her thinking about what it means to heal from racial and political violence. “That healing process might never look like a complete recovery from an injury, but it’s the courage to face an injury,” she told me. “Looking at that thing that has caused harm is sometimes the hardest part.” The attack that Rembert describes is so vicious, his attackers so lacking in human decency, that the temptation is, if not to look away, then to dissociate, to ascribe the actions to a distant place and time. But neither Rembert nor the brutality he lived through are relics of history. “The person who endured this is alive. This isn’t generations ago,” Rees said. The truth of that statement could hardly be clearer. We spoke just days after a mob had breached the Capitol building, many of its members wearing white-supremacist insignias and at least one waving a Confederate flag. On the National Mall, some of the group erected a scaffold and noose.