“Ezra and Mike” is a short (22 minute) and honest film about the racial hostility experienced by the first black family to move to Forest Park, and the one neighbor—Mike Chiapetta- who came to their aid. While the film is short, it took a concerted, even heroic effort by John Rice to get it made—and six years of his life to research the story, film the interviews and get them edited. The film previewed at Slainte on Saturday July 29. While it would be unfair to fully review a work-in-progress, it is more than fair to congratulate John on documenting a hidden chapter in Forest Park history, and to urge Forest Parkers to see the film the next time it is shown. It is eye-opening.
We have a hard time talking about race in Forest Park. Opine that racism is still a problem and some white Forest Parkers are liable to squint, scowl and call you the worst name they can think of: Oak Parker! Some others deny there was ever a race problem in Forest Park. Others simply say these issues are best worked out quietly, neighbor to neighbor.
But in 1975—seven years after President Johnson signed the Open Housing Act—Ezra Buckner and his family received mostly hostility from neighbors and constant harassment from thugs who threw bricks through their window, graffiti-ed their property, threatened them by phone and sent them ugly hate mail.
The police refused to intervene.
Mike Chiapetta was a neighbor who simply saw a family with young kids in a dangerous position, and—with experience as a security guard–offered to guard their property overnight. For his trouble, he got arrested for impersonating a police officer, and was released only because the local media got wind of the story.
It was because the Buckners had influential friends like comedian/activist Dick Gregory and Jesse Jackson that the police were finally persuaded to intervene and protect the Buckners. Unfortunately, Mr. Gregory declined to be interviewed for the film, and John was reluctant to interview Jesse Jackson while his son was experiencing hard times.
Sadly—aside from the Buckners and Mike, no other Forest Parkers agreed to be interviewed for the film either. No neighbors. No village officials. No long-time residents. And no police. Nobody.
This is not a film with a Hollywood ending. The Buckners moved away, and did not stay in touch with Mike. A planned reunion of Mike and Ezra never happened, because Ezra died suddenly. In the film’s most poignant scene, Mike is reunited with the remaining members of the still grateful Buckner family.
There are a lot more families like the Buckners living in town these days, peacefully and happily. There are also a lot more good neighbors like Mike. This is a measure of how far Forest Park has come. But 1975 was not that long ago—and the continued silence of so many Forest Parkers who passively watched these events unfold is mute witness to how far we still have to go.