9 Documentaries That Provide Context on the Buffalo Shooting
Buffalo residents pay their respects at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market on May 15, 2022, in Buffalo, New York. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
In the wake of a gunman’s May 14 rampage at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store — 13 people shot, 11 of them Black, leaving 10 dead — authorities have described the attack as “racially motivated violent extremism.” The suspect has been charged with first-degree murder, and Buffalo’s police commissioner said the incident would be prosecuted as a hate crime.
In the days since the tragedy, news outlets have reported on a racist screed the 18-year-old suspect is believed to have posted online before the shooting, referencing a white supremacist ideology. The “great replacement” conspiracy theory posits that white people are deliberately being replaced by non-white people through a politically driven agenda and will become a minority in America.
Speaking in Buffalo on Tuesday, President Joe Biden called the shooting “domestic terrorism” and criticized the spread of racist ideology. “White supremacy is a poison. It’s a poison … running through our body politic,” he said. “We need to say as clearly and forcefully as we can that the ideology of white supremacy has no place in America.” In recent days, some Republican lawmakers have criticized GOP colleagues for perpetuating racism and xenophobia and, in some cases, trafficking in conspiracy theories.
The suspect, Payton Gendron, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, allegedly detailed his plans to murder Black people in messages posted online over several months and reviewed by The Washington Post.
The messages also include what is believed to be his own description of undergoing a psychiatric evaluation after writing in a 2021 high-school assignment that he was planning a murder-suicide. According to the online posts, Gendron told authorities he was joking in order to get out of class. But the posts point to a different explanation: “That is the reason I believe I am still able to purchase guns. It was not a joke, I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do.”
As America grapples with the deadly massacre, FRONTLINE’s past reporting sheds light on the current moment and the circumstances that led to it: from documentaries on gun control and the rise of extremism to those examining the U.S.’s legacy of racist killings and political divisions.
HISTORY OF RACIST VIOLENCE
American Reckoning (2022)
This documentary looked back to an earlier era of racially motivated killings and its impact on the present day. In reviewing the unsolved 1967 murder of Wharlest Jackson Sr. — a local NAACP leader from Natchez, Mississippi — FRONTLINE and Retro Report followed one Black family’s ongoing search for justice. The film is part of FRONTLINE’s multiplatform initiative Un(re)solved, examining a federal effort to confront America’s legacy of racist killings through the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.
RISE OF WHITE SUPREMACY & EXTREMISM
For years FRONTLINE and ProPublica have reported on the reemergence of white supremacists in America. The first documentary in this series investigated those involved in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and how ill-prepared law enforcement was to handle an influx of white supremacists from across the country.
Following the deadly 2018 antisemitic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, FRONTLINE and ProPublica continued reporting on white supremacist groups in the U.S.
American Insurrection (premiered 2021, updated 2022)
Premiering three months after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, this documentary from FRONTLINE, ProPublica and Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program examined how far-right extremist groups had evolved in the wake of Charlottesville — including how a broad fascist movement could supersede race. An updated version from January 2022 looked at where the movement might be headed next.
ERA OF RACIAL & POLITICAL TENSION
Targeting El Paso (2020)
FRONTLINE investigated how El Paso, Texas, became the Trump administration’s testing ground for immigration policy — and then the target of a white supremacist who espoused racist views, including replacement theory, before killing 23 people and injuring 23 others, many of them Mexican Americans, in 2019.
America’s Great Divide (2020)
How did political discourse in the U.S. become so polarized over race, immigration and other social issues? In two parts, this documentary traced how Barack Obama’s goal of unity collapsed as increasing racial, cultural and political divisions laid the groundwork for the rise of Donald Trump, and how Trump fueled those divisions, unleashing anger on all sides.
United States of Conspiracy (premiered 2020, updated 2022)
In recent years, conspiracist thinking — from great replacement theory to false flags — has entered the political mainstream. This documentary tracked that progression from the fringes of U.S. politics into the White House, examining the alliance of conspiracy entrepreneur Alex Jones, who used his platform to exploit race and stoke fear; President Donald Trump; and Trump’s longtime advisor Roger Stone.
AMERICA’S GUN DEBATE
Gunned Down (2015)
In the days following the May 14 shootings in Buffalo, questions have arisen about how the suspect avoided New York’s so-called red-flag gun law, which prevents people who are deemed dangerous from owning guns. This FRONTLINE documentary looked at the politics of America’s gun debate, including the NRA’s political evolution and influence, and how the gun lobby consistently succeeded in defeating new gun-control legislation.
NRA Under Fire (2020)
As the NRA faced challenges from all sides, FRONTLINE revisited the organization’s history and evolution, how it aligned with President Donald Trump and his base, and why it was under attack ahead of the 2020 election.