NOW! Short Films on African American Experience in the 1960s
Friday, February 25, 2005
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA
Black Power, White Backlash (excerpt) (CBS-TV, 1966) 15 min., color, shown on DVD
Perfect Film (Ken Jacobs, 1986) 22 min., b&w, 16mm
Malcolm X: Nationalist or Humanist? (Madeline Anderson, 1968) 14 min., b&w, shown on VHS
NOW! (Santiago Alvarez, 1965) 6 min., b&w, shown on DVD
I Have a Dream (Third World Newsreel, 1963) 15 min., b&w, shown on VHS
Phyllis and Terry (Eugene and Carole Marner, 1964) 36 min., b&w, 16mm
Tonight�s program consists of six films, each quite different in style. The first part of the program concentrates on figures in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. A network TV special (Black Power, White Backlash) gives a glimpse of mainstream media coverage of the tensions between Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Power movement, and a film on Malcolm X (Nationalist or Humanist?) is shown as an example of the first Black-produced network TV show. Two films consist entirely of images taken from the media � one film by a noted avant-gardist who simply left the footage alone to speak for itself (Perfect Film), and another by a master propagandist who edits for maximum emotional effect (NOW!). There is also a straightforward representation of an iconic historical event (I Have a Dream). The second part of the program is a documentary gem about two teenage girls on New York�s Lower East Side (Phyllis and Terry), made by two independent filmmakers in 1965.
In summer 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. was embroiled in a lengthy and difficult campaign in Chicago, focusing on the city�s housing situation. On June 6, in the midst of this campaign, activist James Meredith was shot in Mississippi during his �March Against Fear.� Major Civil Rights leaders including King and Stokely Carmichael (who had recently replaced John Lewis as the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC), traveled there in a show of support.
On June 16, Carmichael addressed a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. As the culmination of his speech, he used the phrase �We want Black Power,� and led the audience as they took up the chant. The phrase gained instant currency among young activists dissatisfied with King�s emphasis on nonviolence, as well as among the media, and greatly complicated King�s relationship to the Civil Rights movement. As King biographer Peter Ling says, by autumn 1966 �the media portrayed King as an embattled leader in decline, whose message of nonviolence had been superseded by Stokely Carmichael�s more strident calls for Black Power.� All of this had the added effect of mobilizing fearful whites against the movement.
A prime example of this is the 1966 CBS special Black Power, White Backlash. Broadcast in September, it contained footage of Carmichael�s Mississippi speech, as well as an incendiary interview with Carmichael. King is described as �on the defensive,� and his interview (in which he posits both Black Power and rioting as essentially effects, rather than causes, of injustice) is sandwiched between Carmichael and the notably hostile ruminations of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.
Elsewhere in the program, white fear is explicitly addressed. Host Mike Wallace interviews homeowners in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, where King had been scheduled to march for fair housing, but agreed not to after negotiations with city officials.
Ken Jacobs is a major figure in American experimental film, active since the late 1950s. Much of his output has centered on the use of �found footage� � film that was found, rather than shot, by the filmmaker. In the case of Perfect Film, as he says in an interview published on the UC Berkeley Conversations with History website, �my contribution was leaving [the footage] alone.�
"It was outtakes from a television studio, the news report. This was the stuff that they had discarded and someone, instead of just throwing it in the wastebasket decided, who knows, it might have some future use, so without any kind of order the film clips were attached one to the other. And that's how I found it. It was being sold for the reel, the metal reel it was on. And it was very cheap because this person selling it gave you the task of having to unspool all this discard. I looked at the discard and in my eyes it was good. Very revealing. So I just let the evidence be the way it was. I looked at it and said, 'perfect.' From beginning to end, 'perfect.'"
The main elements of Perfect Film are a black radio reporter giving his eyewitness account of the event, along with other interviewees on the street; a detective giving a statement of the details of the assassination to reporters; and cutaway shots of the Audubon Ballroom and its environs. These cutaway shots are silent, and undoubtedly were meant to be played underneath voice-over commentary.
Besides the obvious historical interest of the footage, there is much in Perfect Film to consider from an aesthetic perspective, as Jacobs did when he brought to bear his long experience of viewing found footage. The unedited, outtake quality of the footage, as well as its random organization on the reel, brings out interesting connections. For instance, the eyewitness, the detective, and the interviewees reappear at various times in silent shots. Occasionally there is sound with no image, and sometimes the screen simply goes blank for many seconds, where film leader was originally inserted. All of these elements and more � the strange false start during the detective�s statement, the oddly smiling faces gathered around the eyewitness, the repetition of images with only slight variation (or sometimes no variation at all) � contribute to an eerie sense of observing an event as if through a dream. Through random editing, we see the eyewitness interviewed three times, which gives the film a classical three-act structure, like a play or an opera � only this is an opera of nightmares, with an absent hero.
Malcolm X�s absence � his death and the attendant �silencing� of his voice � is reinforced by the grim details of the detective�s report, and echoed by the silent footage. Malcolm himself appears suddenly in a piece of inserted stock footage, talking about his suspicion that members of the Nation of Islam had been ordered to harm him. The brevity of this shot and its muffled sound quality serve to remind us of his absence in the rest of the film.
Black Journal was a series produced for the NET public television network. The producer was William Greaves, an independent filmmaker whose many honors include an Emmy for this series. Black Journal ran from June 1968 through May 1970 and included newsmagazine-style features on Black culture, figures and political issues, as well as commentary. Malcolm X: Nationalist or Humanist? was produced and directed by independent filmmaker Madeline Anderson and was featured on the February 9, 1969 episode of Black Journal. It was apparently popular and was repeated three months later.
The film focuses on Malcolm�s attempt to internationalize the Civil Rights struggle. It contains much interesting interview footage with Malcolm, as well as an appearance by his widow Betty Shabazz, who denies the idea that Malcolm X was turning toward integration near the end of his life. The film ends with a rousing speech by Malcolm, who extemporizes on the conflict between �house Negroes� and �field Negroes.�
�Give me two photos, music, and a moviola,� Santiago Alvarez once said, �and I�ll give you a movie.� As the director of the newsreel division of the Cuban Film Institute, Alvarez used this extreme economy of means to produce over 700 films, but surely nowhere to better effect than in NOW!, an agitprop film of extraordinary energy. Featuring a stunning music track by the great singer Lena Horne, NOW! consists almost entirely of still images of protest and revolt, as well as grimmer scenes of police brutality and lynchings. Throughout, Alvarez uses zooms and pans to constantly highlight the determination written on the faces of those in the photographs, creating a sense of solidarity with the protesters and complementing the urgency of the song. The one occurrence of the moving image in the film is also extraordinary.
The uncredited I Have a Dream film is, as it appeared on contemporary television screens, one of the iconic moments of twentieth century history � Martin Luther King Jr.�s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in front of an estimated crowd of 200,000 during the 1963 March on Washington.
The date was Wednesday, August 28. According to Peter Ling�s biography of King, the program of speeches that day was running ahead of schedule, and thus King was allowed by march organizer Bayard Rustin to extemporize past his allotted seven minutes. Thus, the climactic �I Have a Dream� sequence, one of the most quoted speeches in history, was seen live on televisions throughout the nation, even though it apparently was not originally part of King�s formal speech that day.
Eugene and Carole Marner�s Phyllis and Terry is an early example of films which used a cinema verite style to focus not on national figures but on the lives of everyday people. Phyllis and Terry are two close friends in their mid teenage years. Phyllis is easygoing but tough � even faces down a male classmate who wants to fight. The wily Terry is mischievous in the extreme. The two girls are an inspired choice for a documentary subject. Displaying a remarkable ease in front of the camera, they banter, play, reminisce, comment on their surroundings, their future plans, music, love, happiness. They hang out and dance to the jukebox music in the corner store. Rarely has there been such a sensitive portrayal of the exuberance and complexity of teenage life in documentary film.
For assistance with tonight�s screening, thanks to Robbie Land and John Lowther.
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Program notes 2005 Andy Ditzler
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Andy Ditzler 10/13/2014