Episode Two – Excerpts, Notes & Brainstorms from November 19, 2021 12:48AM
…I light the candle – and like a film reel running through a projector in the head – I stare at the subtle dips and dives of shadows it tosses – I lay on the floor and I stare up at the ceiling and watch the flickers above the candle dance above the photo of Robeson and Eisenstein…(You wonder what John Berger might have made of it)
The shadows remind me not of the perfunctory Plato’s allegory of the cave – cause in Kangalee’s Cave we’re prisoners of truth, reality is never far from us; if anything we crave fantasy!
But the flickers remind me of the feeling I had as a young artist, the excitement I felt thinking about the plays I’d done…and the films I hoped to one day see.
Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman beautifully conceded that if theater was his wife, film was his mistress. In some way I could relate – but for me and in my formative conception of Visual Liberation — it was if art was my wife and activism was my mistress. But one day I realized: it is quite possible to have all your desires in ONE BOOK.
(Speaking of books: read John Tytell’s “Art Exile and Outrage.” About Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s performance group, The Living Theater and the extraordinary combination of Brecht and Artaud in American political Theater. )
Last month I mentioned 3 films – all quite different and none prescriptions of or my conception of a revolutionary film – but each in its own way certainly radical – and therefore an example of Visual Liberation — Chameleon St, Shadows and Dog Day Afternoon.
I realized later why I mentioned these films: the black consciousness and majestic anarchism of Harris’ masterpiece coincided with my own aesthetic connection to Cassavetes’ jazz-inspired slice of life method-acting jam on identity, race, art, and friendship. All these themes and ideas seemed to coalesce for me in a passionate way simply by witnessing Al Pacino’s diatribes against the system in Dog DayAfternoon. I also mentioned Tytell’s book because Malina plays Pacino’s mother in the film…and was a real-life mentor of sorts. Her presence in Dog DayAfternoon underscores its revolutionary fervor, there’s an almost organized Artaudian mood – an impulse to literally riot – within the frames of that one movie by that Hollywood radical himself, Sidney Lumet…
Let’s get back to candles:
These midnight gesticulations on the wall made me think of my trip to Moscow in 1992.I don’t know why maybe it’s because that’s where I first smoked a cigarette and discovered when the glimmer of a candle had burned out: that Pushkin was a black man (the statue of him in Moscow is a site to see)…and that Jean Genet was a prophet of sorts, I had witnessed Roman Victuc’s production of the Maids and instantly realized what an Artaudian experience could be in the theater. 1992: Bush SR was still president. I was 16 – and it was The year I discovered Paul Robeson, Eisenstein and made sense of my visit to the Moscow art theater.
American Protest music and American Protest film – Political Filmmaking in a Left-Wing sense; a Wobbly Cinema if you will —
Dylan, Cash, Seeger, Havens, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bessie Smith…Billie Holiday.
When I mention these American artists what do you think of?
Now, let’s think about this in terms of a specific form of American movies.
Aesthetic and Ideological Foundation: Micheaux, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Clarke, Menelik Shabbaz, Fronza Woods, Julie Dash, Michael Roemer, MVP, Pasolini, Kramer, Cassavetes, Ivan Dixon, etc. Within this…underlying all of this is Paul Robeson.
The spirit of Robeson, who insisted you have to be on one side of oppression or the other. And the artist to him was a moralist who had to fight against abuse, poverty, genocide, and rape.
Recently Rosalie Gancie, artist and publisher in MD, had shared a lovely facsmile of a program circa, 1954-1955 of an announcement declaring a Calypso band at a gathering in support of Paul Robeson who had lost his passport; and the supporting fundraiser – happily endorsed by Charlie Chaplin –she shared the event materials on social media and it was so interesting to see it…and it immediately made me embarrassed at how the Left have shrunk artistically and culturally in POP and in the underground, or the fringes.
One of the greatest performing artists of the twentieth century and one of the towering figures of the left as well as one its worst ambassador’s, ironically, for cinema.
Tragically Robeson was one of The White Man’s Movie Industry’s grossest unintentional accomplices for the of stereotypes and derogatory projections of black actors in film. He was a prisoner of the white gaze, while knowing full well – in the end, that his revolutionary desires in cinema had been highjacked and betrayed by his trust and belief that most of the white people he worked with in film would enable what he wanted to do for the common man, the working man…and especially the person of African descent. He never came off the way he wanted to in a movie…
The exceptions are few, but most notably Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (one of the only movies I can watch him in)
( I highly suggest you read Susan Robeson’s book about her grandfather’s struggle for more detailed information about this. One of the several heartbreaking ingredients of his life…)
Because there is very little freewheeling revolutionary spirit and dignity in many of the motion pictures he acted in, it’s hard to watch him at all, frankly, on screen — I think it was Ruby Dee who lamented that she could never watch a movie he was in…and part of this reason is because it is a political and moral choice and vulnerability to perform in front of a camera and/or allow another human being to “capture” a part of you through a lens. Think about it: it’s a take.
“Let’s do a take.”
“Can’t take your photo?”
Or “Let’s take your photo.” As if I have it already and will transfer it someplace else?
“We’re gonna do another take. This time when you look at her, try not to blink.”
The Actor has to now open himself up to…what?
Nothing perhaps. Maybe that’s better. A take. Hmm.
As in…”take my soul,” but leave my body in tact? What is taken? Is the Western conception of film ultimately about the taking and capturing? Is it essentially about taming the subject into a ‘frame’ and recording death of the spirit; extinguishing the passion that cannot be contained?
In photography, they even say “Can I shoot you?”
(A riff on Taking, Capturing, & Shooting A Creature, Idea or Feeling With a Camera: The Western conception of film is about more than dominance, it is about conquest and colonizing a subject, a person, an event, a place and sticking a flag into its gut, while declaring the gardeners through to give up their seeds for the camera! From Herzog to Coppola, the film director is the last talisman of the White Romantic Colonizer who sets out to dictate to others what he cannot create in his own home!
When the bourgeoisie locked up and burned down the Shaman’s vision quest – that ran the gamut of every emotion – it scared the French, embarrassed the English, and made the German, Spanish, and Italians suspicious. To the former, language and behavior was about moving up and through a society; to the latin languages and the more insistent Caucasian tribes — it was about using language as both a strong greeting and even stronger goodbye; getting you into the boat and getting you out. Everything in between was tea. Only a Brit with a dumb camera around his neck ominously like a gun with a silencer could ask an Indigenous or African chief he’d just pounded into a deck of boat after having raped his sister (out of sight, of course) – “Would you mind if I shot you?” )
But for a moment consider what Paul Robeson was up against.
Here was this brilliant man, tall, stately, athletic with an incredible voice who was a wonderful stage actor and an even better singer and orator.
(And a remarkable writer, by the way.)
He was light years ahead of himself – and his vision was greater than anyone around him could probably conceive; his wife certainly was a loving accomplice…and he was quite admired by Sergei Eisenstein, whom Robeson in turn, had respect for. You wonder “Why didn’t they work together?”
Well, you can certainly bet the USA would never have allowed THAT to happen. And yes, it was that bad and YES they do have that power (namely cause we give it to them)
The forces that be will always make sure that highly talented, gifted or brilliant people (in any capacity) NEVER work together, collaborate or commune. They will always try to separate them.
And now I leave you with this:
“On The Willful Ignorance of Andrei Tarkovsky:”
Mikhail Romm (1901-1971) was a Soviet Film Director and Teacher. His film
“Dream” (1941) – about spiritual crisis and poverty – was supposedly deemed by FDR as being one the greatest films ever made. In 1956, his student Andrei Tarkovsky made his first film, “The Killers.” It was a student thesis movie. Based on a Hemingway short story, Romm admonished Tarkovsky for having the lack of imagination and sensitivity for shamefully employing an actor in black-face in the movie! Romm told Tarkovsky – who had previously been studying Arabic! – that he had learned nothing about humanity and that he had no imagination. He decried that the young man had defiled the memory of the greatest Russian Poet, Alexander Pushkin – who was black! (Indeed, the film is disappointing in that it reveals the casual racism of the White world at that time via the young and ignorant Tarkovsky. But it’s very telling and revealing that such an “innocently racist” young man would become a deeply compassionate and humane filmmaker a few years later.) In any event, Romm would have none of it, he chided Tarkovsky for being influenced by Fascism and American racism and deemed him counter-revolutionary. In the next 2 years, the young Tarkovsky did a lot of soul searching. Legend also has it that Paul Robeson visited Romm after one of his 1959 concerts at Lenin Stadium (Khabarovsk) when the USA’s ban on his passport had been lifted. Romm refused to introduce the young Tarkovsky for fear of Robeson wanting to see the lad’s first film. I assume somewhere in all this…The great Tarkovsky had learned a valuable lesson and came to understand in the words of King: that there is nothing “more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
We need to return to the embryo of THE NEED FOR A RADICAL CINEMA.
If you are making a film — Have something more to say than ACTION!
Kathleen Collins’ The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy gives us an urge to be free, to literally want to run and “find ourselves.”
Click here to read last month’s piece in the Luminal Theater’s Wavelengths — my “review” and remembrance of Kathleen Collins’ warm and loving first feature, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy – her remarkable introduction into the world of long-form narrative filmmaking . Collins’ sparkling humor and insight into life was not only attractive, but muscular and always curious on screen. Her intelligence alone would make most director’s tremble in their boots. And all of this organically and humbly developed into style which she draped into a confident shawl with her masterwork, Losing Ground.
They are films and interpretations of those films that champion the fight against the Hollywood celebrations of racism, misogyny, and all other talismans of capitalism. This radical approach to filmmaking is a pedagogy that has been in development since 2000, exemplified in the film As an Act of Protest and surveyed in essays and articles since then, including the 2001 “Notes from the Underground” manifesto, a radical response to the Danish Dogme 95 movement. The first Visual Liberation film program was held in a self-titled festival at the Brecht Forum in 2002, in New York City.
Visual Liberation is both a curriculum that can be implemented in educational institutions as well as an approach to life and creating art. Its goal is in freeing both the audience and the artist in however the “political message” is being relayed by the author/director. In art, the how is as vital as the what. So-called “political films” in the mainstream have forgotten this.
Visual Liberation dismantles the notion that film is hierarchical and inherently fascistic and must be a Nationalist tool. While Audre Lorde is correct to declare one can’t eradicate the system with the instruments the system created, it is also worth noting how those instruments are played and used. Filmmakers can have agency and invigorate an alternative culture and view of both cinema and what it means to be socially conscious.
Through bare-bones intimate casual reflections, this “sermon,” or midnight ramble, is an explicit and personal oral rendering of written essays by Dennis Leroy Kangalee (DLK) reminding Leftist artists what it means to imbue their ideologies in narrative films, positing that “protest cinema” should be on par with American protest music and to help enable the battle against the Left’s cultural quandary and the damage done by American mainstream movies.
Pedagogical, personal, political and always poetic – this is the beginning of a new way of watching cinema.
The podcast is available now on Anchor and Spotify!
Black World Cinema’s on-going series of Revolution on Screen…
I am proud to be part of Black World Cinema’s “Black Militancy & Revolution On Screen” program and virtual screening series organized by Chicago’s own Floyd Webb and Imani Davis, two of our countries most knowledgeable Black radical film programmers.
Corresponding to my own artistic and moral proclivities as it relates to anti-Capitalist and Anti-Racist and anti-Imperialist Liberation politics, this series is deeply embedded in my own artistic past and trajectory– I was an active participant in the creation and promulgation of the second wave of Black Revolutionary drama in the 1990’s in NYC and it was later through Floyd Webb that my own marginalized work began to be re-assessed and appreciated by a whole new generation in 2014 when As an Act of Protest screened in Chicago after a twelve- year ban on the film in the USA.
This Sunday, September 12, 2021 at 4pm Eastern Standard time, Black World Cinema TV celebrates and screen Oscar Williams’ revolutionary movie “The Final Comedown” inspired and based on Jimmy Garrett’s Black Arts Movement masterpiece “And We Own The Night,” quite possibly the most revolutionary one act play ever written. Oscar William’s 1972 motion picture subverts both the action movie genre and the the coming-of-age story by adhering to the spirit and at times the literal text of Garret’s startling drama.
Starring Billy Dee Williams in, quite possibly, his most radical role – politically and aesthetically – Williams is wonderful as the passionate revolutionary Johnny. Williams’ charming, suave demeanor, and blue-jazz cool is all there already…but seething beneath – within it – is a vault of revolutionary fervor about to explode. Join us Sunday and check back here for additional notes, writings and thoughts on this film and everything related to it by the end of this month when Visual Liberation is live.
Spike Lee had the temerity to remake Bill Gunn’s “Ganja and Hess” – a chilling film about all the modes of vampirism, addiction and colonialism – into a sleazy “art film” that had none of the one the power, spirituality, strangeness or depth of Gunn’s original. Worse, Lee “hipped” it up and spoke down to his audience titling the garbage “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” and struggled to find an authentic style for the film…and a sincere point in making it. It was classic Spike Lee marketing orgy. It made me sad and very angry. The Children of Warhol HAD won: Artifice and marketing is everything. But one thing the artist has over the grand marketeer is soul. You can’t fake soul.
Since then, Gunn’s work has continued to push and inspire, haunt and confound me. Recently, I re-read his play “The Black Picture Show” and his remarkable novel – if not the best fictional excavation of the dilemma of the Black screenwriter and Hollywood – “Rhinestone Sharecropping.”
Now that his magnum-opus “Personal Problems” is finally available on DVD (after nearly three and a half decades) — I hope film lovers, art appreciators, and just even general witnesses to this “thing” we call life — can experience and appreciate a little of what Gunn tried to tell us. Not since John Cassavetes’ masterworks have been available on DVD has their been a more important acknowledgment of an American dramatist who created and breathed life into the screen and off into the embers around us. If you have not seen “Personal Problems” — watch it one day on a double bill with Cassavetes’s “Husbands.” You may never recover.
But start, obviously, with his most provocative and daring expression “Ganja & Hess”.
The original text to my appreciation as published in Shadow & Act in 2014 can be read at the link below. The text beneath is a slightly abridged and re-contextualized version. Especially coming out of my own battle with the critics and media the past month in the aftermath of my own first film, the eternally misunderstood “As an Act of Protest” . Thanks for reading.
If John O. Killens was the soldier of darkness, James Baldwin the prophet of darkness, then Bill Gunn was the prince of darkness… – Ishmael Reed, Airing Dirty Laundry (1990)
I realized that vampire films and vampires themselves are as different to dramatists as the gangster or romance genre might be. Everyone has their own idea of vampirism and what that could mean. And that’s a good thing.
However, Ganja & Hess is a film so overlooked that most people are unfamiliar with it, and the ones that are think its some exploitation film. These people are shocked to hear its back-story that, already, has accrued a mythic status. And I’m often perplexed as to why more filmmakers don’t reference him or acknowledge his contributions publicly. What’s even more shocking is that Lee’s Blood is a remake of Gunn’s masterpiece and I find this all the more confounding. Instead of remaking a haunting delicate film into a virtuosic, ironic “art film,” why not simply acknowledge the original? Is a remake necessary? Spike Lee would have done us all a favor if he had simply written a monograph on Ganja & Hess and called it a day. The world needs to know more about Bill Gunn. And if artists want to pay homage to the masters, we should express what we know about life as opposed to cinema – and that would be enough…All the great masters express and teach us what they themselves know about life. And that’s what Gunn did.
Bill Gunn was a triple threat – an actor, writer, and a director. Chiz Schultz was familiar with Bill Gunn’s work,(he had written Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, for instance) and he produced Ganja & Hess in 1972 for a small amount of money. Gunn wrote a “double script” which led Kelly-Jordan distributors to believe he was making a “blaxploitation” picture — but instead made his own personal film. He was not out to “sell” blackness or capitulate to stereotypes for a buck. He wanted to make his own “cinematic poem.” One must understand the sheer guts it took to do this, to play the “spook who sat by the door” and say “yes, yes, yes” to the money men and run off and make a serious work of art that did not care or concern itself with any of the commercial interests of the filmmaking business enterprise. That’s righteous!
When Kelly-Jordan requested an exploitive commercial re-cut Gunn threw a chair through the window leading Kelly-Jordan to call him “crazy.” Gunn quipped, “I have more craziness in the top draw of my bureau than you will ever imagine.”
Now that took balls. If a white man had done that, they’d have branded him “passionate.” Because it was an African-American – a brilliant one at that – they had to dub him “crazy.”
Well, I always felt at home with Gunn’s fervent vision and his idiosyncratic approach to writing and directing. He is another example that filmmakers must be personal and unique in the way that a musician or painter is.
Directors Haile Gerima and Melvin Van Peebles gave me permission to be angry and politically upfront, the absurdist Wendell B. Harris inspired me to be cerebral, but it was the “The Mighty Gunn” who affirmed my aversion to orthodoxy, who inspired my work to reflect the non-linearity, the odd rhythm, the surreal tones of life’s phases (past, present, and future), and who made me realize that a vampire film does not have to be sensational. Like Antonin Artaud, Bill Gunn knew the horror is not what is imagined, but in what is real. And Gunn’s vampire film is horrifying because of the layers and themes it weaves and does not resolve – colonization, cultural displacement, addiction, etc. Bill Gunn inspired a legion of underground and avant-garde painters and dramatists to be as strange as they actually were. The freedom in that alone is revolutionary. And quite dangerous to the Powers That Be since no system has been as aggressive in their approach to homogenize black artists as much as Hollywood.
I can immediately see how Ishmael Reed (who published Bill’s work and produced his Personal Problems) and Gunn may have connected as artists – as they both eschew rules and are informed by a multitude of things, bearing a collage aspect to their work. It was this that I always identified with as an artist and in the case of Gunn – his unabashed mixing of the impenetrable with the aggressively obvious. It was as if he blew his trumpet and muted at the same time. Those tones not only resonate within Ganja & Hess a film that will leave you haunted well after having watched it (even if you don’t like it) but are also implicated in his writing. After all, the man was a poet of the theater. I encourage everyone to read his brilliant “Rhinestone Sharecropping,” a chilling, Kafka-esque account of a black screenwriter’s experience in Hollywood and the hell that swallows him up. The actual ‘vampires’ in Bill Gunn’s book are the rich gangsters who of course don’t view themselves as racist and are quick to drain the artist of his soul and integrity. They need soul and integrity to suck on…because they don’t have any of their own.
My vampire film shall be quite different, as it should be, but I hope it bears the uniqueness and honesty that Gunn’s brought forth. My vampire is an outcast, a marginalized “alien” caught in between her past and future, as well as America’s. My vampires are artists – some are even literal artists. But they are all sensitive – almost too sensitive. And there is no blood that can sustain them. For man’s blood is tainted. Including Jesus’. And there is nothing to be addicted to – except truth. And that is what ultimately kills.
The fact that punk music as an artistic ethos plays a part in my work is no coincidence. All those who dare to be honest and to be themselves are “punk.” And Bill Gunn was creating his crowning achievements with the actual rise of punk and hip-hop; the first known black punk band Death were recording only two years after Ganja & Hess had been made. And Gunn died at the end of the 1980’s – when Hollywood’s Suits had already returned with a vengeance against all of the creativity set forth even by their own “establishment” pop star directors like Warren Beatty and Francis Ford Coppola nearly a decade before. (The Empire did, in fact, strike back didn’t it?)
In memory of Bill Gunn, I post this remarkable letter written to the NY Times in 1973 as he was defending his art and trying to teach a few lessons in the process. Of course they probably had no idea why he was so “ornery” and they probably smirked and called him “just another bitter crazy black man.” And of course not even the great liberal East Coast critics could admit that THE ONLY AMERICAN FILM SHOWN IN CRITICS WEEK AT CANNES IN 1973 WAS “GANJA & HESS.” (Not other classics like Mean Streets. Not Serpico. But Ganja & Hess. Now that says something!)
I’m not shocked. Of course they labeled him “crazy.” Somehow they don’t, and never will, understand not only the Black consciousness of the Diaspora, but the genius inherent in a handful of living artists. Why? Very simple: the establishment prefers their artists dead.
I love you Bill.
* This is the text of a famous letter sent to the NY Times from Bill Gunn in 1973. Gunn was the legendary director of the cult classic “Ganja & Hess”, “Stop,” and the post-modern domestic drama “Personal Problems.” To the Editor: (NY Times)
There are times when the white critic must sit down and listen. If he cannot listen and learn, then he must not concern himself with black creativity. A children’s story I wrote speaks of a black male child that dreamed of a strong white golden haired prince who would come and save him from being black. He came, and as time passed and the relationship moved forward, it was discovered that indeed the black child was the prince and he had saved himself from being white. That, too, is possible.
I have always tried to imagine the producers waiting anxiously for the black reviewers’ opinions of “The Sound of Music” or “A Clockwork Orange.” I want to say that it is a terrible thing to be a black artist in this country – for reasons too private to expose to the arrogance of white criticism. One white critic left my film “Ganja and Hess,” after 20 minutes and reviewed the entire film. Another was to see three films in one day and review them all. This is a crime.
Three years of three different people’s lives grades in one afternoon by a complete stranger to the artist and to the culture. A.H. Weiler states in his review of “Ganja and Hess” that a doctor of anthropology killed his assistant and is infected by a blood disease and becomes immortal. But this is not so, Mr. Weiler, the assistant committed suicide. I know this film does not address you, but in that auditorium you might have heard more than you were able to over the sounds of your own voice. Another critic wondered where was the race problem. If he looks closely, he will find it in his own review.
If I were white, I would probably be called “fresh and different. If I were European, “Ganja and Hess” might be “that little film you must see.” Because I am black, do not even deserve the pride that one American feels for another when he discovers that a fellow countryman’s film has been selected as the only American film to be shown during “Critic’s Week” at the Cannes Film Festival, May 1973. Not one white critic from any of the major newspapers even mentioned it.
I am very proud of my ancestors in “Ganja and Hess.” They worked hard, with a dedication to their art and race that is obviously foreign to the critics. I want to thank them and my black sisters and brothers who have expressed only gratitude and love for my effort.
When I first came into the “theatre,” black women who were actresses were referred to as “great gals” by white directors and critics. Marlene Clark, one of the most beautiful women and actresses I have ever known, was referred to as a “brown-skinned looker” (New York Post). That kind of disrespect could not have been cultivated in 110 minutes. It must have taken a good 250 years.
Your newspapers and critics must realize that they are controlling black theater and film creativity with white criticism. Maybe if the black film craze continues, the white press might even find it necessary to employ black criticism. But if you can stop the craze in its tracks, maybe that won’t be necessary.
Bill Gunn Author and director of “Ganja and Hess” New York, 1973
Though the film was made in 2001 and scrutinizes the racial profiling and police brutality in New York City under Giuliani’s draconian reign, “As an Act of Protest” has never been more urgent than now. I approach this review—a defense born of moral outrage, really—not as a film critic, but as a fellow filmmaker and novelist. Often, it takes an artist to recognize an artist, talent to identify talent.
To contextualize, the film makes almost all contemporary activism and progressive finger-wagging histrionics feel like a disingenuous kindergarten special, a halfhearted performance staged by people who stand for nothing, driven by questionable motives.
The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee (originally “Dennis Leroy Moore“), who runs a Black theater group, and his actor Cairo Medina, Che Ayende in a turn that manages both a visceral nerviness and a cerebral intensity. Though Abner floats throughout the film like a haunted, haunting spirit, the spiritual journey—and crisis—is Cairo’s. He must cope with the unjust, criminal murder of a loved one at the hands of the NYPD as he reconciles his passion for expression through art or, failing that, a descent into violent vengeance. Ayende’s work here is unnerving, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a force of brooding expression, tension, and apoplectic eruptions. He is compelling when silent and striking when in a verbose fury.
The acting is so raw, immediate, and naturalistic it seems more than improvised—it feels as though we’re watching real intimate connections being worked out. And yet, there is a fascinating formalism at play here. Rarely do we find actors who can balance with such adeptness the natural with the formal. The cinema of Cassavetes comes to mind. The theater of Baraka and Genet do, too. Kangalee clearly knows his film and theater history and understands where he fits in the ever-shifting canon. His marriage of forms and sensibilities is thoughtful; he assiduously toils toward excavating a new understanding of human behavior.
We have seen countless movies that celebrate straight white men at breaking points with society. Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Edward Norton in Fight Club. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Rarely are black men granted the same luxury of being enraged with the world and acting on their anger. And if we’re being honest, it is black men—especially black men in America—who have the greatest right to be in a, as Baldwin put it, “state of rage, almost all the time.”
The ruminations on the nature of theater, and especially the need for a Black theater, run deep and into enlightening spaces. Theatre of the Absurd is thought of when considering the film on a meta level—the way Black people are mistreated in America is in and of itself absurd. Cruel and unfair to an absurd degree. Kangalee knows this and his emphasis on theater suits such thematic meditations.
Kangalee, the writer, is relentless in his examinations and excoriations. He demands you pay attention and endure the rhythmic chaos and existential horrors he dissects, those dehumanizing atrocities experienced daily by black men and women. Kangalee, the director, doesn’t let up, either. He insists you confront the gruesome truth and either flee or find deep mettle to withstand the revelation of your complicity. Kangalee, the actor, serves as an effective provocateur, a missile in human trappings sent deep into the heart of the matter. Unlike too many current filmmakers who claim to make “message movies” or “take stands” against injustice and the establishment, Kangalee actually does. And he does so poetically, unapologetically, and with an authenticity that shames.
Speller Street Films has done an admirable job remastering the cult film that has screened at universities across the United States and in Europe, however, it is unconscionable that As an Act of Protest has struggled for nearly two decades to land distribution. I can only blame the American (mainly white) critical establishment for not championing it, instead doing the bidding of the film industry—yes, both the “independent” film scene and Hollywood. The fear, the lack of imagination and depth, and the outright racism that has kept the film from garnering a wider audience is unforgivable. The hypocrisy of the independent film scene is apparent. They speciously declare their allegiance to emerging artists, taking “risks” with “edgy” fare, seeing more deeply than the big wig studio executives, eschewing commercial formula, and promoting marginalized voices. This is all nonsense, though. They’re just better at hiding their ugly, venal faces, faithful only to maintaining the status quo, and the rejection, indifference, and bitterness that As an Act of Protest has met with is evidence of this.
These same critics celebrate Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, all gifted and worthy in their own right, but also too-polite “fighters” for the cause, falling into line, protesting within acceptable lines; they stick to studio parameters, abide by white executive decree, and follow the structural playbook of formulaic moviemaking. They are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which leaves nothing dismantled, in the end. The structures remain. Kangalee has no use for the master’s tools and in his gritty, obliquely stylized aesthetic uses his own tools. And his dismantling is actual, not theoretical. He has no use for levity to break tension. He doesn’t care if you’re bothered by the cacophony of actors screaming into each other’s faces for two hours. He has no use for your precious sensitivities. Why should he? He’s not trying to become anyone’s friend. He is seeking to make enduring, personal art. And he has.
In a certain, eerie sense, the detractors of As an Act of Protest mirror the racist cops, corrupt mayor, and gentrified encroachers in the film itself. They too possess a colonized entitlement, a sense that they have the license to control, own, and kill.
Having followed the underground movements of As an Act of Protest, I possess empirical knowledge of the politics surrounding the film. And of the machinations intent on derailing it. I have witnessed too many cowardly, meek “critics” and academics lazily assail the film as if it posed a threat to their existence. The Guardian’s apathetic pseudo-review and TrustMovies’ ill-informed, vindictive rant, to name but a few. The same people who claim to want revolution and fancy themselves progressives, or even radicals, for that matter, reveal themselves to be anything but—they’re comfortable bourgeoise daunted by the prospect of being discomfited. They prefer a softer, templated blend of activism, something that will go down smoothly with their lattes and Wes Anderson confectionaries. To them, activism is little more than a fashionable accessory, a cute button or hip catch phrase. As an Act of Protest is a litmus test, one to weed out the truly rebellious and throttle the frauds into retreat. It’s exhilarating to watch the assault.
Brian Alessandro currently writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, Alessandro wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington Post, The Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. He currently works in the mental health field.
A film that started with the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999…and resuscitated it’s social relevance and artistic merit itself, pathetically, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Death’s energy may kickstart the wheel of protest art but it is the hope of a creative retaliation that that makes it explode….
“When will American cinema catch up to the full-throttle legacy of Rebel music and songs that declaim change and challenge authority?”
– Robert Kramer, American Radical Filmmaker (Ice, Milestones)
When all is said and done
you stand alone with a catalog of memories and actions. And like the Actor, it is our actions ultimately that define who we are, how we choose to fight or retreat. We all feel like the Nowhere Man sometimes but maybe it is not failure or malaise that consumes, but risks that genuinely tried. Not “nowhere plans” but actual attempts – stabs at the wall, great failures perhaps – but proof one has lived and had thoughts and some passion for SOMETHING. And, if anything, at least my words can do what I can’t: resist trembling in the face of Capitalism and the force of obedience. The “bastard literature” which may have given birth to my own madness is one that I claim with glee. Radical art, protest art, works and ideas that rejuvenates every sense of urgency from the eyebrow to the bowels. There is no more time for games. This ends it all. Walk into the valley, the great wash of the sun. turn your back on mediocrity. make art that can’t – but tries – to alter the world. And when they say you’re hateful, you’re diseased, you’re un-romantic – just let your sigh do the talking.
It is the systemic racism and hatred of the white man’s organized political structure that gives credence to the 2001 film As an Act of Protest which depicts the downward spiral of a Black actor who questions the morality of practicing art in the face of a hostile and savage world that seeks to annihilate Black people in the United States of America.
After a successful re-emergence of this cult classic in 2015, Speller St Films is preparing to finally release a limited edition of the DVD replete with a special facsimile of the original screenplay and the notes that made up my own conception of ‘Third Cinema 2000: a cocktail of guerrilla film-making and the political stringency of Black and Brown peoples oppressed and colonized throughout the world, who not only are conscious of their condition, but seek to change it by “any means necessary.” As an Act of Protest is the anti-Spike Lee version of a socially conscious films and attacks racism from the oppressed’s point of view with no irony or pop-art trappings; no advertising hipness or cool slang. It is meant to destroy the oppressor and all who saddles his gaze with his and uplift the dignity of the radical who fights him. It is a direct descendant of the gravity of Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama and downright dangerous Blacks films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door.
Acknowledged by Variety in 2002 as being a “powerful” film that aims to “teach and shock,” it was heralded by many on the underground and marginalized film critics (such as Kam Williams and Hugh Pearson) who championed the film when mainstream papers refused to address it. Woefully pertinent and tragically eternally relevant in the racist world we live in, As an Act of Protestis a gritty, poetic, theatrical drama that does what the best conscious hip-hop albums did and what the gnarliest politically-tinged punk albums sought to do: it speaks truth and implicates us all in the decision-making of how we are going to live our lives.
“As an Act of Protest – Best Black Movie Nobody Will See This Year.”
– Kam Williams, The Black World Today, Nov. 27, 2002
– Ryan Shriver, The NY Times All Movie Guide (2006)
You cannot have a revolution without having an art to go alongside it. Sometimes that art is living itself, sometimes it’s the expression of the angst through blood. Sometimes the tears mean more in the glimpse of 24 frames per second. Sometimes, often in actual life, there is no time for tears — and certainly no poetry that comes along with it… “Revolutions are not fought in, of, or by poems,” as Umar from the Last Poets warned in As an Act of Protest. But it certainly helps to have those poems going up into the sky like fireworks…and hoping that their residue settles onto a willing recipient before the final axe falls or before the final step of the American gestalt is taken. You can’t clap with one hand. But you can still wield a sword. Or a pen.
In order to bring Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s controversial and haunting 2002 cult film As an Act of Protest to a new generation of film enthusiasts, activists, organizers, and those interested in revolutionary expression, Speller St. Films (who brought the world Wilmington on Fire in 2015) will host online screenings of the movie in an attempt to relay the vitality and importance of the film originally made in response to the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and unfortunately now – the most relevant independent film, perhaps, in American history in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and Rayshard Brooks’ execution. The film charts the unmapped territory of the fears, inclinations, and proclivities of conscientious Black Americans who are aware that they are “walking in terrible darkness” as James Baldwin once asserted. The film expresses the angst and racism of a system riddled with racism like a corpse covered in tumors. From hostile bankers and a Theater community entrenched in thwarting the liberatory desires of Black dramatists to the hypocrites of Higher Education to families unable to confront the serious trauma of racism to an unbridled savagery contained within the American police force, Cairo – like a character out of Kafka – has nowhere to turn and the more he dares to open his eyes…the more racism he dares to see. Described once as an “internal Battle of Algiers” and “radical Taxi Driver” (had that film been a progressive movie) — As an Act of Protest is a perfect introduction to Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s art, his admiration for the Black Arts Movement — and a stellar example of an unheralded movement and radical inclination in American cinema and drama that went completely under the radar beginning twenty-five years ago.
— Joshua Kibuka for the New Black Arts Alliance, Speller St. Films June 9, 2020
Stay tuned for more updates on the release of As an Act of Protest and please visit my page here for more information, clips, and a detailed history of my film…
The Assassination of the of the Conscious Black Filmmaker & The Sins of White Journalists – pt. 1
In 2015 I was invited to participate at a Discussion on Black Futurist Art, Ferguson, and Racism with other black educators, artists and independent arts advocates. Disappointed with the same old tired clichés about African-American existence in America and the struggle to combat racism effectively, I declared to everyone’s chagrin that “If Black lives matter then we should support our living artists.”
I was then – and remain now – a staunch believer in the fusion of radical activism and radical artistic expression, I wholly believe that the key to beginning any progressive step towards a better, deeper, and more fully realized humanity resides in the vision of the artist. It’s up to the activist to make the vision practical. But a lot of people don’t like to hear this or confront this because it puts a lot of responsibility at their feet, the naked truth is always hard to confront.
Black lives matter only when white people say they do. In America, Black lives are only mourned never celebrated. Our victimization has become fetishized, our willingness to take action against oppressive and Fascistic behavior has been reduced, and our culture – the defining qualities of our own folkways – has been given up, sold off and “shared” (that is how it is described) by the entire world. Our pain, suffering, and trauma has taken on such inter-stellar resonance that nobody actually responds to Black peoples oppression the way they should. While the Jews always retained control of their own horrifying memories, Blacks still in 2020 have to ask for permission. Permission to tell our own accounts, to share both acts and facts, and to illuminate our past torment.
Nowhere is this more obvious than when white journalists try to assert authority over the experience of Black suffrage and reshape it as a “morality play” for white mainstream audiences. This not only continues to imply that the “human experience” is NOT universal — unless relayed by a white person, specifically a white male — but that no one will care about America’s racist history or the trauma endured by Blacks unless White writers bring attention to it. It’s a catch 22 situation and a tradition as well.
Regardless of any good intention White journalists, patrons, teachers, critics and those manning the boat of ‘Cultural Importance’ have always appropriated and used the history, talents, art, folkways, and ideas of Black Americans — often developed in spite of their bondage and condition as political prisoners in the United States.
Pop culture is a perfect example and while I don’t have the wherewithal to go down the rabbit hole of the sordid history of Culture Vulture-ism in American popular entertainment and art (Al Jolson’s terrifyingly racist deification of Black-face performing, White pop acts co-opting Black rock & roll, MTV vaudeville acts like New Kids On the Block or Justin Timberlake – the list goes on and on) — it has to be stated that white journalists love a good “story” about racism that they can share because it not only puts them into a moral center they feel they can own it puts them in a position to make money off a political situation that their forebears have created. In a perverse way it is brilliant. Whites write books and make loads of money on the Lecture Circuit giving their two cents about racism and enacting a disingenuous concern; feigning outrage over the Terrorism and sadism their the founding fathers committed — all the while ignoring the philosophical, academic, artistic and political contributions Blacks have mined on the very same subjects. And while we look for allies, Fugazi White Liberals look for angles.
The establishment is venal not cause it is prejudiced against certain groups or exploits others or glorifies torture or hates women. It is corrupt because it rewards White people who steal “the Black man’s thunder” and those who peddle and hustle the underbelly of the American empire in the name of “social awareness” and history.
The racist paternalism inherent in publishing and academia actually leads the rest of the culture in this regard, it helps to dignify that maltreatment black musicians and screenwriters for example by trying to legitimize the spiritual grand larceny and cultural embezzlement that white journalists and historians gear up to commit. They are base cultural tourists who, under the guise of education, commit intellectual imperialism.
If America is a cultural melting pot (it is) and if the keys on the piano are black and white (it is) — than the majestic fusion of these differences can unite to celebrate their singular existences as well as their similarities and THIS is how we learn. But that is an idealized intercultural society whilst we live in a racist multicultural society that is mandated by the very people we all claim we hate – but who themselves happen to claim that they are our friends.
I can speak for myself, I don’t need a white man to do it for me.
Christopher Everett blew the lid off the history and story of the Wilmington holocaust in 2015 when his groundbreaking independent film Wilmington On Fire – a documentary – hit the streets and theaters after the most successful screening in the Cucalorus Film festival’s entire history. Since then the film has been taught in major universities, used as part of cultural-enrichment sensitivity training course for North Carolina police officers, was discussed by Congress in a hearing on reparations, Everett himself has become a well noted independent film guru, the founder of his own distribution/production company and something of a new wave folk hero in North Carolina. So how could this NY Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (and graduate of North Carolina University) David Zucchino not know who Christopher Everett is or about Wilmington On Fire which came out nearly 5 years before Zucchino’s book Wilmington’s Lie was published?
How could mainstream publications and outlets pretend they don’t know who inspired Zucchino and what initiated the genesis of his desire to research the occurrences of 1898 in Wilmington?
Simple. Cause Everett’s Black (and conscious, which is always threatening to the establishment) he is easy to rationalize away. He is also a Black radical filmmaker who conscientiously views and uses cinema as a liberation tool. Period. And he knew that simply taking the lid off this part of history was revolutionary in itself. White people cannot have or accept Blacks who see truth not as a profession but as a calling — to ever be the at vanguard of mainstream education or knowledge or aesthetics; for a treason or sin to be understood it must be conveyed through a white man’s eyes. And mouth.
It is the same thinking, albeit a slightly different context no less insidious, that White music producers had when they stole Black music and rendered more “intelligent” and “safer” palpable soft-core pop versions of Black rhythm and blues songs for White Americans to consume. They live a xerox reality, not a doubled one as the oppressed do but a low grade facsimile of the ideas and feelings that were first uttered and created as a result of Black suffrage.
From Amazing Grace to Big Mama Thornton’s hollers to the way brass instruments were played to how the guitar became a tool of liberatory audio terrorism to nearly every recognized slang word of the past 90 years to fashion to sports — Blacks have ignited ideas before the white man ever conceived and later packaged and sold them. This includes our perspectives and realizations of history, our uncovering of truths.
Whites who cling to the Establishment – like the people of color who cherish it — are not willing to admit their crimes and for all I know they may not even see their crime. Blacks have been erased and ghettoized literally and figuratively in the USA for 400 years. I can’t expect 400 words or hours of my ranting to resolve this.
Christopher Everett hails from Laurinburg, NC and is a phenomenal filmmaker and film producer. A tenacious and conscientious producer, he doesn’t believe in the exploitative and wasteful capitalist approach to film production. I refer to him as my generation’s Roger Corman, although his cultural contribution will far exceed Corman’s. Time will prove me right. Because he does so much everyone think Everett has a lot of money. They seem to ignore the fact that he, like virtually every other peasant in the world (I use that term affectionately) – HAS to get up every morning and pay the rent. In addition to holding down a full-time job with Full Frame Festival in North Carolina (the first African-American ever to do so) he organizes different ideas and approaches to the world and to art; he tries to find new ways he and his artist friends can make a living, he tries to figure out trends and how to create ones, forging ideas upon other filmmakers and the general public whenever he has access to them. Like me, he is an outsider and loner by birth, unlike me — he is a Cinematic MC, an impresario of sorts. He is currently at work on two separate documentaries, a narrative; he produces art shows, cultural events; he works in conjugal with NY based filmmakers Brian Alessandro and Vagabond; he spent a whole year restoring and re-contextualizing my 2001 controversial drama As an Act of Protest — granting it new fresh screenings, introducing it to a whole new generation and enabling the film to be declared a “cult classic.” This got him into trouble (the movie, which is about the psychological effects of racism & police brutality and the Black impetus to revolt was literally banned by the Giuliani administration in 2002) but he never looked back. When I asked him why he wanted to do this, he took umbrage. “Come on man, your film is important, it needs to be seen and re-evaluated,” he remarked in his cool low-key Laurinburg drawl. And he painstakingly worked to transfer the original movie from its PAL European source to North American NTSC so that we could make DVDs. He used his own money and lost money on me several times. His belief in me, in cinema, in ideas, in wanting to help the Black community en masse is astounding and humbling. He works in the trenches cause that is where he is most comfortable and most honest. He deplores Hollywood hucksterism as much as he despises phony Academic intellectuals who make money off revisiting the pain incurred by Black Americans. These are part of the reasons why the Establishment will not accept or support him. And they are also part of the reason why the so-called independents and the “everyday Joes” don’t support him. Everyone is afraid.
I don’t care about White people who won’t take three seconds to consider my point of view here, I’m concerned with the Blacks who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and do nothing but make excuses for “well-intentioned” White academics, foolishly believing that these “good Caucasians” are actually trying to help bring awareness about racism. White Americans do not need to be told about their racism or their racist past. They know it like a lion knows its own roar.
There are and will be more people who defend Zucchino’s actions as there will always be those partial to ivory tower transgressions and those that love to mention The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison as the “greatest American novel ever written.” Not cause they understand or appreciate the warnings and meanings implicit in the book because, simply, they want Black Americans to feel and see themselves as invisible. Once this is accomplished they can own your suffering, your ”narrative” as the zeitgeist prefers to say. There is no narrative because there was no author, only savagery and treachery that grows like a virus. Racism itself is a kind of virus, a poison. These words are the continued kindling in the search for an antidote.
What is important to remember here, however, is the racist patriarchal sense of entitlement and the gross indecency that the bourgeoisie display when itching for a new hustle. Of course what better way than to crib from the Black American community? Zucchino is well-heeled and rubs shoulders with all the right people in the Literary and Journalism world, I would bet too that he has never had to self publish or take a financial hit when considering what and where to publish. Conversely, Everett is a working-man, a proletariat filmmaker — he comes from a hard working North Carolina family that has has had its ups and downs like everybody else and he has known the face of poverty and struggle as an artist and cultural historian unlike Zucchino. Everett made Wilmington On Fire at great risk to his own personal health, I highly doubt Zucchino could say the same of his book-writing. Has Zucchino received death threats or ever been concerned about his family due to the truth he dared to disclose about American racism? I doubt it.
So let’s not be fooled. We as Black people need to stop begging for the White establishment and all the organizers of the Ivory Tower to notice or pay attention to us. We need to pay more attention to ourselves, we need constantly support ourselves. That in and of itself is the very first step towards a cultural renaissance, a step towards self-transformation. How does one ascertain the criterion of the cultural gatekeepers? It’s not who they promote. It is who they don’t.
White people see you clearly. That’s why they can delete you. One has to exist in order to be erased or moved or forgotten. To ignore is a verb. It is not passive. Like betrayal or murder it causes lacerations unseen that float out into the ether…someone always knows what you did. Why. And how.
And while ghosts may not stop Zucchino from continuing this sick charade, my words can at least act as a warning as a traffic sign might. However in Zucchino’s car — in the universe he drives in — “Deer Crossing” is synonymous with “Artist Expressing” or “Black Man Walking.” And in that world the sign prompts you to drive faster and not slow down.
So let’s just move on and cross Christopher Lamont Everett off the list. Another Black man killed. Who cares? Isn’t that why we exist anyway?
This is a reprint and slightly different version of an original essay published June 1st, 2016. It has been re-posted here again as a result of the conscientious effort to dismiss Christopher Everett and his extraordinarily bold and revolutionary film-making and cultural contribution to the education of the history of USA, specifically the state of North Carolina. Because he is Black, Everett’s miraculous accomplishments with this film alone — it brought to national attention the post American Chattel Slavery-racism of the past that always lurked in the USA, it found its way into Congressional hearings on reparations – yes! – and is even used to try to ‘teach’ and inform the Police Officers in North Carolina what Black Americans have endured just in that one state alone. David Zucchino, a White American award winning journalist (whatever that means) – has a new book out (“Wilmington’s Lies”) that for the white mainstream — supposedly reveals this little known travesty and holocaust of American history — and the subject itself is treated as if no one had known or explored this incident before. Once again, the Black man gets no credit – and not only that…but WE don’t do anything about it. Zucchino himself refuses to acknowledge, credit, cite or discuss Everett’s film Wilmington On Fire despite the fact that nearly everyone on the street knows that Zucchino has not only seen the film and viewed it, but that it instigated his own investigation into the history of Wilmington and the racist coup and bloodshed that transpired in 1898. Everett is proud that he has helped to agitate other historians and journalists and writers — and yet instead of seeking an alliance, they choose to pretend Everett and other Black independent researchers and artists who do controversial and dangerous work — don’t exist. Well that’s funny to me. I am sure the IRS and the good people of Wilmington know Mr. Everett and his film exists. I know the Universities of North Carolina and throughout the United States know that Mr. Everett and his film exists.
White people constantly and consistently base their sociological explorations, historical investigations into race and racism, and their understandings and approach to music and understanding — off of the sweat and blood already spilled by Black activists, artists, laborers, and the Beautiful Unknowns who have simply exhausted their own humanity into model templates for “good citizenry” and yet…who gets the acknowledgment, kudos, support, critical attention, financial support and mainstream attention? The Independents, the outsiders, the mavericks, and the revolutionaries fail every time this happens. Shame on us.
— Dennis Leroy Kangalee, May 20, 2020
A meditation on Christopher Everett’s revolutionary documentary film Wilmington On Fire
Christopher Everett’s independent film “Wilmington on Fire” is a stunning movie about the racist massacre that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina at the end of the 19th century when a mob of whites burned down Black businesses in downtown Wilmington and either killed or exiled its Black citizens, threatening death to some of the Black property owners if they even thought about returning. With a passionate cast of interviewees, Wolly McNair’s arresting visual reproductions of some of the events, a stellar soundtrack produced by Sean ‘Oneson’ Washington, and a jam-packed history and humanities lesson in a sobering 90 minutes, this is a wholly personal and consciousness-expanding documentary told in a direct, unpretentious, and intimate way about a genocidal act whose impact still reverberates today…
Malcolm X used to bemoan Black America’s pathological loyalty to the Democratic Party. This perverse agreement to remain supportive of the Democrats was sealed of course with President Johnson’s skillful passing of the 1964 Civil Rights act, the landmark piece of legislation that deemed discrimination of any kind illegal in the USA. What is most ironic, of course, beyond the fact that since then non-Black immigrants have actually used the gains of that bill and the Civil Rights movement in general – to benefit their own stance, corroborate white racism, and ascend the ladder within America culture. Oppressed people of any stripe are always quick to forget that they are quite often the beneficiaries of another people’s suffering. (Johnny Cochrane interestingly makes note of this in his autobiography Journey to Justice when he describes how the former LA community of west of Main Street went from being a Japanese-American middle class neighborhood to a New Black Middle Class enclave post WW2).
I struggle to understand Jews who do not see the actions of Israel as being evil and draconian in terms of how they regard and oppress the Arabs and Africans of the occupied territory once known purely as Palestine. Do we all suffer from our own selective memory, our own bludgeoning “cops in the head”, our own mangled perception of what is right, wrong, and how we benefit or not or fit in or not?
What leaves a bad taste in my mouth is the heralding of Lyndon Johnson and his “progressive” administration for putting forth the Civil Rights Act, blah blah blah…Johnson was a politician, not a moralist. He would have sold his own mother if it had meant power. Despite his obvious support of the Civil Rights Act he was staunchly racist and a serious cartoon-example of a “good old boy” white Southern cracker. His recorded conversations reveal how natural it was for him to refer to blacks as “Niggers” constantly in conversations held in the oval office (you can hear these recordings on YouTube). Jim Garrison, who charged the United States government in a coup d’état against President Kennedy implied that Johnson himself was even marginally involved in the JFK assassination, so what on earth would convince people he cared about Black people simply because he patronized us and realized he was already in a losing battle…America had to make legislative changes in the 1960’s – the pressure was too much to bear as we the far left was gaining major strides in this country and throughout the world and a Black men protecting himself at all costs against the cruelty and hate of his government would not go unheeded. It is pressure and resistance that always creates legal changes and it either hits you in the wallet or in the head. The dollar or the bullet.
Are we “a virus in shoes” as the late great Bill Hicks once proclaimed? I think we are. Whether we are killing animals or each other, Man is interminably doomed and his shameful celebration of malevolence only continues to prove that while there may not be a god – there is certainly a devil. And he weaves and works his way through the actions of human beings in a way that is profoundly shocking and mysterious. Why? Because, supposedly, everything is all about money. Or the subjugation of one group over another. Throughout history and psychology, all things, all of our spiritual carbon footprints could be whittled down to either of these causes, often both, as Capitalism is a complex duet of both avarice and racism. We are pathetic.
Let’s get back to the checkered past and moral confusion of the Democrats. What a fascinating and morbid history our political parties have purely in terms of their formation, definitions, and self-preservation. For it was on November 10, 1898 North Carolina Democrats enabled a White Mob to engage in a massacre that left at least 100 Blacks dead (the exact number is somewhere between 60 and in the hundreds – the records are murky about this for obvious reasons). For some reason it was the political affiliation alone that stood out to me when learning this information in Christopher Everett’s new and revealing documentary Wilmington On Fire.
First of all, I had no clue that Wilmington was at one point one of the most cosmopolitan centers in all of the USA, in fact one of the biggest and most economically inspired cities in the world before 1898.Wilmington On Fire does a fantastic job relaying all of this information. It was one of the most diverse cities with (yes!) black-owned and white-owned shops side by side in downtown Wilmington. The Black middle class was so successful, some even had their own butlers and pianos. This puts a whole new twist on the 19th century Black life doesn’t it? In fact, what most of us can’t admit: there were more powerfully linked and healthier connections amongst black businessmen and their communities well before the official rise and fall of Jim Crow segregation laws in the USA. This warrants serious rumination.
Obviously this kind of “renaissance” and “progress” of humanity offended racists and white supremacists to their very core, many of which were staunch members and supporters of the Democratic Party. Republicans back then still had the air of liberalism attached to their party.
But meanings and their associations’ change and context – always context! – will always be the end all-be all. Still, it is no less alarming that Americans have a skewered view of the past, identities, and supposed meanings. Perhaps if we regarded political parties as complicated as we have begun to regard our sexual identities or proclivities we may see that there is more to “politics” than meets the eye; more to the values of a political party than its typically regarded associations.
Does it not amuse you that Hollywood actor Wendell Pierce insanely defends the likes of Hilary Clinton and the Democrats legacy? While once again context is vital here, had the actor done this to a Trump supporter, I wouldn’t even mention it. I would casually admire the act for what it’s worth, shrugging off yet another ploy and performance from our nation’s true capital: the throes of Hollyweird.
Even if an actor of Pierce’s modest-stature (commercially speaking) is so disgruntled by a Bernard Sanders supporter or another candidate – he should take time to remember that political parties mean, essentially, nothing. Pierce should spend time putting weight or interest behind Christopher Everett’s excellent movie opposed to paying the state $1,000 bail as a result of his fractious encounter with a Sanders supporter.
About the infamous 1898 massacre of Wilmington’s black businesses and citizens, Christopher Everett’s directorial debut is an unpretentious, direct, and minimalist portrait of the coup d’état created by the white North Carolina Democratic Party in an attempt to broker the lives and future of Wilmington and eventually the entire state – ensuring the legacy and rebirth of a rekindled and acknowledged form of legally sanctioned racism, 35 years after the civil war and the USA’s official outlaw of slavery. As Dr. Umar Johnson fluently explains, after the Civil War in 1865 – a cloud hung over the Ex-Confederate Southern white men who couldn’t bring themselves to accept the fact that they had lost a war – not to President Lincoln or the Yankees up North but to their own former slaves! We forget or choose not to remember that Black Americans fought against some of their former slave owners as Union soldiers. And the Union never would have won the Civil War had it not been for the Black soldiers who fought for themselves… and on behalf of the Union.
In retaliation and exasperation, white supremacists who governed the Democratic Party in North Carolina sought to retaliate and officially install a racist system that had been supposedly eradicated some 30 years prior as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Confederates’ dream to restore White unity and Black servitude reached such a grizzled mania that an impassioned yet calculated plot to excise the Black businesses and citizens of Wilmington completely. Independent researcher Kent Chatfield shows us copies of WB McKoy’s pamphlet of 1897, The White Government Union a constitution and bylaws created by the North Carolina Democratic Party whose sole aim was to instill white supremacy government.
The film opens with Ness Lee’s powerful track, “Voice of The Regular People” produced by Illastrate with sampled echoes of Curtis Mayfield’s inimitable falsetto heard wailing, “I’m going to war to find my brother!” is well used here and the closing number of the film has one of the best uses of anthemic protest music that I can think of in any movie since Children of Men’s closing with John Lennon’s “Free The People.” The closing number by James Diallo (produced by Michael ‘Sarkastix’ Harris) in this case is the original and haunting, “It’s a Massacre” – a moody atmospheric poetic hip hop tune that is as defiant and soulful as the film itself. The rest of the music is sparsely and confidently scored by Matthew Head.
We learn in Wilmington On Fire that the White Government Union was a more urbane and far more treacherous terrorist organization than its backyard cousin the Ku Klux Klan for example. These were men who were out for blood, had serious connections and money, and were not going to stop until they removed all Black power-brokers, cultural influence, and existence in Wilmington, North Carolina. The White Government Union’s de-facto militias – known as the “redshirts” – once again, unlike the Klan did not hide their faces and acted like savage storm-troopers upon the African-American community and, as the Nazis did, acted in accordance with some of the most strategic and wicked propaganda put forth by white racists in Wilmington in order to stir up hate and fear against the Blacks. Their vile use of rape as a fear tactic and as a way to protect the white purity of the white woman is on par with the mechanisms later used by the Nazis in the 1930’s. Who knows? I imagine Hitler and his henchmen being the history fanatics that they were no doubt impressed and inspired by the methods used by the White Government Union.
Wilmington On Fire was made to enlighten, inform, and arouse interest in not only a slice of American history, but also a deeply troubling event that has been swept under the carpet and seldom mentioned. A touchstone of racism and quite honestly one of the multitudinous events that has occurred to Black people in North America alone that helps make-up the Black Holocaust – a stream of harrowing events that Western academics and historians continually downplay in favor of the gargantuan numbers involved in the Jewish Holocaust in the confines of Nazi death-camps. Still, if it were a numbers game they would lose. According to SE Anderson, somewhere between 15 and 60 million Black lives were destroyed as a result of the transatlantic slave trade alone. And the horror continues to this day. Each isolated act of terror makes up another patchwork in the terrible mighty quilt known as Modern Culture As Created by the Anglo in What Is Now Known as The United States of America.
Yet, many African-Americans still find it hard to reconcile their past in this country alone. Randall Robinson in his excellent book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks mentions his exasperation via a casual discussion he had with author Walter Mosley with Blacks’ seeming unwillingness to acknowledge their tortured past by downplaying and literally disabling the commercial business of such well-intentioned films like Beloved based on the Toni Morrison classic. Because it deals with slavery they ignored it. That’s probably even truer for the greater mainstream’s embarrassing avoidance of the entire work of genius Haile Gerima. And while pop culture has embraced a Disney-fied, eroticized, and gleefully sanitized “ANTEBELLUM SLAVE & SOUTHERN CIVIL RIGHTS” movie genre (Miss Burning to Clara’s Heart to The Help to 12 Years a Slave, etc) – most of the serious art films or documentaries go unnoticed or un-appreciated because of their innate passion or style or singular vision. Sometimes it’s because of all three – whether it’s serious protest dramas like Nothing But a Man or later radical Black-helmed pictures like Sam Greenlee & Ivan Dixon’s TheSpook Who Sat By The Door – there’s always a distinct difference in the independent filmmaker’s vision and those seeking to exploit, pander, or simply fulfill a Liberal-checklist of obligations for some media company to fulfill. This must always be taken into account when you watch any film, especially a documentary: Ask, “Is this necessary?” And then ask, “Would this director be willing to suffer for giving us this information?”
Documentaries, like narrative movies, do have a point-of-view. And because they are not dramas or crafted fictions – it does not mean that they are less entertaining and/or less subjective. All truth in art is beauty and contains a POV. It is not the events being reported that is debatable. That is fact. But the HOW they are being related is where the truth of a subject comes into play.
Ken Burns’ obnoxious and smug documentaries and explorations of American life are often comfy and bold history lessons. He gives us tons of FACTS…but no genuine HEART. His movies are ultimately shallow and soulless despite their technical perfection. His speakers themselves come off indulgent and sanctimonious. Burns’ clean and sterile mannered PBS approach may have helped to kill and generalize the documentary in the past 25 years but it also helped to usher in legion of filmmakers trying to reclaim power and truth from the establishment – each in their own way.
By contrast, Everett’s “talking heads” comprise a wonderful cast of characters, if you will. From the nervy and dutifully concerned Kent Chatfield (a white brilliant researcher whose rational deductions and drove of information would make Oliver Stone weep; he grew up hearing older men recount their passed down recollections of how whites massacred blacks in 1898) to the regal Dr. Lewin Manly (a beautifully grave man who reminds one of Thurgood Marshall and is a direct descendant of Wilmington’s Black newspaper mogul, Alex Manly, whose Daily Record printing press was arguably the main target in the massacre) to compassionate and dynamic community activists like Daawud Muhammad. But all those interviewed come off extremely intelligent and understandably concerned about the effects of this horrible event and its aftermath 118 years later…
If film can be an art and a weapon – the documentary is an often thrilling and deadly weapon in the arsenal, at times a best kept secret. For all documentaries seek to make its audience confront something. If narrative directors infused their scripts with this lesson – how much more dynamic and dangerous dramatic pictures would be!
And yet documentaries have become a particular and strange new pornography in our culture. It has become obvious to me that over the past decade a large number of filmmakers who fancy themselves as “progressive” and “Liberal-loving” humane freedom fighters have invested a great deal of time, energy, and money in making documentaries – but not truly advocating any direct social change. They are carefully crafted movies that give facts and tons of information about terrible events or current happenings – and yet don’t actually implore their audiences to do anything. It is not necessary for a film to scream its message to its audience, quite often even the most graphic documentary doesn’t have to do that…and yet it doesn’t hurt if a documentary is a bit forward and incendiary even to its own viewer. Wilmington On Fire toes this line – it is up front about how it feels and how its director regards his subject.
And what I like most about it – is that it is a “simple” American story. By focusing in on his own state’s history and legacy, Everett combines the ideal Pete Seeger coaxed us to consider: think globally, but act locally.
You don’t have to go all the way to Iraq to collect data on terrorism – often all you need to do is investigate your own state or cities history. The United States was founded upon terrorism: where have we all been?
Film As Resistance
“Yes, I’m for the compensation for the victims and ancestors of this riot mainly because our ancestors fought long and hard for what they had – to be taken away from them because of color…In some form or fashion, they (the state of North Carolina) should compensate.”
– Faye Chaplin, great granddaughter of victim Thomas C. Miller
When George Zimmerman recently auctioned off the 9mm pistol he used to kill Trayvon Martin in no less a cold-blooded way– the overall reaction was simply “Oh, he’s nuts. Ignore him. Just another American story.” And while that is quite true, our tacit agreement with the racist establishment and the “American Way of Life” is one that is rapidly begin to drown us all – it is corroding any sense of sanity we have for one reason only. It provides no closure.
What kind of closure? A closure that results in the killing of one’s oppression (be it person or system), the slaying of one’s dragon in order for us to be as Joseph Campbell famously declared the hero of our own life.
The bloodbath that occurred in Wilmington 1898 – the men and women and children fighting for their lives literally as a result of a racist attack bears spiritual resemblance to all that follows later in the 20th century from the wrongly-accused-of-rape-Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to the fire hoses on blacks in Mississippi to lynchings (take your pick) to Rudolph Giuliani’s reign of terror on Black men in NYC in the 1990s to the bizarrely perfunctory executions of Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland. And in all this – one must ask where the resistance lies. Why do we take it? And do we truly feel that man will change and if so how long must we wait?
Perhaps Beckett was right: the absurdity of waiting for anything to happen is our biggest tragic quality. We wait. And we wait. And we believe the waiting will remove the pain.
Throughout all this waiting is the argument for reparations paid to the descendants of the victims of this atrocity. Descendants such as Faye Chaplin, whose great-great grandfather was Thomas Miller – a generous and successful entrepreneur in Wilmington who not only worked well paid jobs but ran his own businesses. Chaplin estimates the property, money, and legacy destroyed could easily amount to millions. And while she is probably right the moral conundrum that Wilmington On Fire presents is not the reparations debate – although that is a central problem and something I myself would like to see. The centerpiece however is, as independent researcher Kent Chatfield proclaims clearly, that the state of North Carolina was involved in a massive coup and act of terrorism that to this day they have not widely conceded, admitted, acknowledged and taken steps towards restitution. Why? Because the same white racism that the North Carolina democrats employed and enabled with venal glee in 1898 is the very same racism and mode of thinking that governs not only North Carolina, but our entire society today. Racism and its tactics may have grown more sophisticated and clever, but its results and impact are the same and, quite possibly, even more dangerous today – in a world where it is becoming less clear as to who or what exactly can help you fight injustice and precisely…what that even means. Look at how we reacted to a force majeure like Hurricane Katrina. Would our collective response had been any different if we knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it had been choreographed on purpose?
No, sometimes pure straight resistance does. Why no one has cracked and tried to kill the psychotic Zimmermans or launch a full-on offensive upon Police stations or even judicial offices that govern and enable the egregious racism, the devilish actions of the sociopaths that swear allegiance to the false gods and hateful order of this country – is beyond me. Resistance comes in many shades.
The making of this film is Everett’s own act of resistance, his own rebellion. His own artistic defiance: I am making this film whether you want me to or not and I am not doing it to get into Sundance or for a distribution deal or for a glitzy write up in the Times. I’m doing it because I have to.
His elegantly minimalist approach to filmmaking serves him well.
So do we learn from the past? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say yes, but the work of any artist is always an affirming one, is always hopeful – because the act of creation is always positive proof that something can be learned and digested from our sins. One is not driven to make write a book or compose a song purely for the hell of it unless they are cynical craftsmen looking to cash-in on a trend perhaps or the latest cause. But a filmmaker disclosing painful truths, like the great muckrakers of the past, or the crusading shaman is akin to the African griots who are desperately trying to heal and put forth knowledge.
I commend Christopher Everett and encourage everyone to see Wilmington On Fire and then see how it may apply it to their own lives. And if you don’t know, then I suggest you watch it again.