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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Say It Loud: Cinema in the Age of Black Power, 1966—1981

By Ashley Clark

Wattstax (1973) courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Photofest
Rebellion, radical politics, boundary-pushing art, controversy, and boundless creativity: the age of Black Power had it all, and more. This expansive film series, presented in conjunction with Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (opening Sep 14), features a kaleidoscopic international banquet of features and shorts produced in this revolutionary climate by some of the era’s most incendiary talents. Confrontational, experimental, and ripe for (re)discovery, these films powerfully evoke their own time and unarguably speak to today’s climate, where black activists challenging widespread racial injustice find themselves targeted by a right-wing authoritarian administration.

The series begins with the US premiere of a new scan of Edouard de Laurot’s thrillingly unorthodox documentary Black Liberation (aka Silent Revolution), and continues with two of the era’s finest music films: Wattstax, a record of the all-star concert (featuring Isaac Hayes, Richard Pryor, The Staple Singers, Jesse Jackson, and more) held to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts, LA rebellion; and Right On!, a rare snapshot of NYC proto-rappers The Last Poets, which captures the group’s unique blend of protest and lyricism.

Black Liberation (aka Silent Revolution) (1976) courtesy of the filmmaker
Myriad key figures from the Black Power era are immortalized in a series of searing documentaries, including William Klein’s Eldridge Cleaver: Black Panther, Agnès Varda’s Black Panthers, and Howard Alk’s pair The Murder of Fred Hampton—about the charismatic young Oakland Black Panther chair, cut down in his prime—and American Revolution 2, covering the explosive fallout from the 1968 Democratic Convention. David Weiss’ recently restored No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger is a stinging verité critique of American racism, while a triple-bill of films explore the complex and urgent work of playwright, poet, and activist Amiri Baraka (who changed his name from LeRoi Jones shortly after the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X): his own documentary The New-Ark; an adaptation of Dutchman, his claustrophobic play about the perils of interracial relationships; and Ben Caldwell’s hypnotic short Medea, based on Baraka’s poem “Part of the Doctrine.” Gordon Parks, arguably the key African-American photographer of the era, is also represented with a screening of his moving period drama The Learning Tree, the first film made by an African-American director for a major Hollywood studio.

Say It Loud boasts some of the era’s most radical, unclassifiable filmmaking in the shape of a wide-ranging experimental shorts program; William Greaves’ sui generis meta-documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (screening alongside two rare shorts from the personal collection of legendary curator Pearl Bowser); Robert Downey Sr.’s wayward, wacky, hysterically funny Madison Avenue satire Putney Swope; and Ivan Dixon’s controversial classic The Spook Who Sat By the Door, about a black CIA agent who plots an overthrow of the organization from within—so potent is the film’s call for revolution that for years the FBI suppressed all prints of it. Also included are seminal works from LA Rebellion filmmakers including Larry Clark’s Passing Through, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, and Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama, all vital statements of black emotional and psychological interiority.

Bush Mama (1975) courtesy of the filmmaker
Black Power was not solely a US phenomenon, and Say It Loud’s global offerings include Mauritanian director Med Hondo’s extraordinary Soleil O, a portrait of an existentially ruffled African man in Paris; Sarah Maldoror’s Angolan anticolonial roar Sambizanga; and two by the legendary Trinidadian-British filmmaker Horace Ové: Pressure, the first Black British feature film, and Baldwin’s Nigger, in which James Baldwin and comedian Dick Gregory address a crowd of student activists in London. (The latter is paired with Frankie Dymon Jr.’s Death May Be Your Santa Claus, a deeply weird melange of cannibalism, sex, and Swingin’ Sixties rock ‘n’ roll.)

Last but not least, no survey of Black Power-era cinema would be complete without the galvanizing, electrifying presence of one-man-indie-movie-machine Melvin Van Peebles, whose Paris-set, Nouvelle Vague-inflected directorial debut The Story of a Three Day Pass (1968) screens alongside his antic, frantic, and finally genuinely subversive race-bending comedy Watermelon Man (1970). This series-closing double bill segues into a week run of a new 4k restoration of Van Peebles’ landmark, self-starring thriller Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), “rated X by an all-white jury” the film’s tagline claimed, and hailed by Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton as “the first truly revolutionary Black film ever made … presented to us by a Black man.”
Ashley Clark is senior repertory film programmer

Say It Loud: Cinema in the Age of Black Power, 1966—1981 runs Aug 17—30.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.


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