Nationtime


Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, addresses the convention.

(1972) Documentary (Kino-LorberSidney Poitier (narrator), Dick Gregory, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Isaac Hayes, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Richard Hatcher, Amiri Baraka, Bobby Seale, Charles C. Diggs, Harry Belafonte, Phil Cohran, Ben Branch, Walter Fauntroy, Byron Lewis, Queen Mother Moore, Richard Roundtree, Owusu Sadukai, Wali Siddiq, Al Freeman Jr.. Directed by William Greaves

 

1972 was a part of some momentous times. The Watergate scandal was just getting underway while antiwar protests were in full bloom. The National Organization of Women was pushing the ERA, while Black Power was beginning to manifest itself in political terms.

To that end, they put together a convention that met in Gary, Indiana – home of the Jackson 5 (whose family was in attendance at the convention). Many leaders in politics and entertainment met to discuss things that mattered to the African-American community. The convention was captured on film by acclaimed documentary filmmaker William Greaves. On the mind of those speaking was disenfranchisement of the African-American community (despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act five years earlier, still fully half of eligible African-Americans had not yet registered to vote), police brutality, and an ongoing war. Does any of that sound familiar today?

Two of the political leaders of the African-American community had been assassinated – Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, but both of their widows spoke at the convention. Comedian Dick Gregory showed his insightful political humor and Isaac Hayes performed as only he could. Poetry by Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes was read by Harry Belafonte, but the star of the show in many ways was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose fiery speech was meant to galvanize his audience – and it did. It was almost like a sermon, with call and response – “What time is it?” “It’s nationtime!” – and a powerful indictment of the system that was by design denying African-Americans equal opportunities – again, a depressingly familiar situation. Jackson intoned that both parties had failed the African-American community and he advocated founding a new political party of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and white allies to take a run at the established parties and deliver to the people the opportunities they deserve. One can’t help but wonder if the idea isn’t just as valid now as it was then.

There has been some improvement over the years – for example, in 1972 there were only 13 Black members of Congress when, by population, there should have been 52. Today, there are 56 which is closer to the percentage of population that African-Americans make up. There has also been an African-American president, something not even considered by the Gary convention, at least not on camera. And speaking of on-camera, I would have liked to have seen more of the women of the community get camera time but it is the men who dominate. It was a different time, and certainly were a similar convention to take place now, I imagine whoever was chosen to document it would give African-American women more exposure.

The film is very much set in its era, with the buzzwords of the time and the radical politics of the time both very much in evidence. It might be a little quaint to see the huge afros and cringe-worthy fashion of the era in evidence, but the film also evokes the rage that was simmering in the community – the riots in Watts and Detroit were fresh in everyone’s mind. Sadly, that rage continues today as African-Americans still must protest unfair treatment by the police, a general lack of opportunity available in African-American communities compared to white communities, and as David Austin so eloquently put it, Fear of a Black Nation. The movie dramatically shows that while there has been some change for the better, there is still a very long way to go. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to remind us of that in these volatile times.

REASONS TO SEE: An important, powerful historical document. Jesse Jackson’s speech is a real fire breather.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat dated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Greaves was a prolific documentarian with over 100 films to his credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trial of the Chicago 7
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Resusterhood

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Selma


Marching into history.

Marching into history.

(2014) True Life Drama (Paramount) David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Common, Tessa Thompson, Dylan Baker, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Henry G. Sanders, Keith Stanfield, Charity Jordan, Tim Roth, Stan Houston, Stephen Root, Nigel Thatch, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Jeremy Strong, Lorraine Toussaint, Tara Ochs. Directed by Ava DuVernay

Selma is a watershed moment in American history and in particular the history of the civil rights movement. The brutality of Southern oppression on its African-American citizen was beamed to all our living rooms for all to see. Martin Luther King’s efforts to organize and call attention on the suppression of voting rights for African-Americans would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he had long championed and ended decades of African-Americans having no voice in the governing of their communities, states and country.

In 1965 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just come into law and while it is a magnificent piece of legislation preventing discrimination, in the South it may not have been signed into law at all. Those African-Americans attempting to register to vote, much as activist Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) was, were met with poll taxes, or impromptu quizzes that nobody could answer, white or black in a desperate attempt for white racist Southerners to hold onto power in Dixie.

Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), already a landmark civil rights activist or, as he is known by those who oppose him, agitator as J. Edgar Hoover (Baker) puts it, approaches President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation that will prevent the kinds of abuses taking place in voter registration in the South but LBJ is less inclined to do that; he has his War on Poverty to consider, which he feels will ultimately be more beneficial to the black community. He has just too much going on to put any energy into King’s demands at the moment, but being the consummate politician he assures the civil rights leader that he will get right on it…in a couple of years. Hoover, on the other hand, wants this whole civil rights thing nipped in the bud. His surveillance of Dr. King has revealed some strain in his marriage to his wife Coretta (Ejogo) and he wants to exploit that, but Johnson prevents it.

With the violence escalating in the South, King knows he can’t wait. He decides to go to Selma, a small town in Alabama whose sheriff Jim Clark (Houston) is particularly mean and stupid and likely to do something that will give King the ammunition he needs. Activists in the Selma area are only too happy to see a national figure like Dr. King arrive on the scene, although John Lewis (James) – a future congressman who is still serving today – and James Foreman (Byers) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, are suspicious of his motives.

During an evening non-violent march, the protestors are attacked by police. Three of them – Cager Lee (Sanders), his daughter Viola Lee Jackson (Jordan) and his grandson Jimmy Lee Jackson (Stanfield) are chased into a diner. When the police arrive, they make a point of beating the crap out of the old man and his kin. When Jimmy Lee tries to protect them, he is shot in the abdomen and killed. This galvanizes the organizers, leading Rev. James Bevel (Common) to suggest a march from Selma to Montgomery.

This is exactly what Governor George Wallace (Roth) doesn’t want. His right hand man in the state troopers, Colonel Al Lingo (Root) is enlisted to take care of things. In the meantime, in order to prevent the march, the President allows Hoover to carry on with his plans, delivering a tape of Dr. King allegedly having sex with another woman. While the tape is clearly fabricated, she gets King to admit to having had affairs. In order to repair things with his family, King decides to skip the March which is set for March 7, 1965. On that day, Alabama troopers face about 600 marchers and attack them on national television, bloodying the peaceful protesters – some of them, like Amelia Boynton (Toussaint) into unconsciousness – and horrifying a nation.

King, horrified beyond measure, returns to Selma with his wife’s blessing. He knows that the march needs to take place or else it would all be for nothing. He calls on the nation, to people of conscience of all colors to come to Selma and march with him. Many do come, including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Michigan activist Viola Liuzzo (Ochs) and Unitarian minister James Reeb (Strong). With a tense stand-off between the forces of racism and the forces of freedom, would the march take place and would change come to the South?

History tells us that the March did finally take place successfully and that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 that Johnson championed would become law (until it was dismantled by the Supreme Court two years ago). Like Titanic, most of us know how the story ends. In the hands of a gifted director, we would feel the tension of those participating because they, unlike us, did not know how the story would end.

DuVernay for the most part accomplishes this. She is aided in this to a very large extent by Oyelowo who delivers a remarkable performance as the late Dr. King. There is a tendency for us to deify certain people – Dr. King, Gandhi, President Lincoln and so forth – to the point that we forget that they are human beings, far from perfect and full of frailties. DuVernay impressively gets that point across that Dr. King, as great a man and courageous a man as he was, also did things that he wasn’t proud of, also made mistakes and also had a playful sense of humor. At times he needed encouragement, phoning Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing a gospel song so that he might be reassured. At times he wasn’t as strong as his iron-willed wife Coretta was. Oyelowo captures these moments and makes the man relatable to all of us.

In fact most of the cast is impressive although Wilkinson is miscast as LBJ. The LBJ I remember was a force of nature and larger than life and Wilkinson makes him more of a backrooms conniver, which he also was but there was a charisma to him that Wilkinson doesn’t capture. Many who knew the late President have complained that the film does an injustice to his memory in its portrayal of him as obstructive and unsupportive which history tells us he was not, but this isn’t the LBJ story.

It’s not even Dr. King’s story, although he naturally dominates the screen time here. It is a story for all of us, about the tribulations of the Civil Rights activists and what they actually went through to get the rights we take for granted today. It also is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go, with events in Ferguson, Missouri mentioned pointedly in the movie’s post-credits Oscar-nominated song and parallels to modern oppression of the African American community.

Near the end we see footage purportedly of the actual March with some of it archival, although we mostly see celebrity marchers like Davis and Belafonte. Due to the rights to Dr. King’s speeches being owned by DreamWorks for a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil Rights era that has not yet come to fruition, we don’t get to hear the actual words of Dr. King’s speeches; instead, DuVernay had to rewrite them so that they were in the style of his oratory but not his actual words. Shame on DreamWorks for not allowing the film to use the words inspiring to so many.

This is one of the better movies of the Holiday Awards season and it justly received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some are moaning about DuVernay not receiving a nomination for Best Director but truth be told those that did receive the nomination also deserved to be nominated; what separated the five films that got the nod and this one are essentially splitting hairs; to my mind, she had a tendency to be a bit ham-handed in some of the activism scenes with swelling strings to the point that you couldn’t hear the dialogue but were supposed to feel inspired. It is a bit manipulative and could have been handled better. She should have trusted the material to bring out those feelings without hitting us in the head with them.

Nitpicking aside, this should be mandatory viewing for all of us who think that the need for activism has ended. We should all understand what was endured by those who fought for the rights of African-Americans and continue to be endured. Freedom is not given, it must be fought for and so many continue to fight. The legacy of Selma is with us still and should inspire all of us to rise up and support those who still need to shine the light on practices that should outrage all Americans – but still doesn’t. We shall overcome indeed, but we haven’t yet.

REASONS TO GO: MLK is humanized here. Captures the scope of the march and the events surrounding it. About damn time there was a movie about Selma.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure about the LBJ portrayal. Could have used archival footage better.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some disturbing violence of defenseless people being beaten, some brief strong language, adult themes and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Free screenings of the film were made available to 275,000 high school and middle school students.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Detachment