Radicalism Revisited: Selections from “Say It Loud”
by Ashley Clark
The revelatory exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, co-curated by Zoe Whitley and Mark Godfrey, opened to thronging crowds at London’s Tate Modern in July 2017. Sprawling across multiple rooms on the museum’s fifth floor, the exhibition treated visitors to a panoply of work from radical and visionary Black American artists spanning two tumultuous decades after 1963.
Among many highlights, I was especially drawn to the evocative chiaroscuro photography of Roy DeCarava, the coolly sleek conceptual portraiture of Barkley L. Hendricks (who tragically died months before the opening of the exhibition) and the provocative assemblage work of Betye Saar. Complementing the painting, sculpture, and photography were various artefacts evoking a vivid, politically-driven creative scene from Emory Douglas’ ribald yet deadly serious illustrations for the Black Panther publication, to extensive examples of literature, poetry, and prose from the Black Arts Movement—a multidisciplinary creative flowering spearheaded by the likes of Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones)—and ephemera from theatrical and musical performances.
The exhibition left me in a contemplative mood, and one question I—a repertory film programmer by trade—pondered was: What would a film-specific riff on this exhibition look like? The art-centric museum show Soul of a Nation itself was understandably light on cinema, but an insightful catalog essay by co-curator Zoe Whitley noted the role of film in the Black Power era, cited several key filmmakers and movements (William Greaves, Madeline Anderson, the L.A. Rebellion), and pointed toward a possible direction that a potential film series could take: “As Black representation behind the camera initiated new perspectives, so too did it raise questions of established cinematic grammars, narrative framing, and the role of the director in shaping ‘truth.’”
When I received news that the Brooklyn Museum would be staging its own edition of Soul of a Nation in September 2018, I knew it was time to put this contemplation into action, and work toward building a film program at my own institution—BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music)—that would complement the exhibition, uncover some hidden cinematic gems of the era, and address those aforementioned questions of grammar, framing, and truth.
Comprising over 40 titles in total (an international mixture of fiction, documentary and experimental features, and narratives), “Say It Loud: Cinema in the Age of Black Power 1966-1981” ran from August 17-30 in Brooklyn. In addition to some more well-known names and cult classics—music doc Wattstax, featuring a jaw-dropping Isaac Hayes performance; the perennially controversial The Spook Who Sat By The Door; classics from L.A. Rebellion legends Charles Burnett and Julie Dash; the sui generis swagger of Melvin Van Peebles as both director and star—the series sought equally to revel in the obscure, avant-garde, and formally challenging.
In turn, the small offering I’m presenting at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, entitled “Radicalism Revisited: Selections From ‘Say It Loud,’” highlights some rare, knottier non-fiction films, all of which serve as spiky, still-relevant sketches of radical thought and practice, reckonings with ideas of representation, and rebuttals to white supremacy.
Lasting 79 seconds and costing under $100 to make, L.A.-based Betye Saar’s scorching Colored Spade (1971)—a rare sojourn into film for an artist mostly known for physical assemblage and sculpture—is a rapid edit, set to a thumpingly funky score, of derogatory images of Black people that is gradually replaced with rousing depictions of African-American power and solidarity.
The revolutionary thrust of Saar’s dense collage is echoed in the remarkable Black Liberation (aka Silent Revolution) from 1967, an obscure yet potent film, a new scan of which had its U.S. premiere in “Say It Loud.” Directed with a poetic eye by the French-Polish filmmaker Édouard de Laurot—a survivor of the second Warsaw Uprising during World War II—this film was reportedly produced in collaboration with Malcolm X, and is narrated with customary gravitas by Ossie Davis. It is an unabashed call to arms, which blends revolutionary text from multiple sources with gritty footage of African-American struggle shot on the streets of New York.
More conventional in construction but no less riveting is Baldwin’s Nigger (1968), directed by the great Trinidadian filmmaker Horace Ové. The setup is simple and absorbing: James Baldwin—here on the top of his persuasive rhetorical game—and comedian-activist Dick Gregory (but mostly James Baldwin) speak to a group of radical West Indian students in London about everything from the state of the Civil Rights movement to the perils of false consciousness. The film highlights the international conversations that were happening around the means of Black liberation, and has lost not an ounce of its power, urgency or resonance half a century after its creation.
Ashley Clark is the senior repertory film programmer at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music). His writing has appeared in publications including Film Comment, The Guardian, 4Columns, and Time Out, and he is the author of Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (The Critical Press, 2015).