A heads up to any of you who have access to the Criterion Channel- they’ve just curated a section called ‘Voices of Protest’ and there are some terrific features there, as well as documentaries covering vital American history. Thinking about our present situation, I highly recommend-
The Children Were Watching, made for a TV network by Richard Leacock, set during the first week of school integration in New Orleans, 1961. Documents the deep, very personal roots of virulent racism in this country- not for the faint of heart.
Crisis, an amazing film shot in 1963 as President John and Attorney General Robert Kennedy try to negotiate a peaceful integration of the University of Alabama by a pair of courageous students, despite the then Governor, George Wallace, promising to stand in the doorway to block their entrance. The filmmakers were allowed camera access to both camps, and what you see is what real leadership looks like- even Wallace is trying to avoid a deadly riot like the one at the University of Mississippi a year earlier, and the Kennedys are trying to promote what they see as ‘a moral issue’ without losing the support of the entire white South (JFK’s margin in the 1960 presidential election was incredibly narrow). At the end JFK makes a short, pointed speech that will underline the vacuum we presently have in the White House.
And finally Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. Besides the fact that everybody should learn, if they don’t already know, who Paul Robeson was, the film deals with something key to what we’re experiencing with the withdrawal of Confederate flags and statues, the renaming of public spaces- Robeson gained national fame playing a poor dockworker singing the song Ole Man River in the play and then the movie of Show Boat. The lyrics originally began with the N-word, and Robeson was able to convince composer Jerome Kern to change that. And through the years, as he was always requested to sing his greatest hit, Robeson continued to refine the lyrics (‘Drink a little gin and you lands in jail’ became ‘Show a little grit and you lands in jail’). He no longer sang it as that illiterate dockworker but as himself- college graduate, All-American football star, linguist, international activist. Culture that doesn’t doesn’t evolve with people’s lives works as a straightjacket- it’s not only dead, it’s damaging. Movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind should not disappear, but be shown in a context that reminds us ‘This is what we used to accept as the truth, and how fucked up was that?‘.
Anyhow, definitely worth checking out as a reminder that what we’re going through now is a new, promising chapter in a very old, sad story.