[sixties-l] 1959-1970: A REVOLUTION IN BLACK AND WHITE (movie review)

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Wed Jul 19 2000 - 19:12:29 CUT

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    Up Against the Camera

    At Yerba Buena Center for
    the Arts, San Francisco,
    July 14 through July 28.

    By Kelly Vance
                  Reviewed July 14, 2000

    Sick of fireball action flicks? Bored with adolescent sex humor and insipid
    middle-brow escapism? Here's the ideal alternative to dumbed-down summer
    movie entertainment:
    reality. You'll have to set foot inside a museum
    to find it, but a new Friday-night series of films
    at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the
    Arts has all the sizzle and spontaneity that's
    usually missing from formulaic big-studio summer
    movies. What's more, the seven films (three
    features, four shorts) collected under the
    heading "1959-1970: A Revolution in Black and
    White" tackle the number-one hot-button topic
    in Americaracewith a candor and honesty that's all too often sugared over
    or buried in showbiz clichs.
    I'm just as tired of hearing about the '60s as
    anyone else, but there's no denying it was in
    many ways a golden age of documentary film.
    Decades before there were reality-based TV
    shows devoted to police car chases, filmmakers
    such as Richard Leacock, the Maysles Brothers,
    D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Frank, Frederick
    Wiseman, and Life magazine correspondent
    Robert Drew borrowed elements from newsreel
    journalism, handheld cameras, intimate
    point-of-view, natural sound, minimal editing to
    invent the documentary genre called cinema verit. The verit style was
    also often distinguished by a social awareness that provided its own
    editorializing despite the lack of voice-over narration and talking-head
    Verit still exists today, on public broadcast and
    TV news coverage as well as in such phenomena
    as guerrilla video projects, but its edge tends to
    get dulled in the general oversupply of
    information. The '60sas we've been told time
    and again were different. Which is why the
    '60s-era documentaries that Yerba Buena
    curator Joel Shepard has dug up still seem so
    fresh and exciting, years after their ostensible hard news value has expired.
    Then, as now, the riddle of race relations was
    perplexing, at times all-consuming. Nothing
    demonstrates this quite as succinctly as David
    Loeb Weiss' 1968 doc No Vietnamese Ever Called
    Me Nigger. The title, sometimes attributed to
    Muhammad Ali, is seen as a slogan on placards
    carried by marchers in the Harlem Fall
    Mobilization March in 1967, an anti-Vietnam-War
    procession in New York to which filmmaker Weiss
    and his crew took their 16mm camera and sound
    recorder and got an earful of what African
    Americans thought of the US government's war
    on the Vietnamese people, of black Americans'
    role in that war, and the inescapable conclusions
    therefrom. "My boy is over there fighting for his
    rights," declares one woman, "but he's not
    getting them." One of the marchers' chants cuts
    to the chase even quicker: "The enemy is
    whitey/ Not the Viet Cong!" Weiss and his crew
    (apparently all white) heard a variety of
    impassioned responses from onlookers and march
    participants that day in Harlem, but the predominant African-American
    viewpoint was essentially, "This is not our war."
    Intercut with the on-the-street footage is a
    remarkable interview session with three
    articulate, thoughtful, and very angry black
    Vietnam War vets. If the civilians are outraged
    at the injustice, these young men are
    somewhere beyond. Throughout this film, we
    can't help but marvel at the high level of political
    discussion, even among characters hanging out
    in front of bars watching the march pass, in
    comparison with what we might see if a similar
    march were covered today. In some ways, the
    '60s were a much more violent and unpredictable
    time, but we sense a difference in the mood of the people; they're
    disgusted, but not hopeless.
    The righteous indignation in their voices is like
    music to our ears, compared to the cynicism
    we'd likely encounter in 2000. As loud and
    rebellious as it might seem, 1967 was almost a
    time of innocence.
    We can see that one of the three young vets, in
    particular, wants to believe the civics lessons he
    learned in school, but his brutal experience in the Army has shaken his
    beliefs very nearly out of him (another soldier talks of giving C-rations
    to a begging Vietnamese woman, out of pity, and then being mocked by his
    white comrades).
    "Keep your word. GI-trained black men won't
    stand for racism back home": That's the
    admonition from the three vets, all of whom
    relate the disillusionment of seeing the naked
    face of race hatred (toward Asians and blacks,
    white America's foreign and domestic enemies,
    respectively) in the war, and then coming home
    to be turned down for jobs on racial grounds. "It's gonna escalate right
    here," warns one of the vets. We wonder where they are now, thirty-three
    years later.
    Loeb's 16mm black-and-white film has that
    fast-film verit quality to it, in which the edges
    of the image almost appear to be in full color, so
    deeply saturated are the b&w tones. It's
    beautiful to look at, and the faces are
    unforgettable in this time-machine trip back to
    the corner of 125th and Broadway in 1967. A
    solemn group of Black Muslims dismisses the
    marchers out of hand, saying that the "Muslim
    five percent" believes that the government is
    always right. That's puzzling enough, but later on the antics of a claque
    of white supremacists heckling the marchers reminds us that maybe we have,
    indeed, come a small distance from the days when people chanted, "Kill
    peace creeps!"
    Very powerful stuff, and obviously not enough
    people saw it the first time around. No
    Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger screens Friday, July 21 at 8:00 p.m.
    If the above film still retains every ounce of its
    sense of betrayal, William Klein's Eldridge
    Cleaver, Black Panther, in hindsight at least,
    blends that message of black outrage with a
    touch of historical human-interest curiosity. Shot
    in 1970 when East Bay revolutionary Cleaver was
    in exile in Algeria, the verit portrait captures
    the mercurial Cleaver in some of his most profound meditations on race,
    class, and powerbut also points forward to the post-Panther Cleaver, a man
    whom history passed by. And we can feel that history passing him by in
    every frame of this movie.
    Cleaver strolls through the medina of Algiers in a
    bright orange polo shirt and slacks, drawing
    stares and shy smiles from passersby as he
    outlines his theories. Trotsky would have been
    proud of Cleaver; the former Oakland Black
    Panther Minister of Culture, in between jibes at
    "Mussolini [San Francisco mayor Joseph] Alioto"
    and then-California governor Ronald Reagan (his
    chief bugaboos), is seen seeking rapprochement
    with black revolutionaries from all over Africa in the common cause of
    opposing US imperialism.
    The camera follows him all the way home, where he smokes grass and plays
    idly with a knife.
    Always, Cleaver seems to be the ultimate
    political animal, forever seizing the time and
    sticking to the issues, even when he and his wife
    Kathleen relax into that sort of guarded "candid"
    bull session we've seen so often in
    rockumentaries. Indeed, in those days Cleaver
    was almost a rock star to a certain segment of
    the American population. But clearly the downtime, in places like Cuba and
    Algiers, is draining the relevance out of him.
    Then, when we've begun to see through
    Cleaver's nonstop platitudinizing, director Klein
    makes a smart move: he shifts gears and shows
    a montage of repressive politicos declaring war
    on the Panthers back in the US exactly the
    things Cleaver has been ranting about in Algiers,
    suddenly there in our face. At the time the film
    was made, the race-baiting, divisive fighting
    words of Reagan and President Richard Nixon
    were commonplace, but seeing them now, in
    apposition to Cleaver's complaints about
    American brutality and greed, validates his
    stance when he needs it most, and reminds us
    just how vitriolic public discourse was in those
    long-ago days. Cleaver doesn't shock us; Reagan
    and Nixon do. And so does the official repression
    of the Black Panthers, regardless of what we
    know about their subsequent failings. In Klein's clever coda, the "cure" is
    obviously far worse than the "disease."
    Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther plays Friday, July
    28, also at 8:00 p.m. The series opens tonight
    (Friday, July 14) with a verit glimpse into the
    establishment, specifically the war of nerves
    between Alabama segregationist governor
    George Wallace and the Kennedy White House on
    the subject of school desegregation in Drew
    Associates' Crisis: Behind a Presidential
    Commitment (1963). That feature is
    accompanied by a 1961 short on school
    integration in New Orleans, The Children Were
    Watching, and Edward O. Bland's Cry of Jazz
    (1959), an influential examination of the significance of jazz in
    African-American culture.
    The other documentary shorts in the series are
    Leonard Henry's Black Power We're Goin' Survive
    America (1959) on July 21, and Newsreel's 1968 prison interview with Black
    Panther Huey P.
    Newton, Off the Pig, now known as Black Panther. This entire ambitious
    series is highly recommended. It could open your eyes.

    From: <http://www.eastbayexpress.com/movies/moviereva_current.html>

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