Celebrating a Forgotten Cultural Breakthrough
It’s sad when a milestone event fades into obscurity. When one examines the impact it had at the time of its staging, one would hope that such a legacy would be sustained. However, those who remember the event carry the spirit of its impact within them, and, with a little help, it just might be possible to bring it back to life and celebrate the breakthrough it represented. Such is the case with the entertaining and uplifting new music documentary, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (web site, trailer).
As America headed into the summer of 1969, the nation was holding its breath, worried what might unfold. In recent years, the country had become tense and divided over a variety of events – contentious race relations, riots in the streets, the unpopular Vietnam War, and distress over a wave of assassinations, including the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The year before in particular had been a difficult one, with fallout from the foregoing, as well as the violent demonstrations that took place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. So, needless to say, there was considerable worry over what would be next, especially in the nation’s major cities.
A number of civic and political leaders believed it was important to find ways to dissipate the energy that had been building and could potentially be unleashed in undesirable ways. And, in New York, the largest city in the US, that issue was addressed by a plan to give residents a healthy means for doing just that – a festival that would provide them with some much-needed enjoyment, the Harlem Cultural Festival.
The festival was organized by performer/promoter Tony Lawrence, who had quite a knack for bringing people together to stage successful events. In this case, he worked with the City of New York, enlisting the support of Mayor John Lindsay. The program was held in New York’s Mt. Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) over six weekends from June to August and featured an array of Black and Latino music, comedy and culture with a lineup that had never been assembled before – or since.
Even though smaller versions of the festival had been held in previous summers, those earlier events were nowhere close in scale to this undertaking. Given the size of the crowd – estimated at approximately 300,000 attendees – the festival was compared to another event taking place that summer about 100 miles away, earning this event the nickname “the Black Woodstock.” And, because of the festival’s anticipated magnitude, it was decided beforehand that it should be documented. So, like Woodstock, the event was filmed, in this case under the coordination of TV veteran Hal Tulchin and backed by the healthy financial support of General Foods.
The festival was a resounding success. It included musical performances by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, the Staples Singers, Sly & the Family Stone, the 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Chambers Brothers, David Ruffin, Hugh Masekela, Mahalia Jackson, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Ray Barretto, the Edwin Hawkins Singers and Mongo Santamaria, as well as the comedy of comic Moms Mabley and ventriloquist Willie Tyler & Lester, to name a few. In addition to the entertainment, the event was a showcase for Black culture, particularly in the area of fashion.
But the event was significant for other reasons. It was a venue for ushering in social change, bringing together elements of the established civil rights movement and the emerging Black Power movement. The African-American community was now being encouraged to express itself rather than just look for ways to fit in. This was important given that the country was now under the leadership of recently elected President Richard Nixon, who was widely perceived as unsympathetic to the concerns of racial minorities. The festival also provided an opportunity to pay homage to slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King through a moving tribute led by Rev. Jesse Jackson featuring a tearful rendition of the leader’s favorite work of music performed by Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples.
Considering the success of the event, the promoters and documentarians were eager to find an outlet for the footage that was filmed at the six weekend concerts. Unfortunately, except for two one-hour specials broadcast shortly after the event on New York’s WNEW Channel 5 (now a FOX affiliate), there were no takers; all of the programmers that were approached said they didn’t envision any interest in a Black Woodstock movie or television special. None. At. All.
In hindsight, it’s almost inconceivable to believe that this could be the case. However, that’s what happened, and so the 40 hours of footage sat in Tulchin’s basement, unscreened or untelevised anywhere, for the next 50 years. And, because the footage never surfaced, the event itself was almost completely forgotten.
Thanks to the efforts of director Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson, writer Robert Fyvolent and a dedicated production team, the festival has now come back to life. The concert footage, which was recoded on high-grade two-inch videotape, enabled the material to be remarkably well preserved. This wealth of documentation thus provided the filmmakers with considerable fodder for making this superb film.
To augment the concert material, Thompson has incorporated numerous interviews, including many who attended the event, as well as some of those who performed or knew the organizers. Commentary into the significance and context of the festival is presented through additional interviews, including actor/comedian Chris Rock, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, entertainer/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, musician/producer Sheila E. and writer/musician/producer Greg Tate. These insights help to resurrect and illuminate a seminal event in a watershed moment for the African-American community, one that brought it to a level of prominence not previously enjoyed – and one that we can now enjoy again through the music that helped inspire it.
It’s always something to see when individuals or collaboratives come up with solutions to address potential problems by employing innovative qualities. In looking back to 1969, when the threat of a summer of violence loomed, it was indeed a brilliant move when the organizers of the Harlem Cultural Festival came up with the idea for their event. They saw an issue on the horizon and managed to find an outlet to defuse the energy building behind it – and one that provided a good time for those who attended. That’s a win/win for everyone.
What made the event and its outcome possible was a belief that it could be done, and therein lies the crux of its success, for our beliefs shape what we experience. And, considering what resulted, there were some potent beliefs at work in making this all possible. It’s especially important to note that the concept of the festival represented some significant thinking outside the box. Officials could have sat back and waited with baited breath to see what might happen. Or they could have chosen a more proactive stance, one in which they sought to cut off problems before they arose. And the fact that it was done in such a remarkably creative and uplifting way really helped to set it apart from more conventional solutions. By surpassing limitations and trying the untried, organizers managed to stave off the problems that worried them and produce an entertaining, inspiring and enjoyable time for all involved. Again, win/win.
Clearly this was a remarkable act of collaboration, one in which multiple parties came together to accomplish a tremendous goal. Everyone concerned believed the result was attainable, and everyone played his or her part to make it happen. All of the parties involved were wise to place their trust in the skillful hands of those accomplished at pulling off programs like this, namely, promoter Tony Lawrence, documentarian Hal Tulchin and New York Mayor John Lindsay. Even when snags came up, such as the possibility of inadequate security for the event, planners got creative in their thinking and came up with a creative solution – augment the New York Police presence with members of the Black Panther Party. Together the joint forces kept matters from getting out of hand, proving that even alleged opponents could work in tandem for a common good.
Fifty years after the event, such inspired collaboration surfaced once again in the making of this film. The various parties responsible for bringing it into being helped to resurrect the memory of a truly astounding event. Even though the festival may have been largely forgotten and overshadowed by its upstate musical counterpart, it genuinely was an event worth remembering, and those involved in this documentary project made that happen. The rarely seen performances can again be enjoyed, and later-born generations can witness the impact it had on the Black and Latino communities.
That, if anything, is arguably the greatest legacy to come out of this event. It played a pivotal role in encouraging empowerment among its constituencies. It brought Black and African culture to a prominent (and previously seldom seen) center stage. It gave its people an opportunity to freely express themselves without restriction and to make their voices heard – not just on the concert stage but in American culture at large. And, even though the festival may not have finished the job, it helped light the match that got it going, a flame that burns to this day and one whose stoking is made possible by this film, providing us all with an eloquent and powerful record of its origin.
Director Thompson is to be commended for assembling an extraordinary selection of musical performances and providing viewers with context for the significance of this event. The film is thus more than just an entertainment vehicle; it’s a time capsule into the period, examining the impact that the summer of 1969 had on Black culture, activism and empowerment. The project is a tribute to the festival and the times, while simultaneously reawakening us to issues that still deserve attention all these many years later, pointedly reminding us that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it – and that we had all better be listening to more than just the music. The film is currently playing in theaters and on the Hulu streaming service.
To some, the contention that a music festival could play an important role in helping to shape the culture of a people or a nation may seem overblown. But, when one realizes that the 1960s are often characterized as “the Woodstock generation,” that notion might quickly be dispelled. So it is also with that event’s African-American counterpart. It may not have received the same degree of notoriety, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an effect, either. And now, with this film, a new generation of audiences has an opportunity to see what influence it had and how it has percolated down through the years, even if the event itself was not always cited as the source of this development. Here’s hoping we get it right this time and remember the Harlem Cultural Festival for what it was – a groundbreaking event that helped to reshape us as a society hoping for the better.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Wrapping Up the AFI DOCS Festival
With the 2021 American Film Institute Documentary Film Festival (AFI DOCS) now in the books, it’s time to sum up the 12 offerings that I screened, some of which have been or will be released in theaters, online and on television in the near future. A number of excellent films are coming out of this festival, and I encourage viewers to catch them when available. Some of these titles are featured in this edition of Movies with Meaning, with others to be released in coming months.
This is the first time I have attended (i.e., streamed) releases from this festival, and I must say that, for the most part, I was indeed favorably impressed. It was a well-run, highly affordable event, and I recommend it highly. My only criticism would be that the length of the festival was a bit short for the number of titles being presented. For those who love documentary films and enjoy binge watching them and their accompanying Q&A sessions (as I do), five days is pushing it for avid cinephiles to fit in everything they might want to see. If a comparable number of films will be presented in the future as were screened this year, I’d like to see the organizers extend the length of the event by several days so viewers can more comfortably fit in everything instead of having to cram them into a tight time frame and hope they get to all the titles on their watchlists.
Check out what I saw and what I thought of the films by clicking here.
The Embodiment of Integrity
Living one’s truth is indeed a virtue – and one that some say is becoming increasingly rare in these contentious times. It’s unclear whether this is due to an unwillingness or an inability to do so. Either way, though, if we’re to revive this practice, we need inspiring examples to draw from, and, these days that means looking to our past to find suitable role models to help show us the way. So it is in the superb new biographical documentary, “The One and Only Dick Gregory” (web site, trailer).
When a film’s title claims to be about “the one and only” Dick Gregory, it’s not exaggerating, particularly when it comes to the character and magnitude of its subject. The St. Louis-born African-American comedian, social activist and health advocate lived quite a life, one unlike anyone who came before or after him during his 84 years (1932-2017). He may have come from a poor background, but he certainly made the most of what he had to work with, as this new documentary so eloquently shows.
Gregory came to prominence as a comedian in Chicago in 1961 with a breakthrough performance at the Playboy Club. Ironically, this was a stint where he was named a last-minute replacement for another comic. He made quite an impression with his pointed, racially focused humor, delivered through a routine presented to an audience of mostly White Southerners in the Windy City for a convention. Gregory became an overnight sensation, quickly rising through the ranks of the entertainment world and landing spots on television programs like The Jack Paar Show, not an easy feat for Black performers of any stripe at the time. But Gregory’s incisive humor, his smooth delivery and his cool demeanor made him a stand-out, possessing a combination of qualities that separated him from other African-American comics of the time.
Gregory’s success soared, becoming one of the most in-demand performers of his day. And that prominence earned him a respectability few Black entertainers enjoyed at the time. It would subsequently enable him to embark upon undertakings far different from his night club appearances and TV gigs, ventures that made an impact more significant and meaningful than anyone might have realized, including the comic himself.
With the rise of the civil rights movement, and in light of the ongoing discrimination inflicted upon minorities in places like the American South, Gregory could not stay silent. His routines were often punctuated by racially based humor, so he was certainly no stranger to controversial material. Now, however, he saw an opportunity to make use of his comedy as a way to get the public’s attention with regard to civil rights issues. Getting people laughing about sensitive topics was a way to getting their ear. And, given his success as an entertainer, he had built up considerable clout, a reputation that carried tremendous weight in helping to influence and reshape the public debate about these charged social issues.
As time passed, however, Gregory did more than just tell jokes. He became an activist, working side by side with civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He and his family became actively involved in protests, an effort that resulted in more than 100 arrests and jail time. But Gregory was not about to just pay lip service to these issues; he saw a need to become a participant in these initiatives, and he never backed down, freely giving his time and money to the cause.
Gregory’s efforts did not stop with securing rights for the Black community, either. According to his daughter Ayanna, he also participated in protests focused on the rights of women, Native Americans and even poor Whites. He saw injustice and wanted to see it eliminated. This also became apparent in his vocal criticism of the highly unpopular Vietnam War, which was taking a disproportionate toll on the African-American community. When it came to matters like these, he simply couldn’t remain silent.
Gregory was skillful at courting support, too. For example, when the entertainment industry became leery of booking him because of his increasingly controversial stances, he actively sought out audiences where he knew he would be warmly welcomed, most notably college campuses, which were growing progressively more restless with an unsatisfactory status quo. He became one of the nation’s most in-demand guest lecturers at universities, where he often gave long and engaging presentations, punctuated by his singular sense of humor.
But, even with his success on college campuses, Gregory saw the need to generate more publicity for his views. To compensate for this, he sought inventive ways to generate attention, such as going on prolonged fasts and engaging in long-distance runs. When questioned why he undertook these seemingly unconventional pursuits, he said that, if people asked him about them, it opened the door for him to explain himself, thereby drawing attention to the reasons behind these activities. The strategy worked, garnering considerable media coverage and earning him a reputation that transcended his success as an entertainer. He was now becoming equally known as an emerging social activist.
In the wake of his fasts and long-distance runs, Gregory’s physique significantly changed. Having been a 288-pound chain smoker, he shed a tremendous amount of weight and quit his four-packs-a-day habit. He also became a vegetarian and then a vegan, radically transforming his diet. And, as a result of this makeover, he saw the critical (and thereunto previously underappreciated) role that health and well-being played in personal empowerment, both individually and as members of society. Gregory saw that poor diets and inadequate health care reinforced the disempowerment that plagued minority communities, so he subsequently became an ardent advocate for change in these areas. He became the developer and spokesperson for a proprietary product known as the Bahamian Diet, one that became wildly successful and made him millions.
But, as the film notes, as successful as Gregory was as an entertainer, activist and health advocate, he also left much to be desired as a businessman. As abundantly as the money came in, it went out nearly as quickly, much of it donated to favorite causes and some of it caught up in protracted legal battles with business associates. Before long, Gregory found himself so destitute that he lost his home and could no longer afford health insurance for himself and his family. However, as he so philosophically observed, he came from nothing and wasn’t preoccupied with amassing wealth, believing that whatever money he earned should be put to use and not sat on.
This change in fortune pushed Gregory back into doing what got him started – entertaining. He began giving club performances and making appearances on TV shows and in films like “The Hot Chick” (2002) with comedian Rob Schneider. But, in the process, he never lost sight of his activism, either, frequently appearing on televised political forums, such as those broadcast on C-SPAN, where his outspoken rants often overshadowed other more staid guests. Indeed, as a vocal senior, Gregory didn’t hesitate to speak his mind, frequently pontificating with an uncharacteristically raw approach, one far different from the smooth delivery of his early days in show business. But, as his days dwindled and his health began to slide, he needed to make his points while he still had the chance. He may have been more in-your-face than he was at one time, but he wanted to make sure people knew how he felt, especially when it came to addressing subjects that hadn’t undergone the degree of reform he believed necessary with the passage of nearly six decades.
When Gregory passed away somewhat unexpectedly in 2017, he left quite a legacy on multiple fronts. Indeed, there was one and only Dick Gregory, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, considering everything he accomplished, that would truly be a hard act to follow.
One could make a good argument that finding individuals who live their truth and abide by the principles of personal integrity is becoming harder than ever these days. Some would say this is especially true in the entertainment business, where celebrities step forward to make stirring speeches for certain causes and then retreat into the wealth and privilege their careers have provided them. But Dick Gregory was different (hence the “one and only” designation). He held firm to his beliefs and made sure he translated them into actions.
What’s particularly inspiring about how Gregory lived his life is that his personal confidence in himself seemed to keep growing and expanding throughout his life. Even if there was something he hoped to accomplish but did not know how, he went and learned about it, steeled himself in his convictions and then made it happen. His beliefs in his abilities for accomplishing even the seemingly impossible were continually strengthened and imbued with so much resolve that he rarely missed the mark when it came to fulfilling his aspirations.
Gregory was also adept at forging alliances and partnerships in his endeavors, finding collaborators who were on the same page as he was. He tapped partners who could help him, such as boxer Muhammed Ali, who helped draw attention to one of Gregory’s long-distance runs and the reasons for it. He also joined forces with those who had common interests, such as singer Michael Jackson, who collaborated with Gregory in helping to fight hunger. And then there were times when Gregory volunteered to help others with their personal and public ventures, such as former Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, who called upon Gregory to help them kick their drug habits. In each case, the results spoke for themselves.
In examining the many facets of Gregory’s life, some might wonder how the diverse dots of his existence connected. How did a successful comedian become a fervent social activist and then an advocate for healthy living? It comes down to an ability to spot the connections that bind these diverse and seemingly disparate pursuits. There are indeed threads that join seemingly unrelated manifestations, even if they’re not easy to spot. But, for those like Gregory, who possess an uncanny ability to identify them, recognizing the connections is the first step in drawing upon their power and then being able to tap into them. Seeing, in this case, truly is believing, and believing is the trigger for acting and creating. Gregory’s success as an entertainer, for instance, was a starting point for working his magic, earning him the respectability and influence that made it possible for him to go after his other pursuits and become successful at fulfilling his aims in those areas. A little awareness, backed by complementary convictions, can indeed work wonders.
Gregory achieved more in his lifetime than many individuals do in multiple incarnations. He felt compelled to accomplish the goals he set out to do, often at great personal costs. But, then, given his upbringing, he knew the conditions that his fellow minorities were experiencing and was willing to go to bat for improving their well-being socially and politically, as well as when it came to their health. On some level, he must have seen this as his destiny, working as a champion for the betterment of others. Gregory truly lived his version of it and sought to inspire others through his example.
Gregory lived quite an amazing life, as depicted in this detailed new biography. With a wealth of archive footage of Gregory’s standup performances, his civil rights activism, his efforts to promote healthier living, and media appearances with the likes of Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, David Frost, Arsenio Hall, Merv Griffin and Jack Paar, director Andre Gaines’s debut feature presents an in-depth look at this prescient icon’s fascinating life story. In addition to appearances by Gregory’s wife Lillian, his children Christian, Ayanna and Greg, and his friends and fellow activists, as well as his publicist, biographer and business partner, the film includes insightful conversations with those whom he inspired, including actor Harry Belafonte and comedians Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, Wanda Sykes, Rob Schneider and Nick Cannon. While the picture provides a thorough treatment of Gregory’s activism, it nevertheless could have placed a little more emphasis on his comedy, given that the clout he built up as a successful entertainer was what made his later, more meaningful work possible. That aside, however, this excellent offering provides viewers with a fitting tribute to a remarkable talent and an impressive human being who brought true meaning to the word – and practice of – integrity. The film is currently playing on the Showtime cable TV network and its streaming site.
When we come to the ends of our lives and all is said and done, how many of us will be able to look back upon our times and say that we accomplished what we set out to do? What’s more, even if our goals have been achieved, how many of us will be able to claim that we reached them in line with integrity, reflecting the true intents we began with? It is possible, provided we stick to our beliefs and see them through. Dick Gregory did that, and his accomplishments serve as a shining example to the rest of us. And that’s no laughing matter.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Mindfulness in the Movies
How do we get in touch with who we really are and what we want out of life? It all comes down to mindfulness, and we just might find some clues by watching a movie! Find out more by reading “Mindfulness in the Movies” in the latest issue of Modern Warrior magazine (formerly Life Quote Journal). For more about this uplifting new online publication, click here.
Exposing an Obscured Truth
When the truth remains hidden, it’s difficult to move forward and make progress in resolving thorny social issues. But, when it’s intentionally buried under a barrage of myths and lies designed to purposely obscure it, that makes the effort considerably more daunting. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though, as chronicled in the satirical and emotionally charged new documentary, “The Neutral Ground” (web site, trailer, movie).
In 2015, the New Orleans City Council considered a proposal to take down four statues honoring Confederate Civil War “heroes” and organizations, including those dedicated to General Robert E. Lee, commander of Southern forces, General P.G.T. Beauregard, the military officer who fired the first shots of the Civil War at South Carolina’s Ft. Sumter, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. A hotly debated public hearing was held, characterized by passionate arguments from proponents on both sides of the issue. It was all that Council President Jason Williams could do to keep the hearing from getting out of hand. But, when the measure came up for a vote, it passed resoundingly, with only one Council member dissenting.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, an ardent supporter of the proposal, was thrilled with the outcome of the vote. He hoped that the removal of the monuments would help to heal some longstanding pain, referring to the decision as one aimed at remembrance of, not reverence for, what the statues represented. And he hoped that the entire process would be wrapped up within a few months. If only it were that easy.
In the months that ensued, the removal plan remained a contentious issue, despite its official approval. Opponents filed lawsuits, and progress to take down the statues stalled. For all practical purposes, nothing was changing other than the growing volume of the public discourse.
Enter biracial comedian and social observer CJ Hunt. He had been a New Orleans resident for a number of years and was fascinated by what was unfolding before him. The field producer for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show was so intrigued that he even began work on a YouTube project about the subject. However, as the issue grew in intensity, he could see that an online video wouldn’t be sufficient for covering the depth and complexity of what was transpiring. And that is how this film project was born.
Hunt had a lot of questions, some of which were philosophical in nature and others of which were highly personal. As someone with a Black and Filipino background who grew up attending a predominantly White prep school, he tended to downplay his mixed-race minority heritage in order to fit in. But, as he entered adulthood, he had many unanswered questions about his background, especially when it came to why an apparent love of the Confederacy persisted among White Southerners and how he and the minority community should feel and react to that devotion.
To get to the root of this matter, Hunt had to do a deep dive into the history of the Confederacy to discover the hold it had on so many Americans through the years, including today. It was a process that took him to many locales throughout the South to unravel a variety of highly cherished myths, long-entrenched beliefs that helped explain the Confederate mystique, the reasons behind the erection of the monuments in the first place, and the perpetuation of the lore that has lasted through the years and continually fueled a culture built on dogma, lies and gross misperceptions. And, once these truths were exposed, Hunt was able to see where the outrage toward these symbols came from, an understanding that he sought to elucidate through this film.
Despite the reluctance of many Southerners to admit that the Confederacy lost the war, the fact remains that they were defeated, pure and simple. But, when up against such a harsh truth, there’s a natural tendency for those on the losing side to save face. As Hunt observes, this was particularly true when it came to healing the grief of the survivors of Southern soldiers killed in battle. Although there may have been a certain nobility in aiding grieving widows and mothers, those who orchestrated such efforts took matters a step further by concocting an entire mythology about the disappearance of an Old South that never existed. This led to a sentimental story about the South’s tragic defeat in the war known as “The Lost Cause,” a fable glorifying its fallen dead and sugarcoating a way of life that they unsuccessfully fought to defend.
As the myth grew, so, too, did the misconceptions about the reasons for the conflict. For example, one of the biggest fallacies was that the war was not about slavery, but, rather, about “states’ rights.” Of course, as Hunt found in his research of the secessionist documents that led to the creation of the Confederacy, the states’ rights in question were those associated with the “right” to own slaves, a contention boldly proclaimed in these historical writings. To compound matters, the attempted rewriting of the history of the South also included frequent statements about “the fair and kind treatment” that slaves received from their masters, with bad apples being more the exception than the rule.
Really? African-Americans would certainly tell a far different story. Which is why memorials exalting such a bald-faced deception have drawn the ire of those whose ancestors were subjected to an atrocious social system, not the genteel way of life so often depicted in books and films.
The film goes on to show how the mythology grew over the years after the war. As former slaves began to gain power during Reconstruction, African-Americans saw their level of empowerment rise, something that did not sit well with many White Southerners. First they lost the war, and now they were seeing their former “property” beginning to occupy positions of prominence. In their view, that was intolerable, prompting them to turn up the rhetoric of “The Lost Cause.” Increasingly massive memorials were being erected, and they were often placed in the proximity of locations like courthouses and government buildings. Such strategic placement was designed to send a message to let minorities know who was in charge. Even as late as 50 years after the war ended, this practice continued, a time long after many veterans and survivors of the conflict had died off. And, for those born in the interim, this was a way to indoctrinate them into a way of thinking that clung to outdated values and helped ensure the perpetuation of a power structure whose time had come and gone.
Hunt makes it clear that Southerners weren’t the only ones complicit in this movement. A number of Northerners played a role, too. For instance, many of the bronze statues destined for Southern locales were, in fact, cast in the North. Many of the books written about the Old South came out of publishing houses located in New York. Even the post-war reunified federal government played a role by backing away from Reconstruction when it became apparent it wasn’t working, removing troops and mothballing progressive programs, all in the interest of quelling Southern discontent and encouraging the notion that the US was once again one big happy family.
The bottom line in this, Hunt contends, is that the nation has been lulled to sleep about the truth of what really happened. Consequently, the issues associated with these buried truths have been ignored and allowed to fester. The discussion that we have long needed to have about this subject has been purposely set aside in hopes that it will simply go away, and the impact of this has been felt not only on a social scale, but also on an individual one. It’s been part of the reason, for example, why many young African-Americans have been left in the dark and/or have so many questions about their heritage, not unlike the director himself. It also accounts for why so many White Americans are unaware of where the anger of minorities comes from – and why it matters to make changes to rectify an intentionally obscured past.
So where do we go from here? As noted in the film, it’s unrealistic to expect that we can kill the myth simply by getting rid of its symbols. Indeed, even being able to make that happen can be a more protracted exercise than anyone realizes. It took New Orleans several years to eventually bring down the statues due to impediments like long legal battles and even Mayor Landrieu’s inability to find cranes to facilitate the process (their owners having been threatened if they aided the removal).
But that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to get the ball rolling. Making the public aware of what really happened and telling the stories that have gone untold are good starting points. Considering how long these issues have persisted, they may not be resolved overnight, but we have to start somewhere, and films like this provide us with good places to begin. And Hunt has given us an excellent springboard to launch this process.
As director Hunt’s poignant visual essay so effectively shows, beliefs – no matter what they may be – are remarkably powerful and persistent phenomena, for better or worse. And, in the case of the circumstances depicted in this film, they have done so with tremendous staying power, commemorating individuals and events from over 150 years ago. This brings true meaning to the notion of beliefs being capable of memorialization as tangible materializations, powerful, physical symbols of ideas, no matter how heinous or unacceptable they may be – or have become.
This principle can obviously be applied for positive, uplifting ideals as well. But, in the case of the Confederate statues in New Orleans and other municipalities of the American South, they have been erected – and maintained – to promote and perpetuate an agenda backed by beliefs that are antiquated and out of touch with contemporary thinking. That support, which has been sustained by the same beliefs that prompted their original placement and dedication, is what filmmaker Hunt and groups promoting the monuments’ removal have been seeking to expose, making the real intents behind them known in order to change the narrative and set the record straight.
Changing entrenched beliefs is often difficult, again due to the power and persistence underlying them. But it’s not impossible by any means. It requires the formation and promotion of new beliefs, notions that clear away the obscuring camouflage and reveal the truths that have been hidden in the shadows of these falsely glorified icons for all these many years. And, when those revelations surface, they have the power to change hearts and minds – and to win over the support of those who have been uninformed or who have willfully chosen to stay asleep and in denial. Those new beliefs thus have the power to write a new public narrative, one that wipes clean the longstanding falsehoods and is capable of launching a new dialogue, one in which an obscured truth at last becomes known.
The chances of achieving such a result are enhanced when we tackle the project as a collaborative effort. By taking this approach, we have an opportunity to tap into the power, energy and beliefs of multiple sources. In addition to the efforts of individuals like the director and crew of this film, the initiative garnered further support from organizations like Take ’Em Down Nola, the New Orleans Slave Trade Marker Project and the staff of the Whitney Plantation Museum, all of which are featured in the picture. This goal also benefitted from efforts in other cities with Confederate statutes where similar initiatives were launched, such as Charlottesville, VA, Baltimore, MD, Durham, NC, Richmond, VA and Charleston, SC. By making this more than just a New Orleans issue, proponents of this endeavor have created a groundswell of support to change the nation’s landscape – not just physically, but also in the minds and consciousness of its citizens.
This is not to suggest that the memorials are entirely without merit. However, what needs to change is an understanding of the meaning for why they were erected and what we should take away from their original creation. Instead of glorifying the remorseful failure of a defeated secessionist nation, they should serve as powerful reminders of the morals and values that said nation stood for – intolerance, involuntary servitude, racial hatred, and other unspeakable social and ethical atrocities. Putting the statues into that context, perhaps by placing them in designated locales dedicated to fostering that purpose, would be a means for reminding us of the errors of our ways rather than the exaltation of man’s bigotry and foolhardiness. That, of course, would imbue these idols with an entirely new meaning, backed by a new set of beliefs, notions different from those for which they were originally established. These new ideas can transform the dialogue, sending a powerful message both to those who once lauded the existence of these landmarks and, one would hope, an enlightened posterity.
This campaign this represents a tremendous learning opportunity, one aimed at providing us all with a tremendous life lesson. As is often widely acknowledged, those who don’t learn from the past are indeed destined to repeat it. As Hunt stresses in this film, this is a chance for America to take off the blinders, to learn what really happened and to discover how we tried to bury the truth for the sake of other considerations. It’s an opportunity to learn the dangers of denial, of how we placed the expediency of fulfilling certain goals over openly acknowledging some painful realities, a course of action for which all of us – Northerners and Southerners alike – share the guilt that has persisted to this day. And it’s a situation that can only be rectified by changing the beliefs that write the narrative in which we all play a part, both individually and collectively.
Aptly subtitled “A Film About Sore Losers,” this superb debut documentary feature by director Hunt draws upon a modern-day Battle of New Orleans – one aimed at removing public symbols commemorating a failed social system that celebrated slavery, racism and White supremacy. In exposing the false narrative that has kept this myth alive for over a century, the filmmaker tells a story that’s both stunningly comic and utterly tragic. Hunt’s skillful tongue-in-cheek questioning and editing techniques effectively blow the lid off the ignorance, cynicism and hypocrisy of the alleged virtues that sanction fellow humans being treated as property and inherently inferior. As the premiere episode of the new season of the PBS documentary series POV, this excellent offering is now available for streaming online from the program’s web site. Hunt’s film succeeds both as a work of filmmaking and as an enlightening and educational vehicle, one that every American should see if we ever hope to resolve these long-simmering conflicts.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.