Newark on film: Teach Our Children (1972)

Teach Our Children was the first Third World Newsreel effort, in 1972, after the self-identified Third World members took the filmmaking collective back from the white New Leftists who had dominated it. It’s rough around the edges, but a powerful analysis of the interlocking systems of oppression that kept (and keep) people of color subjugated in the United States despite the nation’s self-congratulatory exclamations of equality.

As such, it’s a landmark film, but somewhat tough to see today (available on DVD but at institutional pricing, so mostly available through university libraries as far as I can tell). Which is a shame, because at 35 lean minutes, this could be a useful teaching tool on so many levels—including as an embodiment of the “internal colony” thesis that marked much Black Power thought of the era (and continues to resonate today). With Christine Choy and Susan Robeson (Paul’s granddaughter) as the primary directors, it not only moves beyond the often white-oriented narratives of the old Newsreel, but also foregrounds women’s voices and forms of resistance.

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Much of Teach Our Children focuses on the Attica rebellion and its brutal suppression, but the film links prisons, incarceration, and violent state retribution to poverty, housing problems, and other structures of inequality. Choy and Robeson combine traditional Newsreel direct cinema with stylized and quite pointed animated montages in the vein of Cuban filmmaker Santiago Álvarez (if you haven’t seen his 1965 Now, with Lena Horne vocals scoring five exemplary minutes of what might be the very Platonic ideal of agitprop, do yourself a favor and watch it, well, NOW!).

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And Newark? It comes in at the start, in the form of footage from the 1967 rebellion, used to underscore the parallels to Attica and the sheer viciousness of state repression and retaliation against resistance. It’s stock footage, but nonetheless visually striking, and the continuities with Attica certainly drive home why the theory of African Americans as an internal colony was so compelling. It would be a stretch to call Teach Our Children a Newark film in any substantive sense, but it is, literally, Newark on film.

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Third World Newsreel has received shockingly little attention from historians and film scholars (or maybe it’s not shocking, just disappointing), considering how significant it remains in the production and distribution of radical films from marginalized groups. It’s still around today (and in fact, certain to return to this blog, since it coproduced Charles Brack’s crucial Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project), and deserves all the attention and support it can get. Meanwhile, Cynthia A. Young’s great 2006 book Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left discusses the early years of TWN, and is a must-read for anyone interested in a Left history that goes beyond the same old white dudes making heroic speeches and whatnot. As far as I know, the later years of TWN remain untold (both Choy and Robeson went on to remarkable careers, as sketched out here)—and would surely be a great book or dissertation topic for the right person. Ahem.

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Indiana Double Feature: Book Reading in Bloomington and the Forgotten Regional Films of Ivan Rogers

Indiana and cinema: not two words deeply conjoined in the American cultural consciousness, unless you count Breaking Away and Hoosiers. I can’t hate on the former, though I would join Ron Briley in seeing Hoosiers as a Reaganite white wet dream in which the all-white “Milan miracle” team of 1954 become the “equivalent of the great white hopes” in an historically inaccurate narrative of vanquishing the urban black danger the same year as Brown v. Board. As big hit movies of 1986 go, I guess it’s less pernicious than Top Gun, but still, there’s gotta be more than this to Indiana film history—even if Wikipedia offers one depressingly bland assessment.

I’m in Bloomington right now, to dig around at the Kinsey Institute for a few days and give a book reading tonight at the wonderful Boxcar Books, a radical bookstore fighting the good fight. I’m really excited to be doing it, though I probably should have sent them a less dorky photo:

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I’m a sucker for regional films–still working my way through Brian Albright’s delightful Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990: A State-By-State Guide with Interviews because I keep stopping to track down obscurities–so I thought it would be fun to investigate locally shot films, but IMDB’s list for Bloomington as a location is pretty dire. White guys on bikes is the peak, it seems.

On the other hand, I’ll be in Indianapolis for the weekend, and here, I struck, if not cinematic gold, then at least modestly interesting regional cinema. By sheer dumb luck, digging through the surreal, cavernous backroom to a more adult-oriented Northeast Philly emporium, stacked floor-to-ceiling with old dusty VHS tapes, my helpful partner handed this over to me with a “looks like something you might be interested in”:

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Well, only kinda; it had the look of formulaic straight-to-video 80s action fodder (spoiler: because it is). But I bought it anyway, since it set me back something like 75 cents. And upon looking it up later, discovered it was shot in Indianapolis. A-ha!

Ballbuster is inert as all hell, but does have some wonderfully evocative location shooting—captured here, as always, by digital camera against a TV set, so it’s not quite this blurry in person:

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We can date the filming of the flick: that brief, sad moment when video shops hung posters for Cocktail in the window.

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Newark on film: This is Newark, 1966

This is Newark, 1966 is a short industrial film that has left few traces;* the sole reference to it that I can find is a passing mention in the opening pages of Brad Tuttle’s How Newark Became Newark, which explains that it was funded by the Port Authority (which ran Newark’s airport and seaport) and ran on a loop at the Newark Museum during the city’s 300th anniversary celebration that year.**

As a booster film, it fails profoundly. While a male narrator drones on about Newark—New Jersey’s “greatest concentration of population and finance, that’s worn and blighted… but we have the spirit and vigor to grow and build anew”—the visuals reduce the city to set of sterilized skyline shots, mostly of corporate towers and new buildings that drive home why Brutalist architecture got its name:

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We see my own beloved home institution, Rutgers-Newark, along with our neighboring NJIT, expanding, and the sight there too, I’m afraid, is less than flattering:

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This is Newark celebrates urban renewal, boasting that Newark has undertaken more of it per capita than any of America’s other thirty largest cities; “in our time, 1/5 of our city will have been rebuilt.” It proudly presents new housing projects, including the Scudder Homes in “the old 3rd ward,” as one signal achievement:

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We also get shots of Branch Brook Park, the airport, and the port:

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What we don’t get is a single non-aerial shot of the city—which is one reason This is Newark, 1966 is such an inadvertently chilling film. It presents a city entirely devoid of a human population, where sprawling slabs of concrete replace the citizenry. I’m reminded of Edward Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, in which he links the new meanings of the postwar skyline opening shot to military newsreel films, where they became “inextricably bound up with social planning and control.” (He quotes General Marshall in 1944:  WWII “has seen the development of two new weapons: the airplane and the motion picture”).

The dangers of such an abstract approach to human issues is obvious—and if it isn’t, just ask Harry Lime (or whatever soulless functionary punches in the code for American drone strikes). The much-vaunted Scudder Homes, rather than solving social problems This is Newark only vaguely alludes to, were left to deteriorate, until their destruction (apparently preserved, in part, on YouTube) in 1987 (vigorously protested at the time—as Camilo José Vergara noted in a passionate New York Times piece that I highly recommend, the problems of high-rise housing projects were obvious by the 80s, but unlike the symbolically fraught Pruitt-Igoe projects that St. Louis tore down in the 1970s, Newark had no ready means to relocate displaced tenants).

Of course, it’s impossible to watch This is Newark without constantly thinking of that 1966—the year before the national narrative of Newark would change with the riots, popularly blamed then and still blamed now on the impoverished residents of the city rather than the racialized systems and structures of containment, disfranchisement, and state-sponsored violence that made the uprising a sociological near-inevitability. We live in a society that likes to assign Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” but never seems to want to actually read the damn words about what happens to dreams deferred. It’s tragic and infuriating—and banal triumphalist narratives about the glories of urban renewal like This is Newark, 1966 do little to help establish the much-needed empathy so absent from much of American history.

It is neat to look at even in its cold bloodless distance, though, I will give it that.

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* I know of the film’s existence only by fortuitous chance: I happened to mention my aspirations of blogging about Newark on film to my colleague Clem Price—who just so happens to be perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the history of Newark, as witnessed in the fact that the New York Times seems to consult him nearly every time they turn their attention to the city—and he generously loaned me a VHS tape bearing the exciting title “Films of Newark” (more shorts to follow!).

I’m also grateful to my colleague Mark Krasovic, another wonderful Newark historian, for subsequently hooking me up with a digitized version. I have very cool colleagues (who are also, to be sure, friends!).

** In the footnote to his brief discussion of the film, Tuttle cites “Newark Museum archives, box 98.” Now I’m curious what that contains…

3/10/15 edited to add: came across a newspaper clipping about the production of this while sifting through the Stanley Winters Scrapbooks at Newark Public Library. Less than revelatory, but what the hell, might as well throw it on:

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