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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One thought on “Newark on film: Teach Our Children (1972)

  1. Pingback: Feminist film in Newark: Janie’s Janie (1972) | strublog

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