Amiri Baraka passed away yesterday, a great loss to American culture. I’m not looking forward to the fair-and-balanced reporting of the mainstream media—the obits at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and NPR have been informative but rather milquetoast, handling with delicacy the jagged edges of Baraka’s life and work—but I suppose it’s all better than, say, the comments at NJ.com, which I’m not even going to link to because they’re gross as usual.
There are surely a million ways to write about Baraka (hell, Pitchfork even gave a nice musical spin), a complicated figure whose homophobic, misogynist, and anti-Semitic comments inevitably draw more attention in the mainstream press than his striking plays and poetry, his foundational role in the Black Arts movement, his brilliant and important political organizing in Newark and the nation, the reasons for his turn to Marxism-Leninism after the exhausting struggles of the 1970s, or the dynamic, evolving nature of his ideas over time.
I don’t aspire to address all of that (though here’s a quick favorite short poem), but I want to pay tribute in my own way, by bringing Baraka into the fold of Newark’s cinematic history, which is an angle that has not been much written about, as far as I can tell.
This image is from the strange, muddled, mostly forgotten film 1 PM. In the foreground, Baraka; in the deep backdrop, Jean-Luc Godard, who shot it in 1968. Godard had rushed to America, apparently believing the revolution was imminent. When it didn’t come to pass, he let the footage sit, until cameraman and documentarian D.A. Pennebaker edited it into something resembling a movie a few years later. It came out in 1972, and pretty promptly disappeared from memory (the New York Times, for instance, basically shrugged).
The jumble of footage begins on an ill-advised note of Rip Torn wandering around some woods in Native American headdress—a great example of what Philip Deloria calls Playing Indian, and a painful reminder of the arrogant racial privilege of the white Left. Torn plays leftist slogans on a tape recorder and shouts along, as he then ventures up into a skyscraper construction site in Manhattan and back.
Look, I’m a militant defender of Godard’s Maoist films of the 70s, and even I think this is pretty bad. (Godard would offer a much smarter take on representations of indigenous Americans decades later, when Film Socialisme arrived bearing aggressively ungrammatical “Navajo English” subtitles that forces monolingual Americans to confront the insulting legacy of stereotypical Indian-speak from westerns).
Next we get Tom Hayden interviewed in a Berkeley suburb, and Eldridge Cleaver in Oakland. Hayden embodies the New Left: smart, dry, talking endlessly, and, well, largely wrong (his prediction that the white working class was about to see through George Wallace’s lies is, um, optimistic, to say the least). Cleaver is a great interview subject, utterly unimpressed by Godard; “we began to hate filmmakers around here,” he explains, noting that as the Black Panthers became iconic, there were “all kinda sharks and cutthroats, man, who’ve been coming over here with these fucking cameras.” Though Godard is always unflappable, he tries to elicit some solidarity, given his own radical politics, but fails; Cleaver says there’s a “mafia” involved in films, and tells him, “you’re part of that mafia.”
Then it’s to Newark, for a Black Arts performance in the street, just outside Spirit House, Baraka’s cultural/political home base. Baraka and associates pull out all the stops, taking turns with free verse while playing a glorious, Sun Ra-worthy way-free jazz. Baraka recites “SOS” (“calling all Black people…”), and threatens the Bank of America, while Godard stands in the background smoking cigarettes.
It’s a striking record of a radical cultural performance. It’s also something of a lost opportunity; unlike Hayden or Cleaver, Baraka gets no interview. It’s just this scene, and out for him. According to an opening credit that Pennebaker inserted, the Baraka footage wasn’t even part of Godard’s original vision for the film, but I’m not sure what his goal was—and neither of the leading Godard biographies (Richard Brody’s Everything is Cinema and Colin MacCabe’s Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy) explains.
Certainly Godard admired Baraka; he even stole a scene from his play Dutchman in Masculine Feminine. And in some ways Godard is the perfect interviewer for a confrontational figure like Baraka, since he’s always willing to let the scene play out and get as awkward as it might (such as his hilariously uncomfortable short interview film with Woody Allen, Meetin’ WA).
In any case, 1 PM abruptly moves on: next to the lower Manhattan financial district, where Godard follows a young corporate lawyer (one is reminded of the feminist critique his partner Anne-Marie Miéville later rightly brought to Ici et Ailleurs, calling Godard out for choosing a conspicuously attractive young woman to represent the Palestinian struggle).
In the most cringe-inducing scene, Torn dresses in Civil War-era military regalia and visits a Brooklyn classroom of mostly-black students, to teach them that the media lies to them, in another woeful display of white condescension. The bemused students, who hardly need some white jackasses to tell them what they already know, recognize the stunt for what it is, but play along as Torn shouts and Godard “directs” the scene (without a cigarette, for once).
Then Jefferson Airplane—surely one of the worst of the wretched, tuneless, loud, dumb hippie bands of the era, in my humble opinion—shows up to play a rooftop in New York, and it’s over.
I’m not exactly sure why Godard didn’t finish the movie (which was supposed to called One A.M.—one American movie—but evolved into “one Pennebaker movie” or 1 PM). He had just renounced narrative cinema as bourgeois after Weekend, so rather than being too messy or uncinematic (which it isn’t, compared to the set of films he rapidly delivered with the Dziga Vertov Group), maybe it was too conventional? One of the best scenes has Hayden watching the Cleaver footage with Godard, complaining that his filmmaking process doesn’t feel natural; Godard seems surprised that anyone would expect it to, and lectures Hayden on the need for art to be abstract. Maybe footage not far removed from the Beatles playing on the roof for Let It Be didn’t make the grade.
In any case, I’d love to know what his relationship with Baraka was like, and what Baraka thought of the film. I had actually been reading a lot about Baraka in the months leading up to his death, and just as the Godard literature largely ignores 1 PM, so too does the Baraka lit.
That said, I want to highlight some of my favorites here, as part of my tribute. Komozi Woodard’s A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) & Black Power Politics, from 1999, is unquestionably the most deeply-researched account of Baraka’s role in Newark politics and the national Black Power movement. It skews a bit hagiographic at times, but Woodard’s brilliant account of the failed Kawaida Towers housing project that Baraka poured his soul into in the early 70s, only to see it blocked by white racists and black political sell-outs (in what Woodard calls “one of the ugliest and strangest episodes in Newark’s black political history,” leading to Baraka’s arrest at a city council meeting in early 1975), helps explain his later move into communism.
Helping fill in some of the more problematic gaps Woodard avoids are Ronald Porambo’s No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark, which addresses head-on Baraka’s apparent collusion with the Newark police to blame the ’67 riots on white communism, while he was still facing sentencing on gun charges (after being beaten and arrested during the uprising), and Kevin Mumford’s Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America, whose best chapter, “Baraka v. Imperiale,” examines black and white nationalism as parallel formations in late-60s Newark.
From a vastly different angle, my favorite chapter in José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, uses Baraka’s (then still LeRoi Jones) play The Toilet to excavate a glimpsed utopian promise in the play’s violence. Another great queer-of-color reading of Baraka’s homophobia comes from Marlon Ross, who examines the “queer resources of Black Nationalist invective.”
A great late-period interview by Darnell Moore put Baraka and Black lesbian activist and author Cheryl Clarke in a room together in 2010 and let them ruminate about legacies and futures; it’s a lovely piece, and worth reading. (edited to add: Moore also wrote a beautiful tribute to Baraka, published on Kiese Laymon’s blog, in which he muses about white queer friends asking whether Baraka was still homophobic; “I wanted to respond, ‘Well, are you still racist?'”).
Finally, to return things to cinematic Newark, I recently came across Lars Lierow’s article “The ‘Black Man’s Vision of the World’: Rediscovering Black Arts Filmmaking and the Struggle for a Black Cinematic Aesthetic,” published last year in the great journal Black Camera.
1 PM is pretty obscure, but you can watch a low-quality version on UbuWeb; Lierow uncovered some films that are utterly lost, apparently preserved only in the Harvard Film Archives. Most of his focus is on Black Arts heavyweight Larry Neal and his NYC-based work, but Lierow also discovered The New Ark, a documentary co-directed by Neal and Baraka in 1969-70. Apparently the film documents Spirit House, the 1970 campaign to elect Kenneth Gibson as Newark’s first Black mayor, and more.
That’s the only image available, from Lierow’s article. It’s not easy to screen The New Ark—it would need to be digitized, a somewhat costly procedure—but I’ve been in touch with the Harvard Film Archives, and I would absolutely love to facilitate a screening of this amazing lost film in Newark, if at all possible (more on that later, hopefully). It would be a great tribute to Baraka, I think.
In the meantime, RIP to Amiri Baraka, the greatest cultural figure Newark has ever known.