Here is something I’m very excited about: next Tuesday, April 22, we’ll be premiering the restored version of Amiri Baraka’s The New-Ark (which he wrote and directed as LeRoi Jones), at Rutgers-Newark:
The New-Ark had been almost entirely forgotten until Lars Lierow discussed it in his recent Black Camera article about lost Black Arts filmmaking (even Baraka himself, so far as I can tell, made but a passing parenthetical reference to it in his autobiography). The only known print in existence is at Harvard Film Archive, in the collection of cinematographer James Hinton.
Here are some glimpses from it (courtesy the James E. Hinton Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Fine Arts Library, Harvard University):
I’ve been doing some archival digging on the film, because I’ll be introducing it with some brief comments about Baraka’s film work—much of which has gone nearly as overlooked as The New-Ark. The 1967 adaptation of Dutchman (which you can watch on YouTube!) is probably the best-known, but other films, such as the 1971 adaptation of his play Slave, which went under the titles A Fable and Goin’ Down Slow, have completely disappeared (it’s on Temple of Schlock’s well-documented Endangered List, nearly the only source of information on it that I can find).
Until now, The New-Ark has joined that film in utter obscurity, but we’re hoping to help revive its visibility—however untrained as a filmmaker Baraka was, he was one of the very few to film Newark right as Black Power entered city politics (this film depicts the early organizational work of the Committee for a Unified Newark and United Brothers, which would ultimately bear fruit in the 1970 election of Kenneth Gibson, Newark’s first black mayor). As such, any aesthetic shortcomings it may have pale in comparison to its sheer historical value as a rare cinematic documentation of this critical moment in Newark–and African American–history. It also contains valuable footage of Spirit House, the Black Arts headquarters (featured a few years later in Godard’s Pennebaker-edited 1 PM.)
The New-Ark was shot for $19,000, according to the contract Baraka signed with the Public Broadcast Laboratory of National Public Television in October 1968:
It ultimately ran in December 1968 (in a series that also featured a Jonas Mekas short!), before playing some film festivals in 1969, such as the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, June 1969.
The New-Ark received limited critcal commentary; Variety called it “strangely moving,” though Stephanie Harrington in the Village Voice called it “a fraud.” In an odd Life review, Richard Schickel termed it “not very artful,” but “frightening and fascinating” (he was also rather unduly harsh on Jules Dassin’s flawed but potent American comeback Uptight, if I do say so myself!).
Then it promptly faded from sight; here’s a March 1970 ad from Baraka’s Jihad Productions in Negro Digest, advertising the film along with Dutchman and Baraka’s directorial debut Black Spring, which to the best of my knowledge remains a lost film.
Another Baraka film project around this time failed to get off the ground—an animated project bearing the provocative title Super Coon. Here’s a snippet of his proposed treatment:
It was going to be a collaboration with Ben Caldwell, a central figure in the L.A. Rebellion film group spearheaded by Charles Burnett; UCLA has been restoring some of Caldwell’s work, and you can see his short Medea (bearing some of the pro-natalist gender politics of that moment in Black Power politics, to be sure) here, with poetic narration by Baraka. After that, Baraka’s interests largely turned away from film—indeed, the harsh realities of Newark city politics were about to facilitate his conversion to Marxist-Leninist beliefs.
I’ll have more to say about his films at the screening, and we’ll also be hosting a post-film panel with commentary from two very important intellectuals: Larry Hamm, of the People’s Organization for Progress, and Komozoi Woodard, historian and author of A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics, one of the—if not perhaps the single most– important studies of Newark history, from which I’ve learned a ton.
It should be an incredible evening, and it’s free and open to the public, so anyone reading this between, oh, say, Boston to the north, DC to the south, and Pittsburgh to the west, please come and join us next Tuesday!