You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of community-based filmmaking than Being Gladys, which premiered at the 2019 Women in Media-Newark film festival. I’m a longtime admirer of WIM-N, whose director, Pamela Morgan, tirelessly throws herself into organizing a diverse, global assortment of feminist shorts and features every year. And through the associated New Jersey Filmmakers Lab, WIM-N facilitates collaborative, supportive projects, from which Being Gladys emerged.
So I was admittedly predisposed to like it, on a procedural level alone. Fortunately, it earned my warmth on its merits.
I suspect you could point a static camera at Gladys Barker Grauer for 90 minutes and the result would still be mesmerizing (evidence: here’s a 64-minute example!). Fortunately, that’s not what directors Ralph and Zelda Patterson do, but still: currently in her mid-90s, Grauer’s storied life ranges from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Newark socialist left, from opening the Aard Studio, Newark’s first art gallery, in 1971, to a 2007 controversy in Morristown when officials absurdly pulled two of her pieces, “Free Mumia Abu Jamal” and “Free Leonard Peltier,” minutes before the opening of an exhibit in a county building because a prosecutor was upset by them (she filed suit, and they were reinstated). She still exhibits new work, most recently at Newark’s wonderful Gallery Aferro.
So that’s a biographical synopsis (albeit a reductive one, since there’s a lot of ground to cover in her seven decades of artistic and political work!). But what about the film?
Being Gladys tells Grauer’s story, with a particular emphasis on community-building through art. It’s an interesting and rewarding approach—instead of striving for a Wikipedia-as-documentary style, it really centers her community embeddedness, so that her work as an art teacher at Essex County Vocational Tech is presented, rightly, as equally important to her activism. Indeed, her devotion to demanding that her students be afforded access to an array of culture, including annual trips to such Broadway shows as The Wiz (despite the objections and racism of some white teachers) left a lasting impression, as attested by some former students of decades ago.
For that matter, we get firsthand testimony of her impact on fellow women artists, the broader Newark art world (which has grown into a nationally recognized scene—and naturally, when the Village Voice covered the phenomenon in 2017, it cited Grauer as a pioneer), and more—Amina Baraka shows up, so does Ben Jones.
But the centerpiece of the film is Grauer, well, like it says, being Gladys. She has no interest in resting on her laurels or performing the role of Wise Elder—she’s still actively doing the work, and that, rather than a sentimental history, is her own favored topic. She speaks with affection of her now-gone husband of 49 years, Solomon, who was there on the barricades with her, himself a labor organizer with the hospital workers 1199 at St. Michael’s, but we also watch her at work (you can see some of that in the preview here), and she’s never less than engaging, candid, and dedicated.
Being Gladys is a triumphant historical intervention, a pointed feminist rejoinder to masculinist cultural histories of Newark that trumpet only Amiri Baraka and Philip Roth but omit women like Gladys Barker Grauer. I particularly appreciate the way the Pattersons refuse to elevate art and traditional activism over the sort of teaching and institution-building that Grauer spent years on—things that are less sensational, attract less attention and praise, but ultimately cultivate, empower, and sustain the generations to come. That generosity of spirit shows through in Grauer’s life, and in their film.
That said, there are of course only so many things one can do in a 56-minute film, and I am left wanting a bit more on a few fronts. As a relative ignoramus on art, I could’ve used a little more context about where she fit in—other artists attest convincingly to the quality and impact of her work, but does she belong to a school? A movement? Where do we situate her as the art world shifted into its crass financialization in the 1980s and beyond? (There’s a great article by Sara Bissen that digs into her art and its abiding social conscience, BTW–highly recommended!).
The other area I wanted more on was the political. Grauer ran for the US senate in 1960 on the Socialist Workers Party ticket, and she has a vivid story of NYC police using horses to kick marchers on an SWP picket line, but what was the culture of socialism in Newark? When (if ever) did she leave the party? And how did she and Solomon, as an interracial couple, navigate the changing landscape as old-left socialism gave way to black nationalism in Newark? (there’s a fantastic digitized run of The Militant, SWP’s newspaper, in which Grauer and Newark make frequent appearances, at the valuable Marxists Internet Archive).
Still, these are minor quibbles, and no one film is going to do full justice to the depth and richness of Glady Barker Grauer’s life. Zelda and Ralph Patterson should be commended for bringing her life and work into the cinematic arena, and while Being Gladys need not be the sole and final word on the matter, it’s a great start, and I’m grateful for its existence.
BTW kudos too to Women in Media-Newark for drawing out a large, engaged audience for the screening at Newark Public Library—Being Gladys was paired with some other short films, and while my work schedule kept me from making the first two, I did catch Oath Bound, a powerful story of women resisting traffickers; while in a US context I have great concerns about the ways trafficking discourse feeds into such horrible reactionary legislation as SESTA/FOSTA, this Nigerian film is much more about the human level of exploitation and resistance, and sparked a substantive audience discussion—which is itself a success!