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Friday, Feb 17, 2012
Screening on the Documentary Channel this month, the documentary is comprised of footage by Smiley's professional crew and also by two teens from Memphis.

“My partners and I are always searching for Dr. King’s perspective,” says Tavis Smiley during the first minutes of his documentary, Stand. In 2008, Smiley wonders, “How did we arrive at this critical place in our history?” And so, as Barack Obama is running for president, poverty growing, the US is engaged in two wars, and more black men are incarcerated than ever before, Smiley and a group including Michael Eric Dyson, Wren Brown, and Cornel West (“Definitely,” he says, “not your typical black men”) take off on a bus trip to look for Martin Luther King Jr.‘s perspective. Screening on the Documentary Channel this month, the documentary is comprised of footage by Smiley’s professional crew and also by two teens from Memphis, Robert Smith and Daron Keith Boyce, who wield their digital camera with a mix of enthusiasm and awe.


Much like the ride in Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus, this one alternates betweens on the bus (the space tight and the conversation lively) sand setting down the passengers in a series of locations (though here, they always have places to stay and eat). It also provides multiple occasions for sharing stories and some wisdom too (Dyson: “It’s hard sometimes when you’re in the parade to see what’s on the float” or again, West: “Don’t confuse your voice with an echo”). When a new partner joins in, like Dick Gregory, Smiley uses the opportunity to historicize: “Comedy has been important for black folk,” he asserts, “Things have been so challenging and bleak for us at times,” that it’s helped to have artists who “say stuff on stage that we can’t say, who are willing to check America, check white folk.” What the riders say here—and they can claim a large stage, to be sure—is less directed at white folk than black men, words of encouragement and direction, exhortations to excellence and consciousness. They’re a small, atypical group, and they listen to one another. 



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Tuesday, Feb 14, 2012
If they can stop one act of violence, they might stop another.

Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s documentary opens with this self-description: “One year in the life of a city grappling with violence.” During that year, the film follows three Interrupters, former offenders, as they work in Chicago for an organization called CeaseFire. Premiering on Frontline on 14 February, The Interrupters details their backstories and their current efforts, while also considering the premise of CeaseFire, that violence can be treated like a disease, that its transmission can be interrupted. “People believe in punishment,” says epidemiologist and CeaseFire co-founder Gary Slutkin, because when “you punish a young person, he stops. But he actually learns to mimic the punishment.” Young offenders, he says, are caught in a cycle: “They see violence as their disease, what they expect to die of, is this.” The Interrupters intervene, talking and spending time with offenders, helping them to see alternatives to revenge and anger. If the task is daunting, CeaseFire members are courageous. In spite of missteps and steps back, in spite of the many times that the interrupters attend funerals and console grieving parents, they try again and again. If they can stop one act of violence, they might stop another.


See PopMattersreview.



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Thursday, Feb 9, 2012
"What was it like coming back to America after fighting in Vietnam?" asks an off-screen narrator. A 22-year-old black man nods and begins to talk...

“What was it like coming back to America after fighting in Vietnam?” asks an off-screen narrator. A 22-year-old black man nods and begins to talk, his weary expression suggesting this is a question he’s prepared to answer, but one he dreads. “It’s almost the same as when I left, ” he begins. “I say this because when a man goes to fight for his country and then comes back over here and almost have to fight for his life in certain parts of the country, get ridiculed and discriminated, you know, and be less than a man. I don’t think it’s right, you know.” It’s 1967. 


This early scene sets the stage for Göran Olsson’s terrific documentary, Black Power Mixtape 1967-195, which premieres on Independent Lens on 9 February. Specfically, it lays out the film’s premise, that the Black Power Movement, building and then suppressed from 1967 to 1975, emerged out of needs to resist injury and endure trauma, and also, to make visible what was going on in America, what remained unknown to people who didn’t have to know. The film features interviews with civil rights figures like SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis, as well as today’s activists (Talib Kweli, ?uestlove), tracing how the Panthers resisted oppression (see especially, the FBI’s COINTELPRO) and also built a lasting sense community. Looking back, it looks forward, observing from the outside (the Swedish reporters’ footage that makes up the bulk of the film), it reveals what goes on inside.


See PopMattersreview.


Watch Looking Back at the Black Power Movement on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.


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Tuesday, Feb 7, 2012

Stanley Nelson’s exceptional documentary tells the story of the Freedom Rides, from their initiation in May 1961, by James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), to the Interstate Commerce Commission’s (ICC) ruling that September, that passengers on interstate buses could sit wherever they wanted, “the first unambiguous victory in the long history of the civil rights movement.” Freedom Riders—airing on PBS on 7 February—offers some incredible images from the period to show how this victory was the result of months of struggle, including assaults on the freedom riders by angry citizens as well as police officers. Boarding commercial buses (Trailways and Greyhound) in Washington, DC and intending to ride through the Deep South, the riders set out deliberately to violate Southern segregation laws. Each CORE member signed a formal agreement, stating, “I understand that I shall be participating in a nonviolent protest… against racial discrimination, that arrest or personal injury to me might result.” They had little expectation of the violence that would be inflicted on them.


See PopMattersreview.


Watch Freedom Riders Theatrical Trailer on PBS. See more from Freedom Riders.


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Thursday, Jan 26, 2012

“President Reagan has fought long and hard to prevent Congress from imposing new economic sanctions on South Africa. Recently, even leaders of his own party begged him to stop. He didn’t. Today, he lost.” Footage of Dan Rather’s report on CBS in October 1986 serves as a kind of exclamation point when it appears in Have You Heard From Johannesburg. Before and following this clip, the film shows member of the Black Congressional Caucus then and now, recalling their fight to support the ANC against the racist South African government. When at last the Senate and the House voted to override the president’s veto, the movement was approaching its goal, the end of apartheid, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison (still three and a half years away, in 1990), and the official recognition by Western nations—the US, Britain, France, and others—that apartheid was, in fact, a threat to world peace.


This moment was an overlong time coming, of course, but still, when it does come in “Free at Last,” the fifth and final PBS installment of Connie Field’s documentary on 26 January, you’d be hard-pressed not to feel at least a bit of relief. As the film reveals, the strategies to get to this moment shift over the years, as the ANC is joined by other organizations, based in in South Africa and elsewhere. The ANC continued to represent through Oliver Tambo in exile (who says in an archival interview that even as bomb attacks were escalating in South Africa, “We continue, of course, to calculate on what this means for civilians” as well as Mandela (who became the movement’s most recognizable “name and face”). When an interviewer asks him, “Does your wife worry about you?”, Tambo patently responds. “Of course she does. I expect I really do expect that I will be killed by the regime or its representatives.”


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