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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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Friday, Jan 20, 2012

When St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe Project was completed in 1956, it seemed an answer to many prayers, affordable and respectable housing designed (by Minoru Yamasaki, also the architect of the World Trade Center Towers) to lift its residents out of poverty and serve the surrounding communities as well. When it was torn down just two decades later, Pruitt-Igoe had become an example of how poor, uneducated, and “rural” communities inevitably go wrong, and don’t deserve help—especially from the government. This sort of story resonates today, of course, revived in the current Republican presidential campaigns. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth shows how the story evolved and why it lingers, still reductive, destructive, and tragic.


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Friday, Jan 13, 2012

Sing Your Song‘s focus on political activism—its relationship to celebrity, whether a star owns it or not—mirrors that of its subject. As Harry Belafonte recalls here, his inclination to activism was ignited early, as a boy whose mother worked as a domestic, and who sent him and his brother to live with relatives in Jamaica: “Almost all the songs that I later came to sing,” he says, “were songs that I heard among the people, the peasants, my family, at the time.” The film shows photos of Jamaican workers, children and the shoreline, as he credits his mother for making him believe “There was nothing in life that I could not aspire to.” Belafonte took Paul Robeson as a model, and the notorious official efforts to suppress Robeson’s “song”—the blacklisting, the FBI and CIA surveillance, and the revocation of his US passport in 1950—hover over Belafonte’s story, along with Robeson’s advice to him: “Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are.” Belafonte used his popularity—his appeal to “white teenyboppers” along with other fans all over the world—to show the intersections of art and politics.


See PopMattersreview.



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