“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.