We need to have a band, now. And it needs to be saying things that we think.
“Once upon a time, we were, I’m told, citizens with rights,” says Hari Kunzru. His half-smile as he speaks, along with his phrasing, are at once precise and also ambiguous, so as to pose the question, what is a citizen? DJ Spooky answers, “A citizen is someone who participates.” Jonah Lehrer refines that notion with another question: “It’s not just how will this decision affect me, but how will it affect everyone else?” And Eve Ensler punctuates, “It’s trying to create a structure and systems that supported the majority.”
This understanding of citizenship as a relationship, a commitment to a community, is currently under siege, submits Let Fury Have the Hour. Screening this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, Antonino D’Ambrosio’s documentary assembles an impressive array of talking heads, intercut with split screens of archival footage, to argue for that commitment, and against the account of citizenship as an individual condition. In that condition, “rights” are a function of personal benefit, not community.
As indicated by its title (taken from a Clash song and D’Ambrosio’s book), Let Fury Have the Hour proposes that art—sometimes described as “creative response”—can pull together these ideas, to make individual self-expression a means to community, and to make community a means to help individuals. As it celebrates punk, reggae, and hiphop (as well as graffiti, slam poetry, and skateboarding), the film showcases how “doing it yourself” is a form of participating, a form of citizenship. It’s not an unusual argument, but it can be a tricky one, for the “yourself” part can be coopted: it can become an advertising strategy to promote consumption, it can divide communities into haves and have-nots, and it can provide the basis for a seemingly moral (and circular) structure of success, wherein if you’re good, you’re rewarded and if you’re rewarded, you’re good.
In making this ambagious case (or really, set of cases), Let Fury Have the Hour is related to another documentary at Tribeca, The Russian Winter. Following a recent tour in Russia by John Forté, Petter Ringbom’s documentary takes another angle on the relationship between community and individual, as the artist makes his way back from his “scandal” (as one journalist terms it), in hopes of reestablishing (or restarting) his career. That scandal, you’ll recall, involved Forté‘s arrest at the Newark International Airport with a suitcase holding $1.4 million worth of liquid cocaine, his sentencing to 14 years in prison, and then the 2008 commutation of his sentence by George W. Bush, with the help of Orrin Hatch, of all people.
On his release from Fort Dix, Forté recalls, he understood his case was remarkable, and he keeps in mind ” how many young men and women are serving 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, who won’t get the second chance I have. I’m living for them,” he adds, “For guys I know personally, who would give anything to be here, who would give their life to have just one more minute of freedom.” This reflection and others suggest that The Russian Winter is more complicated than your typical concert film, though it is sometimes that. Not only does Forté articulate his sense of responsibility to multiple, interrelated communities (prisoners, black men, people lacking opportunities or education, et. al.), but he also embodies a tension, trying to fit back “in” (a representative for Joe Biden thanks him for doing “very important work for your country” in Russia) and also to maintain his critical distance from that place that’s “in,” to challenge the system that leaves people feeling helpless, unfulfilled, and angry, so much so that they become criminals or commit crimes.
The Russian Winter
For much of The Russian Winter, Forté is on terrifically “good behavior,” in part a condition of his commutation (he’s got five years of paper, he tells Raekwon the Chef) when they meet backstage after a Raekwon show in Russia), and in part because he wants to recoup and repay, because he wants the career he lost. He talks about his decision to pick up the guitar, and to sing as well as rap and produce, his inspiration from his mother and also his “spiritual godmother” Carly Simon, and also his awareness of his good fortune.
But Forté‘s awareness—of self and community, art and contexts—is acute and shifting, by definition. Near the end of the film, he and co-producer Christophe Charlier discover that a detail in a Russian contract has granted writing credit to the composer who has arranged strings for a recording of “Play My Cards for Me.” Forté walks out of a recording session at Mosfilm Studios (“Where I’m from, the writer is the guy who wrote the lyrics and who wrote the music”), argues with the producers, and threatens to abandon this particular recording project altogether.
Following some on- and off-screen upset, Forté reflects again on how he’s come to this place, and what it might mean to be an individual, who is at once a participant in and representative of a community. “I’m very cognizant of where I am,” he says, in the States or in another country, and also, of the effects of stereotypes, of “black male aggression. I never just want to be something that’s devolved and savage.” And even as his brief bout of anger and his sense of identity become entangled, he is also aware of how his past shapes this present, and will continue to shape his future.
Forté‘s experience—his fury, his frustration, his peace—is a specific example of ongoing tensions. Some of these emerge as well in Let Fury Have the Hour. While the film alludes generally to historical events that include the Great Depression and the war in Vietnam, it locates an initial point for punk as a particular challenge to Ronald Reagan (as Ian MacKaye says, “What he put into motion, I think, it was a linguistic attack, to care was selfish, to help was vain”) and Margaret Thatcher (“There is no such thing as society”). From here, the film expands its focus to include other forms or expression and community, and also to break down how the right ascended—by insisting on the inherent value of the individual, less as a participant-citizen than as a consumer.
Let Fury Have the Hour repeats this basic idea more than a few times, sometimes collapsing concepts, as in that opening gambit, where “rights,” especially when restricted by the state, signify the community lost, or in the too simple formulation, that self-expression = freedom. But for the most part, in its circling back and even in its repetition, the film favors complexity, particularly in the art it showcases, from Brother From Another Planet to Do the Right Thing, Boots Riley to Lewis Black, Shepard Fairey to Edwidge Danticat. It looks forward to the exposure of more art and more perspectives, in its last images of resistance, the effects of social media (that is, not as an end in itself), in communities seeing and showing themselves as such.
These many perspectives agree on the “rights” and especially the responsibilities of citizens. When John Sayles reads from his screenplay for Matewan, “There are only two sides, those that work and those that don’t,” you understand. It’s not about two sides, only. It’s about working, together and for each other.
Let Fury Have the Hour
The Russian Winter