Citizens with Rights
“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. Opening at New York’s Quad Cinema on 14 December and available on VOD starting the 19th, Antonio 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.
The film makes effective use of news footage from a period when such rights were sensationally restricted, during the era of Thatcher and Reagan in particular. As artists seek alternatives to power systems, as they make visible the crises that governments and corporations do their best to cover over (or drum up and exploit, in some instances), they might seem, as the MC5’s Wayne Kramer puts it, to be “troublemakers.” He goes on, “Democracy requires participation.”
As indicated by its title (taken first from a Clash song, for the title D’Ambrosio’s book about Joe Strummer and punk more broadly), 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.
If this cycle seems inescapable—as well as not particularly healthy for the development of art and the encouragement of innovation—the very challenge it poses is something like an inspiration. And so, as punk artists insist on their individual styles and goals and rebellions, they also articulate a philosophy, elastic and shifting, defying expectations in any number of ways.
Just so, the film insists on the complicated relationships, and tensions, among self and community, art and contexts. 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, from Boots Riley to Lewis Black, from Shepard Fairey to Edwidge Danticat. Each is individual, and each is also building on ideals and resistances that have come before.
The documentary also looks forward to the exposure of more art and more perspectives, in its hopeful, closing images of resistance, it proposes that social media are shaping communities, how they see and also represent themselves as such. As social media might incite change, media can disperse and also bring together multiple perspectives. Here again, the film offers a vision of 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.