Despite his power and influence in US politics, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. is not a well-known historical figure. When Wisconsin state senator Gary George approached filmmaker Richard Kilberg about making a documentary about Powell, Kilberg had to be convinced.
He knew the Powell of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Powell who insulted Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, the Powell who could not let go of his indulgent lifestyle even as this lifestyle led to his political downfall and his death from cancer in 1972. But when Kilberg learned more about Powell’s political influence, social service, and the classic, tragic character of his rise and fall, Kilberg agreed to make a documentary film that became an Academy Award nominee in 1989.
Adam Clayton Powell is certainly a story about hubris, indulgence, and arrogance; but more importantly, it is a story about a man who was the voice of Black America for decades. It is about a man who passed as white for much of his early life and yet took it upon himself to become “the voice of Harlem’s despair”. He inspired the people of Harlem through his service and by “thumb[ing] his nose at white people”.
He took Washington by storm when he was elected to congress without spending a dime. As a Baptist minister with a congregation of over 14,000 people, Powell was said to hold “a community in the palm of his hand”. And he was elected again and again. He didn’t lose an election until the end of his career in 1970, and then he lost by less than 150 votes.
Narrated by civil rights activist Julian Bond, this documentary frames the rise and fall, good and bad, of Powell’s career through interviews with those who knew him best and archival footage that captures this flamboyant, witty, and controversial leader in action. Powell was a civil rights leader in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s and he was an important legislator as he helped to establish The National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities and ensure that tax money benefited the whole of the people.
He was not afraid to challenge segregation by inviting his black friends into segregated spaces and by attaching what became known as the “Powell Amendment” (a rider that would withhold federal funds from segregated schools) to every piece of legislation that passed before him. To many blacks he was a “mythic figure who came to do battle on our behalf” and he liked to call himself “the first bad nigger in congress”.
Even when Powell was dealing with tax indictments and trumped up libel charges, even as he enjoyed flaunting his glamorous, indulgent lifestyle, even when Congress ousted him for such behavior, the people of Harlem supported him. In fact, in 1967, with a seven-to-one margin, the people of Harlem elected Powell to fill his own vacant seat in the senate. But as filmmaker Kilberg notes, “he shirked the challenge”.
He couldn’t separate his personal aspirations, his indulgence in liquor and women, his ego and his defiant attitude, from his political obligations. In the moral atmosphere of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, Powell could not change who he was.
Powell never had to campaign. He never felt the need to apologize. He was conflicted and his career was tumultuous. He certainly faced racism and challenged it in his life and career. But as some interviewees note, not every problem before him was a result of racism, as much as he blamed racism for all the challenges he faced. As one friend notes, he “served his people” but “he lived as a human being”.
According to one interviewee, like so many other black leaders, Powell “paid a horrific price”. He served his community with high ideals and and an unswerving dedication. But torn between the rights of black Americans and the rigidity of the white establishment he suffered the psychic repercussions of a public life and a goal too big for one man to accomplish. Thus, the story of Adam Clayton Powell reminds us of what it means to be black in America. He was born with relative privilege but chose to champion on behalf of those born with none. And the people, his people, often lived through him.
Included on the DVD release of this 1989 documentary film is an interview with the filmmaker and information about Docurama films. Upon first glance, these extras seem to be indulgent; however, the interview with Richard Kilberg provides further insights into the film, the life of Powell, and some historical context and comparison.
Adam Clayton Powell is more than the story of one man. It is also a story of decades of struggle for African Americans and a leader who tried to be everything. It is a documentary about “a personality and a time”. For so many people, Powell symbolized hope when there was little hope and this documentary will certainly help us to remember why we have forgotten Powell and why he is so important to remember.