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The New York Times:
Black America Made Visible;
TV Show Illuminated Culture Through Lens of Bed-Stuy
By Jim Yardley
Charles Hobson never had to look far for guests to fill his first television show, "Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant." He once plucked Cicero Murphy, then one of the country's great black pool players, from a billiards hall on Nostrand Avenue. Another time he recruited the renowned musician Eubie Blake.
He brought on local police officers, teachers, a calypso singer, Cleon Jones of the New York Mets and Julius Lester, the radical author. He invited a high school football team, welfare mothers, business owners and enough singers and dancers to fill a Broadway musical. If the variety of people seemed dizzying, Mr. Hobson said, that was intentional.
"This was a way for blacks to hear their voices," said Mr. Hobson, who is 62. "Here's a community of about 400,000 people at that time, with all of their culture and churches, and no coverage."
Largely forgotten, "Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant" was a pioneering television show in New York City from 1968 until 1970. It was the city's first program written, produced and presented by blacks at a time when blacks were largely invisible on television, or seen only in news footage about riots, protests or crime. Now, Mr. Hobson, the show's producer, has edited excerpts of the program into a 55-minute film being shown today at Lincoln Center.
What made "Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant" unusual was the unfiltered window it offered on an ignored black neighborhood and, to a degree, on black America. Film scholars and social historians consider it a rare video time capsule, perhaps the only one of its kind documenting a black community.
But it is also a measuring stick. Returning to the Brooklyn neighborhood last week to reminisce on the 30th anniversary of his program, Mr. Hobson lamented that the news and entertainment media often still fail to portray the whole of Bedford-Stuyvesant. He had not been back for 15 years, and while he found stretches of poverty and neglect, he also found sidewalk trees fat with leaves and blocks of neatly kept brownstones. To him, his boyhood neighborhood, known then and now as one of America's largest ghettoes, seemed surprisingly benign.
"Boy, this looks great," Mr. Hobson declared as he arrived at the immaculate old brownstone at 176 Hancock Street where he grew up. He joked that it would be ironic if it had been bought by white yuppies. But the current owners are a black Jamaican family, according to a neighbor, who have planted a neat flower garden and renovated the entire house. Mr. Hobson peered through the windows at the elaborate woodwork he polished as a child. "This is quite amazing for me personally," he said. "It looks really nice."
Up Hancock Street, Stella Washington, 70, remembered the Hobson family. She said she has lived on the street since 1941, and she said it still clings to its middle-class roots. The bad news, she said, is that several doctors had moved away or retired in recent years. "The neighborhood is O.K.," she told Mr. Hobson. "We're not strung out with homeless. We're not strung out with crack addicts, as yet."
In his surprise at how well-kept the block looked, Mr. Hobson conceded that perhaps he himself had succumbed to some of the stereotypes he had worked to shatter in making "Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant." For this, in part, he blamed the media. "When I go to Park Slope," said Mr. Hobson in a later interview, "I'm not surprised, because the media does tell you it is New York's Left Bank. But when I went to Bed-Stuy, you're not prepared for the humanity, for some of the quite wonderful blocks, and some of the normal people and conditions."
Part of the blame, Mr. Hobson added, falls on the "black media." He rated Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" as the best film portrayal of the neighborhood. But Mr. Hobson criticized other aspects of the black media, particularly rap videos that he said only reinforce and exploit negative stereotypes. While black celebrities are far more visible on television than in the past, what he considers rare is any thoughtful examination of real black communities. Crime and crisis, he said, are what usually attract the cameras to Bedford-Stuyvesant.
So it was, too, in the 1960's, Mr. Hobson said, when the media always missed the neighborhood's complexity. His own parents were working-class Anglophiles from the West Indies who hung a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II in their living room. On Sundays, his family attended a High Episcopal church, then near Tompkins Park.
The neighborhood had scholars and street gangs, famous musicians and winos, good blocks and bad blocks. "The media never got that because they lumped everything together," Mr. Hobson said. "If it was a black community, it was a ghetto or a slum."
His opportunity to show a different picture came in February 1968. The Federal Government's Kerner Commission had issued its landmark report on race relations, criticizing the media for failing to adequately cover black communities. Two months later, on the same day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, WNEW announced the creation of "Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant."
The program was largely conceived by Senator Robert Kennedy's Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a community development group. The initial $45,000 budget dictated relatively low production values (Mr. Hobson compares the show to public access television today).
Roxie Roker, who later starred on "The Jeffersons," was one of the hosts, while Mr. Hobson worked behind the camera. The 7 A.M. time slot (with a repeat at 1 A.M.) was awful, but the program found an audience.
"It's so unplanned, it's so informal, it's so — I hate to use the word — but, genuine," said Charles Musser, an associate professor with Yale University's American studies and film studies program. "Just about anyone in the community could show up and be on TV. There is a kind of immediacy because things aren't so controlled and well managed. People come on and, because it isn't scripted, they say what's on their minds."
In 52 half-hour programs, Mr. Hobson simply turned his camera on Bedford-Stuyvesant. The hosts did not use a sound studio; they filmed all over the neighborhood, often outdoors. The show attracted celebrities like Harry Belafonte and Max Roach, the musician, but mostly they had a cast of thousands — the ordinary people of the neighborhood. They filmed discussions about Richard Nixon, welfare policies and anti-Semitism. Children read Black Power poems.
"I've rarely seen such candor and such open expression, even when it's boring," Mr. Hobson said. "People spoke their hearts and their minds. They didn't know how to do anything else at that time because there weren't any models."
The program ended in 1970 when sponsorship money dwindled. But other, more polished shows remained, such as the nationally syndicated "Black Journal" on PBS and the local "Like It Is" on WABC.
Mr. Hobson's career took him out of New York to Atlanta and Washington, where he worked as the senior vice president of WETA for 13 years. He has also lectured at several universities, including Harvard and Yale, and he taught film in Munich in 1996 as a Fulbright scholar. He currently runs his own documentary film production company.
Only when he returned to New York in the early 1990's did Mr. Hobson discover that the old tapes of "Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant" were still stored in a warehouse at WNEW. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, he restored many of the old programs and made his film, which was shown at the Margaret Mead Festival in 1997. Its showing today, at 6:30 P.M., is part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Copies of the program are now archived at the Museum of Radio and Television, the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Schomberg Center in Harlem and the University of California at Los Angeles.
When he was 18, Mr. Hobson said, his family moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Crown Heights, in part because he had been mugged. Crime was rising. He remembered his parents' pride in their upward mobility but also their disappointment that their new apartment did not match their Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone.
Sitting in Tompkins Park (now Herbert Von King Park) after his visit to Hancock Street, Mr. Hobson recalled the titillated reaction he often got during the 1970's when he told people he came from Bedford-Stuyvesant. His connection with the "ghetto" lent him an "authenticity" in film circles, he admitted. Now he lives with his family in a Boerum Hill brownstone.
His work has carried him to the townships of South Africa and to another famous American ghetto, Watts in Los Angeles. What interested him about both places were the layers he discovered, the surprising nuances he found in places so often seen in two dimensions. Of course, he had already learned in his own neighborhood.
"No other black community in America was documented the way Bed-Stuy was," he said with obvious pride. "And because of the low production value of it, it was like truth, you know?"
Dot Com. Two words that changed the world; but what about TV Dot Com? While most of us are getting used to the massive speedy growth of the on-line internet art market, the next phase is already here. ArtHistoryTV.com launched in mid-January and is out to revolutionize our lives.
Why broadcast on the internet? Because the internet has no borders and via niche TV you can watch what you want, when you want. ArtHistoryTV.com is no fledgling start-up, but an offshoot of leading American internet broadcaster ForeignTV.com, backed and promoted by Microsoft and already quoted on the NASDAQ Index.
ForeignTV.com went public last May, raising $10.2 million. It got 3 million hits a month then and since has expanded rapidly. Arguably the first true internet television network, it represents a quantum leap in the broadcasting of news, entertainment, music, film and art over the internet. Says Al Primo, ex-vice president of news at ABC-TV, now president of ForeignTV.com and Medium4.com, “We represent the nest step in television. Our network is as big a leap forward for TV as cable was for airwaves broadcasting. We are the future.”
But why art history? Not exactly an obvious commercial choice. Did someone batter on their door, or did Medium4.com take an altruistic decision to include art in its niche TV? And a free channel at that.
ArtHistoryTV’s executive producer is veteran filmmaker and arts producer Charles Hobson, ex-senior vice president for WETA-TV and WABC-TV, with many award-winning films and documentaries to his name ranging from a 1968 Emmy Award for “Porgy and Bess” for PBS in 1998, Metro Arts Monthly for Channel 13, documentary and Newport Jazz Festival’s fortieth anniversary special. His film are currently part of the Whitney’s “American Century” blockbuster exhibition.
“Art History was on the drawing board right from the start. They came looking for me. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to bring art to the world, from Uruguay to Uganda, from Amsterdam to Zurich or Zanzibar. Defining a state of art technology, we will act as a cyber-museum, featuring the finest in international visual arts. We will provide both original and re-broadcasting programming. Alongside Old Masters and the classics. We will also cover current events in from New York to London, and even what’s happening around the corner: whatever’s fresh and whatever’s new. We already have links with MoMA, the Met, and with museums in Sweden and elsewhere. We plan for our programmes to be 50/50 historic/contemporary."
But why was art on the drawing board right from the start? Ex-journalist, now Medium4 chief executive and vice president Jonathan Braun is frank: “I love art history. I’m a frustrated painter. If I’d been born rich, I would have been an artist. But merely indulging my interest would not be fair to the shareholders. We see ArtHistory.com as potentially a very commercial channel. More people go to art galleries than sports events. The US art market alone is huge. In fact, my inspiration was the very successful History Channel. Demographics also show that more people travel and want to get a richer experience when they go to Rome or Paris. There is a boom in high-end tourism and people want to learn about the art they see. It seemed like a wonderful chance to carve out this territory. We can be the world’s only TV internet art channel. We cannot be top in sorts, that’s a saturated market, but we can be top in art history and the contemporary arts. The internet works so well for global culture. You could say we aim to be like a popular BBC art program.
Mr. Braun, who was the first to do entertainment on the internet over five years ago, creating the first internet soap opera, sees e-commerce as another money spinner with art books, catalogues, art videos, films, CDs and gift available via the web. The company has already joined up with GlobalFulfillment.com, a leader in on-line retailing, to create a robust e-commerce marketplace designed to sell a broad range of merchandise from around the world to viewers of NicheTV, “form books to bruschetta”, says Mr. Braun.
Charles Hobson’s determination to present a broad look at the visual arts was demonstrated by ArtHistoryTV’s initial output in mid-January when straight art history appreciation films on Leonardo, Correggio and Raphael, plus a profile of Yale University’s collection rubbed shoulders with an interview with MoMA’s senior curator, Mary Lea Bandy, in MoMA’s brand new high tech film and video café.
While the mainstream media peddled images of blacks protesting, looting, and burning down buildings during the late 1960s, Charles Hobson and his radio colleagues were busy broadcasting a new perspective on African American life.
Two months after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, WNEW launched the creation of "Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant," a news magazine highlighting varied aspects of the neighborhood's black community. Hobson, the show's producer, was determined to give viewers a broader picture of the culture, politics and social issues that drove the community. Guests on the show, which was hosted by Roxie Roker, later a star on "The Jeffersons," included local police officers, teachers, calypso singers, community activists, local merchants, celebrities and high school students.
The show became New York's first program produced, written and hosted by African Americans. Its inception emerged in response to the Kerner Commission report on race relations, which charged the media with failing to accurately and comprehensibly cover black communities around the nation. And Hobson, who got his start in broadcast from the progressive side of the radio dial, went on to produce shows for the public and independent television, including "Black Journal" - later to become "Tony Brown's Black Journal," "Like it is," a documentary style news magazine, and "The Africans," a nine-part series that aired on PBS stations in 1986.
Hobson's career began at WBAI, New York's Pacifica station. His opportunity to host a radio program arose quite by chance. The son of Caribbean immigrants, Hobson developed a great respect and interest in African American culture. Raised as an Episcopalian and surrounded by the Anglophilia of his parents, as a teen Hosbon began to immerse himself in the music, particularly in gospel, soul and jazz.
"I came from a culture I unfortunately didn't want to relate to, and African Americans took some things for granted and I was surprised," Hobson says. Language, the church and the philosophies of the black intelligentsia were some of those things. Music, however, captured his spirit.
With his allowance, he collected every album he could. Reading Jet and Ebony magazines, he absorbed everything about black politics, social movements and entertainment.
This was the background that got him his first gig at WBAI. He contacted the station's program director and told him of his interest to play gospel music for the station. The program director gave him a couple of auditions, letting Hobson get comfortable being on the air.
Hobson soon built a reputation for himself as a knowledgeable discographer with an ear for the sublime, and a taste for rare and non-commercial wonders. Variety magazine once wrote an article about his show.
"That's when I realized I had some status," Hobson says.
At the time, he supported himself selling Oriental rugs on commission sales at Sterns Department store. He was then the only black commissioned salesman in the store.
One day he got a call from the station's engineer who was leaving the station. The engineer had recommended Hobson for a position as production director. Even though he was making more money selling rugs, he decided to take the job.
In that position, Hobson produced a variety of programs, all bringing the black perspective to the airwaves. He broadcast a series of Malcolm X's speeches and when civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer called him asking for support for one of her causes, he produced a show on her issue and gave her full air time.
Hobson constantly kept an ear and eye out for stories and nothing with a pulse slipped by him. "I was trying to enjoy life and things I discovered I tried to share."
The East German Film Library Survives
By Matthew L. Schuerman
In November 1989 a handful of East Germans slipped into their cinemas to watch the debut of the latest film by Heiner Carow, who had time and again bucked the authorities with his sincere, if sentimental, portrayals of everyday life in a socialist country. He was the man who had put Flower Power, rock music, and the transforming power of romantic love on East Germany's big screens, giving those subjects a legitimacy they never had in the eyes of the state. In 1989 his topic was homosexuality, and the story traced a young man's choice between the woman who was bearing his child and a man with whom he had meanwhile fallen in love. "Coming Out" turned out to be a wildly successful film, going on to receive the second-place Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival the following February. But what happened outside of those theaters would capture the hearts and minds of East Germans much more powerfully, relegating Carow and his colleagues to the purgatory reserved for those who made movies in countries that no longer exist. That very night, the Wall fell.
Carow is now dead. His colleagues‹some of the greatest feature film directors in their time and place‹have now turned to commercials, television shows, and documentaries to make a living. Yet whatever blow German unification dealt their job security, it was perhaps the best development to have happened to the 10,000 or so films made under the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, or DEFA, as the state's official film studio was known. Freed from the Cold War barriers that kept most of the films in the Eastern Bloc, they are seeping out now and will change anyone's idea of East Germany. The best of them are bolder and more irreverent than might be expected for a socialist export, imbued with an understanding of Nazism and socialism that's outdoing anything seen or heard in the West.
It was the East Germans themselves who embraced the new freedoms that the fallen Wall brought, subtitling eight banned films in three months to show at the Berlinale. After reunification, the German government got into the game, sending packages of DEFA (pronounced DAY-fa) classics on tours of Goethe Institutes around the world. In university German departments this side of the big pond, East German film has become the hot topic, as evidenced by the first-ever DEFA conference held last October in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the establishment of a DEFA archive at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The often grainy and slow-moving feature films are not expected to make a commercial splash in the United States, but video versions of the bigger titles are already available from select mail-order houses. Charles Hobson of Vanguard Films in New York City has the television and theatrical rights (as the producers representative for Progress) in the United States and Canada and aims at showing the films. If he is successful, the greater of the East German directors, people like Carow, Konrad Wolf, and Frank Beyer, may in time take their places beside the Pole Andrzej Wajda or the Czech Milos Forman.
The first film license in post-war Berlin went to Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers are Among Us), an eerie film noir about a doctor incapacitated by the guilt of his Nazi past. Wolfgang Staudte, who had himself acted in Nazi films, shoppore.is script among the Allies first, but got nowhere. The American film officer, Peter van Eyck, reportedly told Staudte that Germans dare not think about making a film in the next 20 years. Only the Soviets expressed interest. They were taking over the film and television studios which lay in their zone, including the UFA studios in suburban Babelsberg, a massive complex that once saw the likes of Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich. Accustomed to using media to "educate" the public, the Soviets wanted to "de-Nazify" the German public. Staudte's script was the perfect vehicle.
One night in September 1945, Staudte met with Alexander Dymschitz, a Russian culture officer, in an office on Jaegerstrasse. "There was no electricity and we negotiated by candlelight," Staudte said in an interview recounted in Das zweite Leben der Filmstadt Babelsberg, a history of the studio published by the Filmmuseum Potsdam. "He congratulated me and knew every part of the script in detail." The film takes place, as it was filmed, in the rubble of Germany's capital city after the Nazi defeat. An ex-soldier, a doctor named Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert), has turned to drink and dissipation, remembering how his former commander, Ferdinand Brueckner (Arno Paulsen) had a few years earlier ruthlessly murdered a group of prisoners one Christmas while on the Eastern Front. Mertens had tried to stop the massacre but failed. When Mertens runs into Brückner on the street after the war, the doctor contrives to take justice into his own hands. "The Murderers Are Among Us," filmed in just 31 days, opened to acclaim in Germany and abroad.
Antifascism would remain a bulwark of both film and nation. When East Germany was formed in 1949, its leaders claimed legitimacy because they had resisted the Nazis as Communists during the war. "They had been victims to Nazism and didn't feel they had to apologize to anyone for being harsh if they felt they had to be harsh," said Barton Byg, a professor of German and director of the DEFA archive at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The socialist leaders' attitude infected the public as well. "There was really a sense for some people — middle-aged, of the intellectual strata — I think it is [DEFA screenwriter Wolfgang] Kohlhaase who eventually formulated the phrase, that to attack the leadership would mean to attack the antifascists, or to attack victims."
In Steven Spielberg's Holocaust, a good-hearted and clever German can save the lives of thousands of Jewish workers. In DEFA films, good hearts turn bad, and cleverness cannot stretch far enough. Konrad Wolf's Professor Mamlock, completed in 1961, traces the fate of a Jewish hospital director forsaken by his gentile friends. In 1983 came Der Aufenhalt (The Turning Point), directed by Frank Beyer and written by Kohlhaase. The film, set in a Polish prison after the war, proves Sartre's dictum that hell is other people. All of the prisoners claim they are innocent of Nazi crimes. Then "the gas man" turns out to have driven prisoners around in a truck, slowly asphyxiating them with engine exhaust fed into the trailer. The "railroad worker" drove trains to Auschwitz. They slowly turn on a German infantryman, Mark Niebuhr (Sylvester Groth), who really does seem to have no sin.
Beyer, Wolf and others like them were responsible for only a handful of DEFA's 750 feature films. In addition to their work, DEFA produced another 750 animated films for children; some 2,000 documentaries and shorts; an equal number of weekly newsreels; and 4,000 dubbed versions of foreign films, including American ones, so long as they did not contain too much sex or violence. Most of the output is considered too spurious or propagandistic to warrant export now, with the possible exception of 12 Indianerfilme, a variation on American Westerns with an American Indian as the hero. The lilt of its productions no doubt made East Germans view the studio as a sort of heavy-handed joke, a cinematic version of the Trabis. One film, Das Kaninchen bin ich (I Am the Rabbit), makes this clear. In an expression of devotion to a lover, one character vows the ultimate sacrifice: "I would even see a DEFA film with you."
"I Am the Rabbit," by Kurt Maetzig, drew fire when it was reviewed by the socialist party's central committee in December 1965, and not just because of that line. The film follows a 19-year-old woman who falls for an older judge who came out looking too opportunistic for the party's taste. At the same meeting, the apparatchiks also stuck another film in the closet: Frank Vogel's Denk bloss nicht, ich heule (Just Don't Think I'm Crying). That tale portrayed a teenager short on patriotism and long on integrity. In an official report in the Filmmuseum's history, the party said the two films "misunderstood the evolutionary path society is supposed to take and belittles the creative qualities that the masses find in their daily jobs. The individual comes across as alienated from co-workers, party cadre and governmental leaders."
In the next eight months, 10 more films would be banned. One of them, Frank Beyer's Die Spur der Steine (The Trace of Stones), seemed to be off to a good start when first released. It received a rating of "very worthy" from the Ministry of Culture and was nominated for a Czech film festival. An unmatchedly complex film, Beyer imagines what happens when a socialist politico, Werner Horrath (played by Eberhard Esche) tries to make a construction site work as it should, efficiently and according to progressive principles. He is able to seduce the young engineer Kati Klee (Krystyna Stypulkowska). He is able to convert Hannes Balla (Manfred Krug), the leader of a band of rogue workers. But then he is handed a Faustian choice between the devil and his own downfall. After it played two weeks in the cinemas, party secretary Walter Ulbricht cut its run short. Beyer took a low-profile position at the Dresdner Theater for several years. Years later, he would shoot Jakob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar), the only DEFA film to get an Oscar nomination, and then "The Turning Point," about the Polish prison.
How many films were banned in all? Ralf Schenk, a writer and spokesman for Progress Film-Verleih, the company which distributes DEFA films, estimates between 30 and 40, counting animated films and documentaries. That could be a lot or a little, depending on how you take it. DEFA directors object to the very notion of framing their studio's history in terms of censorship. Those who have tried to survive in the current commercial environment see socialism and Hollywood as two sides of the same coin. "Naturally the producer had to approve of the film, but that is the case of every film in the world," the screenwriter Kohlhaase says.
What is more, Orwell's idea that authoritarian states could exert unlimited control over its cultural products does not describe East Germany very well. Each leader had his own views on how tolerant the state should be, and each man along the way had his own ideas as well. God knows how many eyes supervised a single film's birth, from the script review board to the Ministry of Culture. Even the most daredevil work might find an ally somewhere along the way who, if he was high-ranking enough, could pull the right strings.
"There was never the case where something was expressly forbidden. There were discussions. If I were to say that I did something for this or that reason, then they would accept it. Also, I would accept if they explained their objections in the film," says Lothar Warneke, a director who, because of his degree in theology, is often considered the moralist in the DEFA pantheon. "For example, if the country was having political tensions, say, with an African country, and I were to do something in the film that would defame that country, they would say to me, 'That is very politically harmful.' Then I would think about it and say, 'Must I really have this in my film?' And then I would say, 'Good. Let us do something different.' That is to say that there are things that are unimportant, that do not damage the message of the film that one can change. And then there are some things that one would not change."
In 1973, the socialist party was not willing to censor Heiner Carow's Die Legende von Paul und Paula (The Legend of Paul and Paula), no matter how many risks it took. The film shows a party functionary who commits adultery, mocks the urban renewal taking hold in East Berlin and-horrors!-showed people with long hair listening to rock music. It became the "Love Story" of East Germany, and like Erich Segal's novel-turned-blockbuster, ends tragically. Paula, the name of the romantic heroine, became the name for newborns. "In a sense, it was revolutionary. Even the rock and roll music. It was a love story: Love mattered above all else," says the director's son, Stefan Carow. Although Erich Honecker had written the 1965 report banning subversive films, he was too nervous to ban "The Legend of Paul and Paula." He had came into power as a progressive, so he resorted to other techniques. "They tried to place people in the audience who would boo the film," the younger Carow recalls, "but soon it became so popular, it became pointless."
In 1992, a group of French investors under the name Compagnie Generale des Eaux bought the DEFA property at Babelsberg for $100 million and appointed as managers a French businessman named Pierre Couveinhes and Werner Schloendorff, the West German director of "The Tin Drum." Together, they have rented the studios out to numerous European production companies for everything from soap operas to feature films.
The thousands of East German hands who used to work at the studio are long gone. DEFA films themselves have become objects of Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the bygone East Germany, more than respected classics on par with Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" or G. W. Pabst's "Pandora's Box." Publicist Schenk says, "There are people who ask, 'Can I have this film on video?' Now there are collectors of DEFA films, people who did not care about DEFA films back when they were being made. It has to do with finding the roots of their own lives, the roots of their former lives. People's lives were destroyed when the Wall came down and now they are looking for their past."
Byg, the director of the UMass archive, asserts that the Northhampton conference could not have taken place in Germany: Young filmmakers object to the notion that the government is paying to maintain a dubious past while not supporting work detailing the struggle of unification that is still playing out. As for the study of film itself, such a field has not been embraced by German universities, with their tradition-bound scholars devoted to the canonical literature of Goethe and Schiller. The few German academics who did attend the conference last year actually teach at universities in Oslo or Toronto. They say there is no room for them at home. Like a true outcast, DEFA is shunned‹or at least misunderstood‹at home. Indeed, its brightest future may lie abroad.
Matthew L. Schuerman writes from New London, Connecticut
Variety Movie Review:
Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power
By Robert Koehler, 8/2/2004
A Documentary Institute presentation. Produced by Sandra Dickson, Churchill Roberts. Executive producer, Charles Hobson.
Directed by Sandra Dickson, Churchill Roberts. Written by Dickson. Camera (Cinema color, HD 24P video), Cindy Hill; editor, Dan Spiess; music, Terence Blanchard; sound, Cara Pilson, Terry Bishop; supervising sound editor, Spiess; associate producers, Cindy Hill, Cara Prison. Reviewed at Wilshire screening room, Los Angeles, June 7, 2004. (In Los Angeles Film Festival.) Running time: 67 min.
With: John H. Williams, Mabel Williams, John C. Williams, Beatrice Colson, Yusef Crowder, Roy Crowder, John McDow, Tim Tyson, Julian Bond, Phil Bazemore, Constance Lever, James Forman, Pat Coffey, Clayborne Carson, Ron Stephens.
What promises to offer a missing link in the chain between the 1950s nonviolent civil rights movement and the 1960s militant black liberation movement isn't quite delivered in "Negroes With Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power." Too straight and stuffy for its own good, docu offers insight into an authentic rebel like Williams, who advocated violent self-defense against white Southern racists, while rushing through several interesting episodes that could have made for a much fuller history. Pic is already marching down the fest road, but is too brief for theatrical play, yet too long in present form for public TV.
If, as more and more scientists argue, geniuses are made and net born, then Williams' story indicates it's also true for revolutionaries. Merely growing up in Monroe, N.C. during the Jim Crow era meant Williams would see black women being dragged down the street by caps, and that his grandmother would give him a musket, as a family member recalls, "as a token of his family's resistance to oppression."
The many talking heads brought together by filmmakers Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts (including kin like brother John and wife Mabel) are never able to pinpoint what made Williams the No. 1 thorn in the side of the local Klan and powerful whites. He presses for desegregated public pools and organizes "The Black Guard"—a well-armed unit meant to match force with force. The white response--"What is this country coming to with Negroes with guns?"—was later turned by Williams into the title of a bock.
Indeed, an interesting dimension to Williams' efforts was his media savvy, including a fiery newsletter called the Crusader, which allowed him to take local outrages—such as the arrest and conviction of black boys for kissing white girls—to the international press.
Biographer Tim Tyson is the best of pic's talking heads, offering some analysis behind Williams' methods, including a hesitant willingness to go along with his more non-violent allies to see how far protest would be tolerated. Incidents with Freedom Riders in 1961 eventually forced Williams and his wife to flee the U.S.
Living in Cuba and China in the '60s, the couple broadcast their show, "Radio Free Dixie," over shortwave around the world. Despite fascinating archival footage of Williams in Havana and with Mao, this incredible twist is described almost as a postscript.
And although Williams obviously inspired the Black Panthers, and may rightly be seen as their founding father, "Negroes With Guns" doesn't begin to make the connections.
Format is very much mainstream public television in tone and structure, lending a proper and fairly dull face to what is after all the tale of a rebel. Archived material is impressively immense and wide-ranging, and Terence Blanchard's score is less insistent and wall-to-wall than his work for Spike Lee.