Review

Review: Assata, An Autobiography

Written for Red Pepper - 16/11/14

Assata Shakur is the US government’s hangover. Many black political activists of the 1960s and 70s were systematically targeted by the FBI, falsely convicted and at times killed in order to destabilise the black power movement. However, after being convicted of killing a police officer in 1977, Assata’s escape from a similar fate remains a defiant and symbolic act of resistance. Though the evidence of the murder trial, both forensic and medical, is overwhelmingly in Assata’s favour (there were no traces of gun residue on her fingers, no fingerprints on the gun in question and with the injuries sustained from being shot at three times it would have been impossible to shoot at the police officer), she is considered a threat to the US government and is on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list. Forty years on, Assata Shakur is still a dangerous woman.

With this in mind, it’s clear that Assata: An Autobiography, republished by Zed Books in July, is as imperative a read and powerful a defence against the FBI’s ongoing claims as it was in the year of its original publication in 1987. The autobiography begins at the shootout involving the police officer and from there Assata takes us through her subsequent legal battles. This is interspersed with emotionally charged poetry and recollections of formative experiences throughout her life, which lead up to her political awakening and involvement in the black power movement. In the final chapter, she brings us up to the 1987 present day – having escaped from prison, she is living in Cuba.

Through Assata’s experiences, we are invited to look directly into the mechanisms of power and the measures the US government has taken to uphold its winners and subjugate its losers. She shows us how the police, backed by the FBI, operate with impunity under the guise of neutralising ‘black nationalist hate groups’, while Assata, much like her black radical counterparts of the time, is systematically targeted and vilified for an array of fictitious crimes. The language used by US officials offers a critical case study in systemic power and denigration. The parallel between the public depiction of Assata and her eloquence and compassion is palpable throughout the autobiography. Words used by the police and media to describe her, such as ‘threat’ and ‘enemy of the state’, create a reductive caricature of a woman seeking justice and equality.

Angela Davis, in the foreword, recalls how Assata asks in an open letter to the Pope, ‘Why, I wonder, do I warrant such attention? What do I represent that is such a threat?’ The reality is we were never supposed to hear Assata’s story; the criminal plastered on every ‘wanted’ poster wall in 1970s New York was the only side of her we were ever supposed to see. The danger she poses to the US government, therefore, lies in her freedom and her disruption of this mainstream narrative. Assata has lived in the bowels of a corrupt and oppressive legal process but she has lived to tell the tale. Her unapologetic critique of the system that tried to crush her and her beliefs exposes the hypocrisy behind the principles of equality and freedom that the US believes its ideals were built upon.

Assata’s autobiography is a book that should be irrelevant now, a historical flag post of the struggles of our revolutionary forebearers. Instead, the picture she paints is strikingly similar to the deep-rooted structural inequalities we are familiar with today. Her accounts of police brutality and impunity, the communities of colour disproportionately imprisoned and the selective character defamation all have resonance in the injustices of Trayvon Martin, Mariss Alexander, Mike Brown and the ongoing struggle in Ferguson. For all of the misguided assertions that we are living in an Obama ‘postracial climate, these continuing cases of racialised police brutality, as well as the ongoing attempts made by the US to denigrate and convict Assata, signal a systemic prejudice as raw and as visceral as it was in the 1960s.

 There is much to learn from this book. As personal as it is political, it has vital lessons for any activist committed to challenging social injustice and fighting for global solidarity. Assata’s reflections as an activist in exile are also important; she is both in the centre and the periphery of the struggle, which breeds insightful and nuanced considerations.

 Assata’s sense of hope, even in the most dire of situations, is striking. She talks about the creativity and power borne out of hardship and her poems within the book, often written during the bleakest of times, seem to give testament to this. For her, there is still beauty and truth even in the darkest moments of struggle. In her words:

I believe in living.

I believe in birth.

I believe in the sweat of love

and in the fire of truth.

 

And I believe that a lost ship,

steered by tired, seasick sailors,

can still be guided home

to port.

REVIEW: Black Power Mixtape

Written for Red Pepper - 17/12/11

 

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The film Black Power Mixtape is a look back in history to the struggles of the US civil rights movement, with footage from 1967 to 1975. Retrieved from the depths of Swedish television archives, the film is a collection of interviews, images and commentary by Swedish journalists of the time. Directed by Göran Olsson, it pays fitting tribute to the power of documentary and, from a contemporary point of view, demonstrates the dividends of documentation in the midst of struggle and political activism.

Using footage shown in chronological order, the film gives an insight to the visions of different pivotal activists in the black power movement. Interviews and speeches with leading figures prove both touching and powerful. Activist Stokely Carmichael’s sharp turn of phrase, in the context of an intimate interview between him and his mother, forms part of an invaluable historical snapshot. The interview demonstrates, directly and personally, Carmichael’s rise above the generational passivity and rhetoric that preceded him.

The film also covers contemporary reactions to the vilification of the black power movement. Angela Davis’s eloquence is noteworthy as she outlines, with righteous incredulity, the often one-dimensional discourse of violence associated with the black power movement without reference to the barbarism and violent culture initiated and perpetuated by white America. Interviews such as this, alongside speeches and other footage, give the viewer a real sense of the notion of black power and the different approaches activists and leaders took in their fight for equality.

Black Power Mixtape has its limitations, however, and its narration is at times lacking. It is striking that although we are given a vivid feel for some of the activists of the American civil rights movement, the modern-day counterparts providing commentary in the film are mostly of musical standing. While the contributions from artists such as Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and Questlove are often thought-provoking and have their place, the absence of current academic and political figures is noticeable and robs the documentary of important perspectives and flavour.

The irony in Erykah Badu’s comments about black people needing to document and tell their own stories is that Black Power Mixtape is told essentially from a Swedish perspective. Commentators such as Badu and Questlove are given the platform to comment but the structure is driven by the Swedish footage available.

The documentary also covers such a large range of topics that the subject matter is almost too big for it to handle and it suffers a loss of depth. While this is inevitable to some extent given the time constraints of a film of just over 90 minutes, some issues are just too important to leave aside. The lack of reference to the often misogynistic nature of the black power movement, for example, leaves a gaping hole in the narrative and its discussion of notions of black power.

For a film so seemingly political, Black Power Mixtape manages to raise weighty issues born of the civil rights movement without properly acknowledging the proximity of these events and how their effects are still being felt today. Instead, as a conclusion, we are told in a passing, somewhat stereotypical statement that the black power movement’s legacy can be found in certain forms of hip hop, reducing the issues raised by the film – and the movement – to a musical genre.

The lack of modern-day context in tackling such an important issue leaves me with a raised brow, particularly when considering that Talib Kweli’s hip hop company Blacksmith Records was involved in the film’s production. Even the use of the word ‘mixtape’ in the title, while on the one hand referring to the mix of different footage in the film, points ambiguously to the hip hop soundtrack and music in general.

Although Black Power Mixtape is invaluable in the rare footage and insights it provides, the film’s relative lack of contemporary academic and political analysis leaves it incomplete. Though the film offers powerful commentary from the past, it is as telling in what it lacks as in what it offers.

While it is made clear from the content that oppression gives rise to what Talib Kweli describes as ordinary people ‘standing up for themselves’, the film leaves the impression that the struggles and achievements of the civil rights movement have done little more than reap a politically conscious group of contemporary hip hop musicians. Is this the real power that civil rights activists fought for?

Film review: All White in Barking by Marc Issacs

Written for the Rich Mix Centre - 20/10/2010

Director and writer, Marc Issacs, explores the growing levels of contention for the increase of immigrants in Britain. Using Barking, a town with one of the highest levels of immigration and a large BNP following, as his location, Issacs explores the multifaceted attitudes surrounding race and immigration in 21st century Britain.

Issacs portrays his characters with startling honesty and originality. Far from the stock BNP fanatics we have become accustomed to seeing in the media, Issacs’ approach is far more clever than that. His subjects are engaging people dealing with the same issues and living the same lives as everybody else. We are presented with three dimensional, and sometimes contradictory, characters such as the Dave, a BNP activist, with a mixed race grandson who he openly shows love and affection for. Or Sue, who despite her prejudices (which are later challenged) against ‘Africans’, instantly becomes more accessible when mourns over the grave of her son. Through this, we are able to glimpse at the complexity of human nature and the unfounded roots of people’s pre-conceptions.

Issacs explores the concept of ‘otherness’ and the ambiguous and blurry grey lines in which people’s prejudices lie. Dave will happily defend the Italian residents in the area whilst airing unfounded suspicion over the unsuspecting ‘African’ lady passing by on the street. Sue has no qualms about her white Albanian neighbours whilst bringing out tired stereotypical clichés about African culture and her Nigerian neighbours.

What is clear is that these characters are not fundamentally racist, but their attitudes are based on fear of the ‘other’ and an anxiety that a different way of life will somehow dilute their own. All White in Barking feels less about blatant racism and more a modern depiction of the inner psyche of ordinary people and so it becomes impossible to entirely dislike or chastise these characters. Although we may not agree with their views, we can’t hate them as they leave political correctness at the door and discuss the issues that many are afraid to broach on a public platform. How are we supposed to feel about the closure of the butchers shop, a landmark that has had a staple presence in the community for over 40 years? The insinuation made is that the increase in competition has run the local butcher’s out of business, as the new ones seem to better cater for the increase of different cultures of the area. Issacs dangles these issues in front of us without judgement or indication of how these matters can or should be resolved.

Issacs leaves us in an interesting place by the end of the film. Sue and Jeff, after having spoken more to their Nigerian neighbours, are realistically not fundamentally changed, but can see the other side of coin. On the other hand, Dave, in objection to the influx of immigrants in the neighbourhood, moves from the ‘other’ to ‘his own people’ in Canvey Island. The last shot we see of him is him by himself on an isolated beach whilst the couple Sue and Jeff are surrounded by new acquaintances. Despite the non-judgemental stance that Issacs generally adapts throughout the duration, the documentary seems to favour those who have the ability to modify their judgements, leaving those who can’t behind in the shadows.

All White in Barking is an important documentary, combining honest dialogue and dry humour to bring to light the questions raised over the changing face of Britain. Although set in Barking, this is a universal film for the UK, that challenges the future of those who cannot adapt to the new and emerging DNA of modern day Britain.