Poetic Justice

Melissa Anderson on Right On! at MoMA

Herbert Danska, Right On!, 1970, 35 mm, color, sound, 78 minutes. Right: Gylan Kain, Felipe Luciano, and David Nelson

THE EARLY 1970S were
the heyday of the concert film: Between 1970 and 1973, Woodstock, Gimme Shelter, and Wattstax, to name just a few iconic examples of the genre, opened theatrically in the US. Released in 1971 but rarely screened since, Right On! showcases a different kind of concert (though one staged without an audience): twenty-eight spoken-word pieces by hip-hop forerunners the Original Last Poets, whose electric performances rival, if not surpass, those by Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, and Isaac Hayes in the films above.

Directed by Herbert Lanska—whose previous movie, Sweet Love, Bitter (1967), featured a main character loosely based on Charlie Parker—Right On! takes place almost entirely on a Lower East Side rooftop. (With this setting, Lanska’s film joins other contemporaneous roof pieces: the Beatles’ impromptu concert atop Apple Studios in 1970’s Let It Be, Jefferson Airplane jamming near the parapet of a Midtown Manhattan hotel in 1972’s 1 PM.) The sound and the fury of Right On! begins with the beating of conga drums, which grows increasingly louder. Over the percussion and under a cloudless blue sky, Felipe Luciano, in a white tank top and black beret, shouts, “Hey, now,” the interjection repeated by his cohorts, Gylan Kain and David Nelson. His muscles tensing and neck tendons popping, Luciano continues his free verse: “Tell ’em they blew up Harlem, Newark, Detroit, and Watts / And my aunt got shot in the head just for lookin’ out the window, man!” Mixing history recaps with local news, these lines call to mind Chuck D’s remark that “rap is CNN for black people.” But many of the OLP’s black-nationalist-fueled spoken-word compositions go beyond mere bulletins, expanding into brutal diagnoses and blunt imperatives (never more so than in “Die Nigga”).

Lanska occasionally inserts cutaway footage during these two-dozen-plus performances, most prominently during the OLP’s paeans to the ladies—lusty, macho, earnest apostrophes. A young, naked mother is shown cradling her infant during “Black Woman” (“Black woman, black woman / I want to create a beautiful world for you, black woman”); a figure in a window frame smiles shyly in “Black Lady (Say Blackness)” (“Hey, bundle of screams and laughter / Can I plant a seed of blackness in you?”). The supplements, though, were unnecessary, for the performances by Kain, Luciano, and Nelson are kinetic, potent, precise. The three men—who formed the OLP in Harlem in 1968 and originally performed this material at New York’s Paperback Theater in 1969—exude infinite charisma, gliding about their black-asphalt outdoor stage with balletic grace. Each movement or pause is significant; even the trio’s changes in clothing—one dashiki replaced by another, a flare-collared shirt swapped for a turtleneck—have a certain poignancy.

A good deal—though certainly not all—of what’s heard in Right On! falls under Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s definition of poetry: “the best words in the best order.” Perhaps even more memorable than that aperçu is the Original Last Poets’ equation, literally shouted from the rooftops: “Poetry is black people.”

Right On! screens at the Museum of Modern Art March 6–11.