Poetic Justice

Nick Pinkerton on “Semper, Roi, Semper: Amiri Baraka” at Anthology Film Archives

Anthony Harvey, Dutchman, 1967, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 55 minutes. Lula and Clay (Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Jr.).

WATCHING ST. CLAIR BOURNE’S aptly-titled 1983 “videowork” Amiri Baraka: In Motion, you’re struck by the manner in which the film’s subject, while presenting a calm and collected demeanor to the camera, is forever at the center of a maelstrom of activity, an octopus whose tentacles are constantly occupied with their independent tasks. Baraka, here nearing fifty, is seen tending to household affairs from his study, addressing protesters outside of South African Airlines, reading poetry at Saint Mark’s Church, and hosting a jazz radio program on WBAI, where he notes that his play Boy and Tarzan Appear in a Clearing is opening at the Henry Street Settlement’s New Federal Theater. All of this, I should add, is going on while Baraka is in the process of appealing a ninety-day sentence at Riker’s Island for resisting arrest.

Baraka, who died in January of this year, was an activist, novelist, poet, playwright, and critic—his Blues People and Black Music being extraordinarily influential collections of writing on blues and jazz. He was also, as Anthology Film Archives four-day weekend program proves, a filmmaker. This is true only incidentally in the traditional sense of being a writer-director, in which capacity he is credited on the 1968 short The New-Ark, recently rediscovered by Harvard Film Archive, and premiered only a few weeks ago by Rutgers University in Baraka’s hometown and longtime residence of Newark. Beyond this, Baraka was the director of his own ongoing drama, and one of the most colorful repertory players to appear in the historical spectaculars that go by such familiar titles as The 1960s, The Counterculture, and Black Power.

Per the poet A. B. Spellman in In Motion, Baraka’s is “A personal history that may be marked by events […] A history of fairly radical breaks.” The dishonorably discharged Air Force Sergeant Everett LeRoi Jones from New Jersey became an up-and-coming Greenwich Village poet, with a Jewish wife and Beatnik friends, and in turn LeRoi Jones took an African name and became the black nationalist separatist Amiri Baraka, who in due course became the feted academic, repentant ex-anti-Semite, Man of Letters and, briefly, the poet laureate of New Jersey.

“Semper, Roi, Semper” offers brief glimpses of the young Village poet Jones, mixing with mostly-white crowds, in Marie Menken’s Lita’s Party (1964) and Jonas Mekas’s Lost Lost Lost (completed 1976). By 1966, however, when Jones was appearing on an episode of the chat show Open End, discussing “Negro revolution” with Norman Mailer, he had dug in his heels as a black nationalist. Introduced by host David Susskind as author of “sometimes scathingly anti-white works,” Jones swats away Mailer’s conciliatory gestures, and his attempts to disassociate himself from the white power structure, leaving Mailer to practically bounce in his chair while Jones coolly asks him not to “include black people in this kind of mystical ‘we’ ”—that is, the American “we.” (Along with the Open End episode, Anthology will also show Baraka’s appearance on a 1972 episode of black community–oriented program Soul!, which aired on New York’s WNET.)

Open End is a relic from the storied and undoubtedly much-embellished heyday of the public intellectual, those universal men and women who involved themselves in everything all at once, and in making films above all else. (Believe it or not, this was once considered a very hip activity.) In short order there were such pure on-screen expressions of authorial personality as Beyond the Law (1968) from Mailer, Duet for Cannibals (1969) from Susan Sontag, and Myra Breckinridge (1970) from Gore Vidal—but in a sense Baraka got there first, with 1967’s Dutchman. The film was directed by Anthony Harvey, who went on to filmed-theater megaproduction The Lion in Winter, but the text is all Baraka, from his 1964 Obie-award winning play. The action is limited to a single subway car: Clay (Al Freeman, Jr.), a middle-class black man on his way to a party, is cornered and picked up by Lula (Shirley Knight), a white girl in a go-go dress who, munching apples and slinging her long legs into his lap, comes across like Eve in heat. As the express train thunders along, filling imperceptibly with silent observers, Lula mocks Clay’s suck-up attempts to join the bourgeoisie until he finally cracks. This gives Lula the pretext to fatally stab Clay, a killing with no consequences, which leaves her free to slink toward the next train car and the next black man on whom to work her succubus charms. Baraka is here laying bare his own hostility, and the hostility between sexes and races, and you know where you can stick your Great Society olive branch. It’s Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner.

The conflagration that Dutchman prophesied had become reality as the film made the rounds in the year of the Newark riots. In fall of 1968, Jean-Luc Godard touched down in New York City, hoping to capture on film the full flower of the coup that was so obviously forthcoming in America, with the help of D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. Like the revolution, the project was left unfinished, but the resulting footage was assembled as One P.M. (1972), and in it one can see a monologue by Eldridge Cleaver, followed by a street performance from Baraka and the Spirit House Movers, their incantations and exhortations (“Black Art, black magic, the perfection of the earth turning…”) performed for a perplexed and intimidated white audience.

The Spirit House, at 33 Stirling Street in Newark’s Central Ward, was the headquarters of Baraka’s Black Arts Movement after his Blacks Arts Repertory Theater-School had foundered in Harlem. Baraka’s The New-Ark is a showcase for the multifold Black Arts activities centered at the Spirit House, political activities not least of these. Vidal had his 1960 congressional run, Mailer his attempt at the 1969 New York City mayoral preliminaries, while Baraka devoted himself to politics in an organizational capacity—ultimately with a greater success in the short-term. “Any large concentration of black people in the world constitutes a nation,” Baraka says on Open End, and in The New-Ark he can be seen at work towards turning Newark into a revolutionary commonwealth. Opening with the proclamation “We are in charge of building a nation. We are the new princes of the earth,” the film shows the work of organizing the majority black-and–Puerto Rican city to back a ticket of candidates unaffiliated with the major parties. (The only white face we see belongs to a policeman, briefly glimpsed.) Baraka’s narration accompanies a collection of vignettes showing a variety of Black Arts–sponsored activities: Anti–Vietnam War street theater performed on the back of a flatbed truck, a Kenpo demonstration, a classroom of children reciting the “black alphabet,” and a meeting of Sisters for Black Culture. (The contemporary feminist will perhaps find their proscribed role in this new world rather retrograde.)

It may be argued that in the case of Baraka, as in the case of Godard, the artist was overshadowed at times by the propagandist. In the case of both men, the recalcitrant personalities remained irreconcilable to society at large. In time, Baraka would gain something like institutional respectability, but he was constitutionally incapable of being assimilated. His post as New Jersey poet laureate was cut short thanks to controversy surrounding “Somebody Blew Up America?”, his poem in response to the destruction of the World Trade Center, which includes the line “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day?” (A video of Baraka reading the poem is part of Friday’s program.)

“Semper, Roi, Semper” is a memorial of sorts, but Baraka is an unquiet, heckling ghost, one who steadfastly refuses to Rest in Peace. To gently exhort a new audience to appreciate a talent as assaultive as his is absurd—as absurd as Baraka would very probably have found this white critic’s attempt to talk about work that speaks of an experience so far beyond his ken. I will give the last word, then, to Dutchman’s Clay, goaded to going on the offensive: “Bald-head four-eyed ofays, popping they fingers, don’t know yet what they doing. They say ‘I love Bessie Smith.’ They don’t know yet that Bessie Smith is saying ‘Kiss my ass. Kiss my black, unruly ass.’ ”

“Semper, Roi, Semper: Amiri Baraka (1934–2014)” runs May 15–18 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.