For nearly a century, New York City has been the place where this country’s most significant independent-cinema movements have been born. The metropolis is exalted in Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta (1921), widely considered the first U.S. avant-garde film. It is where the New American Cinema, a collective that advocated for radical changes in American filmmaking, began to coalesce in the late 1950s. Andy Warhol and Jack Smith, the patron saints of queer cinema, shot many of their homo fantasias here, and the Lower East Side provided the backdrop for No Wave cinema in the Seventies and Eighties.
Yet one of the richest chapters in this fecund history, the work of African American filmmakers in the five boroughs, has too often been overlooked or under-
recognized — until now.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s essential, assiduously researched series “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986” assembles some of the most vital and groundbreaking cinema of the era, which is immediately evident in the show’s bookends. The first year of the retrospective’s date span saw the completion of William Greaves’s endlessly revelatory and still unclassifiable Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, while the last marked the release of Spike Lee’s saucy She’s Gotta Have It, not only a breakthrough for the director but one of the pillars of the American-independent movement of the Eighties.
Greaves, a Harlem native who died, at age 87, this past August, began his career as an actor in the 1940s but in the next decade switched to working behind the camera, frustrated by the lack of roles for African Americans. In Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, he pulls double duty, playing a director-as-provocateur overseeing some Actors Studio–style histrionics and contending with a mutinous crew in Central Park in a film-within-a-film-within-a-film. In its destabilizing amalgamation of
cinéma vérité and experimental narrative, Greaves’s movie remains one of the headiest about the filmmaking process. Shortly after shooting Symbiopsychotaxiplasm in the summer of ’68, Greaves would produce and co-host Black Journal, an hour-long newsmagazine that aired on public television — the first nationally broadcast program devoted to African American life, segments of which will screen at the Film Society.
The films of several Black Journal alums are also highlighted here, a mix of searching narrative and nonfiction works. Madeline Anderson’s I Am Somebody (1969), a rousing record of 400 hospital employees in Charleston, South Carolina — all but 12 of them women, and all black — going on strike for union recognition and fair wages, demonstrates the indomitable combination of, as one nurse declares, “1199 union power and SCLC soul power.” Another potent documentary, St. Clair Bourne’s Let the Church Say Amen! (1973), tracks a theology student in Atlanta as he explores different preaching styles across the country. “I know I want to be a minster. And I know I got to be black,” says this aspiring man of the cloth — who, crucially, is also shown enjoying secular pleasures, like dancing with his steady in a nightclub (“There’s nothing wrong with a man going out”). A church serves as a much more rancorous setting in Charles Hobson’s 1969 adaptation of Steve Carter’s play One Last Look, featuring the bitter farewells of the wives and children of a
deceased patriarch — relatives who
include Esther Rolle and Robert Guillaume, years before their TV celebrity on Good Times and Benson.
Hobson was also a producer of the weekly TV program Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, which, debuting the same year as Black Journal, focused on the array of people and professions in the Brooklyn neighborhood, counterbalancing its reputation (largely perpetuated by major news outlets) as a crime haven. Here, in 1968, is co-host Roxie Roker — seven years before her recurring role on The Jeffersons and four after becoming Lenny Kravitz’s mom — introducing LeRoi Jones’s Young Spirit House Movers and Players, seven kids who deliver a thundering spoken-word performance: “What has America done for me?/Nothin’, but made me a zombie.” (This astounding clip screens as part of a program devoted to Jones, a/k/a Amiri Baraka; other episodes of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant will be shown separately.)
Reanimated corpses, in fact, are the main characters in Bill Gunn’s wildly disjunctive, wholly seductive vampire movie, Ganja and Hess (1973). Like Greaves, Gunn began as an actor; after he, too, became fed up with the roles available to him, he
began to write, first for the stage, then for film. In Ganja and Hess, his second feature as writer-director, Gunn cast himself as George, the morbid assistant to Duane Jones’s supremely elegant Dr. Hess Green, an archaeologist and researcher of an
ancient African blood cult. The scholar joins the undead after George attacks him with a cursed tribal dagger, setting in
motion a fever dream of desire — Hess is later joined by Ganja (Marlene Clark), George’s wife — and deepest despair, as the Ph.D. tries to reconcile his urges with a syncretic faith. (Unfortunately, Lee has made a wholly unnecessary, crowd-funded remake of Gunn’s great film, titled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, now available
online and arriving in theaters next week.)
Gunn directed one more project — the Ishmael Reed–conceived, time-scrambling, and frequently hilarious fractured soap opera Personal Problems (1980) — before dying, all too soon, at age 54, in 1989. A year earlier, another extraordinary talent with whom Gunn had collaborated, Kathleen Collins, passed away prematurely: Her second (and final) film, the loose and effervescent Losing Ground (1982), stands as one of the finest about a marriage between two
ambitious members of the creative class. (It’s finally receiving a proper theatrical release as part of this series.) Still in love after a decade together, philosophy professor Sara (Seret Scott) and painter Victor (Gunn) — “Your husband is a genuine black success,” he drolly notes — are not without their unconventional arrangements. Both are in solo pursuit of, to cite Sara’s current research topic, “the ecstatic experience.” Which just may be the best way to describe the feeling produced by encountering, whether for the first time or anew, the films in this incredible retrospective.