Metrograph Celebrates the Inventive Truth-Telling of St. Clair Bourne


This long President’s Day weekend, Metrograph commemorates what would have been the 75th birthday of the Harlem-born documentary filmmaker St. Clair Bourne (1943–2007) with a must-see four-day program. Highlighting crucial pieces from across the auteur’s career, the series also includes features by directors (Crystal Emery, Woody King Jr.) who have been mentored or influenced by Bourne’s vision. But from Bourne’s peerless catalog, audiences will have the privilege to discover or, if they have been lucky, revisit — such rarely shown works as Let the Church Say Amen (1973), In Motion: Amiri Baraka (1983), Paul Robeson: Here I Stand (1999), Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper (1988), The Black and the Green (1983), and Something to Build On (1971), as well as shorts like Big City Blues (1986).

Also on offer are two episodes of National Educational Television’s Black Journal, the pioneering Black TV program, created in 1968, on which Bourne cut his teeth as a producer, writer, and director under the helm of executive producer William Greaves, a brilliant filmmaker in his own right. The aim of Black Journal, as delineated by presenter Lou House, was to “report and review the events, the dreams, the dilemmas of Black America and Black Americans” an ethos that went on to inform the political and aesthetic stances of Bourne throughout his working years. Indeed, there is in his documentaries at least the ones I’ve had the chance to watch over the past week an immersive and inquisitive quality that seems to have been nurtured during his time at Black Journal. He approaches each one of his subjects with the same curious rigor, whether it is the place of the Church and religious institutions in the community; the legacy of iconic figures on the order of Paul Robeson or Langston Hughes; or the making of a film such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. He evinces a will to unearth all the layers, like a journalist with a hungry eye and an experimental bent.

Let the Church Say Amen, Bourne’s first feature edited by the one and only Madeline Anderson is a luminous debut that follows young Hudson “Dusty” Barksdale on a spiritual quest. Trying to find his place in the immensity that is the Black Church while training to become a minister, Dusty travels from North to South, Illinois to Mississippi, in order to meet with the people who organize and run the powerful institution. While staying in a small rural town in Mississippi, he meets with an old minister full of advices and witnesses the southern way of worship. For Bourne, this is an opportunity to capture the way territorial, regional, generational, and ideological differences in religious practice intersect, converge, and/or clash. By the end, the movie’s scope reaches beyond the sole question of Christianity, also revealing the growing influence of the Nation of Islam on a budding generation (though our hero, for his part, avoids being seduced).

Let the Church is so free of form and spirit that, presented without context, it could easily be seen as a fictional piece. It is not clear how much the scenes are staged, or, indeed, whether they are staged at all. Right from the first interaction, in which what seems to be a religious teacher laboriously explains the purpose of a sermon, there is a distance with the people filmed (broken on occasion by extreme zooming and direct address), as well as a writtenness and theatricality in the dialogue that can be delightfully confusing. What one learns while watching Bourne is that there are many ways to enter a subject, and one mustn’t refrain from exploring them, especially not in the name of nonfiction convention.

Many films find Bourne fascinated with enunciation; with the interactions between speech and context; with people who use language to persuade, move, organize, teach. In the case of Let the Church, this involves how rhetoric can both succeed or fail to convince. The camera, hypnotized by sweating, hurling ministers or debating students, captures shouts, screams, and grandiose elocutions. Often, Bourne zooms in while a person speaks, seeking a truth in the trembling of a voice or in the intensity of a gaze. Voice-overs are systemic yet inventively layered, as in one beautifully lit scene, expressed in hues of white, over which the dissonant ends of a romantic couple address each other as we see the two walking in a park.

Bourne’s is a cinema of voices, and thus sound. Indeed, what is Paul Robeson if not an impressive, bass baritone that can fill up an arena. What is Amiri Baraka if not an impertinent but warm addresser? Is Bourne more captivated by the moving history told by John Henrik Clarke, or simply by the way he hammers out the facts, his aging voice having lost none of its strength? Bourne conveys the collective through the individual: What do these voices reveal of the state of mind of the subject, and how do they mirror that of an entire community?

When Bourne died in 2007, Baraka wrote a touching eulogy titled “Saint Clair, My Man, Saint Clair,” published in the film journal Black Camera. The sense of sobs stuck in the throat leaps up from the page as always, Baraka is angry, funny, hurt. One can feel the writer’s desire to be as sensitive and as close to the man Bourne was when he made his portrait of Baraka. Focusing on a period of two weeks before a potential sentencing for “resisting arrest,” In Motion: Amiri Baraka is intimate in scale, following the poet in his home; in the serene studio of his radio show, Notes; at street rallies and church readings. There are testimonies from his parents, his wife, and former literary friends such as Allen Ginsberg or A.B. Spellman. But mainly, there are the man’s magnificent poems, elegantly weaved in the montage. Unlike In Motion, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand, Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper, and John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk (1996) have a larger ambition and a pedagogical purpose. But even then, the films are still experimenting with forms, mobilizing archives and re-imagining events, such as the blues-singer performance in The Dream Keeper.

There are individuals who have been burdened with what Frantz Fanon has described, in Black Skin White Masks, as the “colossal task to make an inventory of the real.” Fanon was of course one of them, and so was Bourne. The task is even more herculean when the reality has been so intensely erased and distorted, including by the very medium in which Bourne decided to express himself. Hence the extreme sensitivity and curiosity that animates his body of work, which belongs right next to the early literature of enslaved Africans, the films of Oscar Micheaux, the novels and essays of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston on the shelves of every Black family, its images ornating the minds and memories of every Black child. Much like the Martinican psychiatrist did with philosophy, poetry, and psychoanalysis, St. Clair Bourne utilized the tools of television and cinema to uncover the multitudinous facts of Blackness and to send his people many love letters.

“St. Clair Bourne”
February 16–19