Black Celebration

Curated by Beth Capper & Seth Watter

The films and videos in “Black Celebration” highlight three critical moments of black radical insurgency: the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles; a 1969 hospital workers’ strike in Charleston, South Carolina; and the 1971 Attica prison rebellion. Taken together, they impugn the ongoing conditions of white supremacy that undergird the U.S. State. Individually, they variously register the intersections between feminist protest, black power, and class struggle.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently said: “Peril is generational for black people in America—and incarceration is our current mechanism for ensuring that the peril continues.” The brief period surveyed by the works in this program, 1965-1971, is also a period immediately preceding the historic rise of mass incarceration, when that same “peril” was multiplied and compounded to an alarming degree. These three titles offer biting and much-needed analyses of the recent past; at times, they give a glimpse of something better.

Proceeds from this screening will be donated to Black and Pink, an organization for LGBTQ people impacted by the prison-industrial complex. More information @ www.blackandpink.org.


TRT: approx. 83 mins.

Tony Cokes, Black Celebration: A Rebellion Against the Commodity, 1988, 18 min, b&w/sound, video
Originally made during the late Reagan era for the Bronx Museum of Arts, Black Celebration combines TV news footage of mid-60s rioting in Watts, Boston, Newark and Detroit with written texts by Martin Gore, Barbara Kruger, Morrissey, and the Situationist International (from whom the tape’s subtitle, “A Rebellion Against the Commodity,” is borrowed). The grinding, industrial music of Skinny Puppy helps set the tone. And while Cokes’ use of image looping might place Black Celebration within a recognizably avant-garde idiom, the stakes are rather different from the ironic detachment normally associated with this formal device. As Paul Arthur wrote, “the formal rigor … is freighted with larger implications.”

Christine Choy & Susan Robeson, Teach Our Children, 1972, 35 min, b&w/sound, 16mm on DVD
Teach Our Children takes a long, hard look at the Attica rebellions of 1971, when 1,300 inmates took control of a correctional facility in New York state. Primarily black and Latino, they were protesting inhuman living conditions and, by extension, the system that manufactures both prisons and prisoners. Teach Our Children was the first film completed under the auspices of Third World Newsreel, an organization that had emerged from the ashes of the old—and mostly white—New York Newsreel. Archival footage of the 1971 uprising is supplemented by interviews with city residents, thus moving beyond the rebellion’s merely sensational aspect to its deeper, structural context. Parallels are drawn between forms of carceral and economic violence, prison and ghetto life; and dissidents are shown to be “not only bright-eyed, camera ready soul brothers, but also world-weary, middle-aged women demanding that playgrounds be built and rogue police be prosecuted” (Cynthia Young).

Madeline Anderson, I Am Somebody, 1970, 30 min, color/sound, 16mm
I Am Somebody should rightly be considered a landmark in the history of black and feminist documentary practices, yet it has languished in near-obscurity for decades. Commissioned by New York Local 1199, the film chronicles a 1969 strike by 400 hospital workers in Charleston, SC. All were poor and black, and almost all were women. Local 1199 had, for many years, encouraged cultural production as a crucial part of its organizing efforts; Anderson was already a skilled documentarist, having worked on titles by Shirley Clarke (The Cool World) and Bill Greaves (Black Journal) as well as her own projects. The film that emerged from their partnership was less an example of plain reportage than a commemorative object, designed to elicit worker identification, solidarity, and resistance. A woman and mother, Claire Brown, is the focus of the story that Anderson is telling; and her personal journey toward self-definition is woven together with a collective demand for civil liberties.

Black Celebration courtesy of the artist; Teach Our Children courtesy of Third World Newsreel; I Am Somebody courtesy of Icarus Films and the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Bibliographic note. On Tony Cokes’ Black Celebration and related works, see Paul Arthur, “Springing Tired Chains: African American Experimental Film and Video,” A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005), 111-131. On Teach Our Children and the history of Third World Newsreel more broadly, see Michael Renov, “Newsreel: Old and New—Towards an Historical Profile,” Film Quarterly 41, no. 1 (1987): 20-33; Cynthia A. Young, “Third World Newsreel Visualizes the Internal Colony,” Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Durham: Duke, 2006), 145-183; and the same author’s “Teach Our Children: Third World Newsreel’s Visual Manifesto.” On I Am Somebody, see Shilyh Warren, “Recognition on the Surface of Madeline Anderson’s I Am Somebody,” Signs 38, no. 2 (2013): 353-378.