Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights. Directed by Nevline Nnaji. New York: Women Make Movies, 2013. 81 minutes.
Our Mockingbird. Directed by Sandy Jaffe. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2016. 37 minutes and 65 minutes.
Love & Solidarity: James Lawson & Nonviolence in the Search for Workers’ Rights. Directed by Michael Honey. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2016. 38 minutes.
These three quite different documentary films all deal with social justice and address issues of gender, racism, and class cleavages to varying degrees. They also share an approach that foregrounds the voices of people of color, often giving women in particular a space to relate their own organized struggles against oppression.
Reflections Unheard attempts to tell the story of Black women’s participation in the African American freedom and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Director Nevline Nnaji has amassed some wonderful archival footage here, much of it not well known or widely accessible. Indeed, Reflections Unheard reminds us of the importance of visual evidence and oral testimony in documenting marginalized and seemingly invisible historical actors. Martin Luther King Jr. may have inspired the masses from his pulpit during the Montgomery Bus Boycott; yet the Eyes on the Prize civil rights documentary series shows us that the pews were full of the Black women who ensured the boycott’s success. Adopting a similar technique, Nnaji includes footage of both women and men in Panther drills, thus challenging the popular notion of the Black Panther Party (BPP) as simply a hypermasculine, paramilitary organization.1
Although many of the women here project a single, unitary Black woman’s experience, the film also underscores the divergent viewpoints among African American women, particularly regarding the relationship between sexism and racism. Some, like former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) member Judy Richardson and Black Arts Movement poet Nikki Giovanni, downplayed the importance of sexism at the time. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons concedes that sexism may not have been articulated in explicitly feminist terms in SNCC; but she reminds us that she initiated a sexual harassment policy for her SNCC project long before the term was even invented.2 Still others, such as SNCC member and Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) founder Frances Beal, describe how Black women challenged Black nationalist men who decried abortion and birth control as genocide; instead they crafted a broad reproductive rights agenda that included protection from sterilization abuse, which was a particular concern of poor women of color. By exploring both Black women’s responses to sexism within the Black freedom struggle and the emergence of Black feminism, the film also corrects a widely held misconception of the women’s movement as white and middle class. Beal, for example, offers a trenchant analysis of the class and race privilege enjoyed by many white feminists who exploited lower-income women of color in order to pursue their own professional aspirations.
Reflections Unheard offers other gems that demonstrate the complexity of Black feminist perspectives. For example, while the short-lived National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) has often been accused of middle-class bias, one interviewee noted how Carolyn Reed, founder of the National Committee on Household Employment, brought the concerns of Black domestic workers to the NBFO.3 Footage of Coretta Scott King and Congresswoman Maxine Waters introducing resolutions at the 1977 National Women’s Conference and former presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm’s demands for a child care policy connect more well-known Black women to the broader women’s movement. Additionally, the film highlights the global analysis many African American women activists embraced, offering a more complex portrayal of the Black freedom movement and Black feminism than the usual U.S.–centered narrative.
Despite these accomplishments, the documentary has some serious flaws. For those with little or no background in this history, Reflections Unheard will likely be more confusing than illuminating. The 81-minute film may be too long and often rambles, much like unedited film footage. Chronology is also misleading and confusing (and we know this history!), making it difficult to discern exactly what story the director wants to tell. A voice-over narrator or even scholarly talking-heads could have provided the broader historical context for novice viewers. Lesser-known Black women are featured (such as Panther member Barbara Easly Cox), a welcome nod to the grassroots nature of these movements. But key Black women activists (e.g., Ella Baker, Pauli Murray, Fannie Lou Hamer, Gloria Richardson, Rosa Parks, Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, Barbara Smith, and Audre Lorde, to name but a few) are missing.
Other silences speak even more loudly. There is no discussion of sexuality or the contributions of Black LGBTQ people, except for one woman who claimed that lesbianism caused the demise of the NBFO. The Combahee River Collective, which celebrated the fortieth anniversary of their pathbreaking “Statement” in 2017, is similarly absent from the exploration of Black feminism.4 In short, we had great hopes for this film, but reluctantly conclude that it will have limited usefulness for the classroom.5
Our Mockingbird showcases Black and white students from two high schools in Birmingham, Alabama, who worked together to produce and perform a play based on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.6 Although legal segregation has been abolished, the two schools, like most throughout the country, remain virtually segregated and unequal. And yet the film’s Southern focus is one of its strengths. Too many Americans believe that racism and segregation are remnants of a distant, exclusively Southern past and that white Southerners were (and are) largely to blame for white supremacy and discrimination. Thus the story of a contemporary, Southern, interracial teen project challenges that myopic view of our racial history and current racial politics.
It is an inspiring, uplifting story; but unless one has read Lee’s classic 1960 novel that takes place in the Depression-era South, the film may be of limited classroom use. For example, the documentary provides only oblique references to the historic racist taboo regarding sex between Black men and white women and the rise of the Black beast rapist myth, which are central to the novel.7 Race, class, and gender themes permeate Lee’s Mockingbird, and a skillful teacher can do much to illuminate these issues, including a critique of the white-savior complex and idealized Mammy stereotype, both of which go unremarked in Our Mockingbird. In fact, race, and to a lesser extent class, rather than gender, is the predominant theme in the documentary, which often draws attention to present racial injustices. For example, attorney-activist Bryan Stevenson, author of the 2014 acclaimed best seller Just Mercy: A Story of Race and Redemption, notes that African Americans still too often are presumed guilty until proven innocent in our current criminal justice system.8 Unlike the novel or longer 65-minute version, the 37-minute version of Our Mockingbird often conveys a subtle, even troubling, message, giving viewers a comforting triumphalist narrative about American racism. In effect, the film suggests that cross-racial, individual experiences and personal relationships, rather than structural transformations in the way resources and power are distributed, will bridge the racial chasm in America. Therefore, while the shorter version of Our Mockingbird may be suitable for many courses, the longer version and special bonus segment do a better job of contextualizing the high school students’ experiences by including the history of lynching and footage from the civil rights movement, and by offering provocative challenges to contemporary institutional racism.
Love and Solidarity focuses on veteran civil rights leader Reverend James Lawson’s lesser-known labor activism. Lawson was a key practitioner and proponent of nonviolence, teaching its techniques and philosophy to scores of civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. The 38-minute documentary portrays Lawson’s efforts to bring these lessons and a radical notion of love, rooted in social justice and inclusivity, to the labor movement in the 1980s and 1990s. Director Michael Honey, a labor and civil rights historian, explores Lawson’s alliance with Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurants Employees (HERE) in Los Angeles. While she was the first Latina to head a local union, Durazo undoubtedly built on the legacy of Latina feminist Dolores Huerta’s decades-long labor activism as cofounder of the United Farmworkers Union and her continuing activism well into her 80s.9 The film also showcases the Justice for Janitors campaign that successfully organized African American workers and Latinx immigrants. Working with Lawson, the campaign urged unionized Black workers—who were often bypassed or replaced by employers for lower-paid undocumented workers—not to scapegoat immigrant workers. Instead, Blacks were encouraged to support unionization and a pathway to citizenship as strategies that would improve conditions for all workers. Both Lawson and Durazo promoted an expansive social justice agenda to invigorate the labor movement beyond its sometimes narrower goals. Lawson called for an enormous, unprecedented, twenty-first-century nonviolent movement, so that “all may achieve the full status of their humanity…. Nothing less than that is the fight that we have,” he concludes. Love and Solidarity also includes interviews with Dreamer student activists who were taught by Lawson at UCLA, making the film particularly relevant to the current Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals crisis and controversy over immigration.
1 “Awakenings (1954 – 1956),” Eyes on the Prize, season 1, episode 1, directed by Judith Vecchione, written by Steve Fayer, aired January 21, 1987 on PBS.
2 In NO! The Rape Documentary, directed by her daughter Aishah Simmons, Gwendolyn Simmons speaks openly about her rape by a Black activist in the 1960s and her subsequent silence about the assault for decades, a historic silence that writer Paula Giddings has called “the last taboo” (NO! The Rape Documentary, directed by Aishah Shahidah Simmons [Philadelphia: AfroLez Productions, 2006], 94 mins.).
3 For more information about Carolyn Reed and the impact of household workers on feminism see Premilla Nadasen, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).
4 Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein (New York: Monthly Review, 1978), 362-72; How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, ed. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).
5 Scores of biographies and memoirs by and about Black women in the civil rights/Black Power movements have been published. More recently, an outpouring of scholarly works on Black women in the civil rights/Black Power movements and on Black feminism in the United States has appeared. For a sampling of this scholarship, see Ashley D. Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Ula Yvette Taylor, The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Robyn C. Spencer, The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); Christina Greene, “Women in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, ed. Jon Butler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, ed. Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard (New York: New York University Press, 2009); Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, ed. Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin (New York: New York University Press, 2001); Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830–1970 (New York: Scribner, 2001); Belinda Robnett, How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). On Black feminism see, for example, Melissa Harris Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011); Kimberly Springer, Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); selections in No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism, ed. Nancy Hewitt (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010) and in Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second Wave Feminism in the United States, ed. Stephanie Gilmore (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008). For several classic texts by Black feminists, see, for example, The Black Woman: An Anthology, ed. Toni Cade Bambara (New York: New American Library, 1970); Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984); Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983); Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: New Press, 1995).
6 Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960).
7 For an early example of the Black Beast rapist myth, see the controversial 1915 film Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith [Epoch Publishing Company, 1915]). For Black women’s early antirape and antilynching organizing see, for example, Crystal N. Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); chapter one in Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: William Morrow, 1984); Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice, directed by William Greaves (San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1989), 53 mins. For the story of the interracial couple behind the 1967 Supreme Court decision overturning the ban on interracial marriage, see The Loving Story, directed by Nancy Buirski (Augusta, GA: Augusta Films, 2011), 78 mins; Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Vintage, 2011).
8 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Race and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014). See also Stevenson’s current work at the Equal Justice Initiative, which he founded, including the recently opened Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration; Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Bryan Stevenson, “Inside the Memorial to the Victims of Lynching,” CBSnews.com, 27 April 2018.
9 See the documentary Dolores, directed by Peter Bratt (Boston: PBS Distribution, 2017), 97 mins.