Review: Retrospective Festival at Lincoln Center- “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 -1986”

From February 6 – 19, Lincoln Center is affording film enthusiasts the opportunity to view some rarely seen films written and directed by promising Black filmmakers, produced some 40 years ago. Some, heretofore, hidden treasures are being showcased at Lincoln Center as part of the “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986” film program, organized by Creatively Speaking’s Michelle Materre and Jake Perlin of the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City.
The featured films are a mix of narratives, shorts and documentaries. Some of the notable works include Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it, William GreevesSymbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess, to name a few. The movies describe as “not supported and frequently suppressed” films by (now) iconic filmmakers, working during the 1970s and 1980s when getting a film produced and distributed was an arduous undertaking for a Black filmmaker. Following some of the screenings there have been question and answer sessions with the film’s directors, or colleagues or relatives of the filmmakers who are no longer alive.

One of the highly anticipated movies shown, Ganja and Hess, a narrative produced in 1973 and written and directed by the late Bill Gunn, was an uneven yet poetic feature that centered on main character Dr. Hess Green (played by Duane Jones) an archaeologist who is stabbed by his research assistant (Bill Gunn). The instrument used in the stabbing is contaminated and turns Hess into a bloodsucking vampire. With the stabbing and transformation of Dr. Hess, the assistant commits suicide. (Once the assistant stabs Dr Hess the assistant takes a bath and then kills himself. There’s no overt explanation for the assistant ‘s suicide that I recall. At that point we witness Hess drinking the assistant’s blood. The movie is very odd. The plot is very uneven and difficult to follow at times.) Shortly thereafter, we meet the dead assistant’s wife, Ganja, played by the beautiful Marlene Clark, an overly vampish beauty, who shows up at Hess’ home looking for her husband. Before long she and Hess begin a lusty affair. Eventually Ganja learns the truth about Hess’ longing for blood after accidently discovering her missing husband’s body in the wine cellar. Ganja and Hess is a jerky and unevenly told story but it still stands as an historic movie in the annals of Black filmmaking.

The St. Clair Bourne Program included three documentaries by the late St. Clair Bourne: Statues Hardly Ever Smile (produced in 1971 and directed by Stan Lathan)—a 21-minute exposé of students inspired to do improv at the Brooklyn Museum; Something to Build On (1971), an encouraging piece directed towards Black and Latino students about various avenues of higher education; and The Black and the Green (1983), an adventurous telling of a group of Black activists who travel to Ireland to meet with and learn from the major players in the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the Irish revolution. St. Clair directed more than 40 films in his 36-year career and is considered the most prolific black documentarian of his time.

Woody King, Jr.’s The Long Night is a well done story about a struggling black family and the challenges of urban living: an unemployed father, his virago wife and their naïve, impressionable teenaged son. Shot in juxtaposing sepia tone and color, the movie proves to be a great vehicle for the inimitable actor Dick Anthony Williams. Produced by St. Clair Bourne and directed by Woody King, Jr., The Long Night tells a familiar story smartly. There are some flaws but for the most part the movie succeeds in conveying the sociology of the urban black family of the 1970s.

“Imagine the difficulty and cost of making a feature-length movie, then imagine doing that in 1968, imagine doing it as a woman. That’s the definition of a trailblazer.” Michelle Materre’s tribute to all of the female filmmaker participants in the festival, delivered before the screening of the 1982 feature film Losing Ground by the trailblazing Kathleen Collins. Losing Ground pits intellectual pursuits against artistic ones within 2 cultures (African American and Puerto Rican). The mute anger and sorrow delivered by the story’s lead actress, beautifully portrayed by Seret Scott, is very real and heartfelt.

The lengthy and befuddling existential title Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is the most coherent part to Bill Greaves 1968 experimental “docufiction”. The original working title of the film was Over the Cliff. Greaves’ premise was to get a group of exceptionally talented film people together (actors, photographers, and experts in sound, light, camera, etc.) and “throw them over a cliff” with a sketchy, underdeveloped script to see what would come out of it. Unknown to Mr. Greaves, the crew taped private, behind-the-scene discussions of what-in-the-world-are-we-doing? They presented him with them on the last day of taping. Surprisingly, the bulk of the cinematic chaos was given depth, clarity and purpose from the crew’s private discussion tapes that Greaves weaved into everything.

Let The Church Say Amen! (1973) and Voices of the Gods (1985) investigate three different ways African Americans worship: Christianity, Muslim and Yoruba.

There is truly something, at this festival, for everyone. Playing at Lincoln Center through Feb. 19th, there are only a few days left to catch some of our greatest African-American pioneering movie magic.

 —Odehyah Gough-Israel
and Perri Gaffney




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