In consideration of the political upheaval that took place during the last half of the 18th century, known as The American Revolution, that would lead to The Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776, marking the formation of a new sovereign nation, which called itself the United States of America – a date we now celebrate annually, and will be honoring this weekend, ahead of a long holiday weekend…
I thought I’d have some fun and highlight a few of what I’d call “revolution films” that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the American Revolution, but that I think join it in spirit, and that you might want to add to your to-see list to watch over the holiday weekend – that is, assuming you can access them, and haven’t already seen them all.
Jean-Luc Godard, pioneer of the French New Wave (a cinema revolution, if there ever was one), is said to have once argued that “revolution cannot be put into images” because “the cinema is the art of lying.”
Is it entirely?
Cinema has long been a tool used by filmmakers to provoke, educate, stir, and inspire – an idea that will continue as long as cinema lives. There are those who firmly hold onto the notion that cinema is effectively useless if it doesn’t, unequivocally, intentionally challenge and instruct; although some would call that brand of cinema “propaganda.” Then again, there are also those who argue that all cinema is indeed propaganda.
Feel free to debate the various concepts and ideas if you’d like, in the comments section below.
Right now, I’m going to jump into highlighting a handful of films that would fall under “revolution cinema,” in a nod to this week’s celebration of the USA’s independence, which came after the American Revolution – films that you really ought to see, if you haven’t yet. And even if you have, why not revisit them?
1- This one was automatic for me. The Ivan Dixon-directed political firebrand of a film, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” (1973), adapted from the late author Sam Greenlee’s novel.
I’d say that “Sweet Sweetback” is often the cinematic reference point for radical, subversive black cinema during one of the more contentious periods in American history. But I think the lesser-known “The Spook Who Sat By The Door” was potentially even more lethal in its crafting and message, and really had the ability to inspire a revolution at a time when black people in this country were maybe most susceptible, as well as capable.
And I’m not sure if many actually know the story of how the film got made – notably, that its budget was financed mostly with funds raised from black investors – people not-so unlike you and I – an idea that’s in itself revolutionary, and one that I’d like to see happen more often, especially today. So not only was the content of the film revolution-inspiring, the making of the film was also quite a revolutionary effort. Christine Acham’s documentary, “Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who sat by the Door,” details the making of the film.
This shouldn’t be hard to find on DVD or VOD. In fact, you might even find the entire thing online. It’s not streaming on Netflix nor Hulu, sadly.
2- “Born In Flames” (1983) – Posing as a sci-fi narrative, the docu-style fictional feminist movie by Lizzie Borden, explores racism, classism, sexism and more, in an alternative socialist-democratic USA.
The film is set ten years after a revolution in the United States that saw a socialist government gain power. It presents a dystopia in which the issues of many progressive groups – so-called ethnic minorities, gay rights organizations, feminists, to start – are dealt with by the government, but, unfortunately, there are still problems with jobs, gender issues, governmental preference and violence. Fed up, in response, a group of women decide to organize and mobilize, to take the revolution farther.
As the rights of society’s marginalized are seemingly being continuously eroded, a film like this could inspire a radical political movement that addresses those rights again, like we did 40 to 50 years ago. More specifically, some I’m sure would argue that a similar uprising by women (as it happens in the film) in pursuit of equality in this century, is more necessary and of the time, than ever.
It’s regarded as the film that ushered in a new “Queer Cinema,” with a cast that includes a very young Kathryn Bigelow!
It should also be easy to find on home video. It’s also, sadly, no longer streaming on Netflix.
3- Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, “Battle Of Algiers.”
It’s a film that’s been plugged so much on this site over the last 6 years since the site was created, that I don’t think an introduction is necessary!
Considerably more controversial in its day (it was banned in France for a number of years, for obvious reasons), “The Battle of Algiers” reconstructs events that occurred during the Algerian war of independence from the French colonists, in the late 1950s.
Recalling its rallying cry: “It’s difficult to start a revolution… even more difficult to sustain one… and still more difficult to win one.”
It’s a seminal work of cinema that still very much holds and feels like a breath of fresh air, and quite a rush, 60 years later, due, in large part, to Pontecorvo’s goal of realistic representation through a distinct grainy newsreel-like cinematography, the use of real locations, and observance of factual information.
“The Battle of Algiers” still resonates today as an authentic and unique insight into the Algerian conflict. It’s even been reported that the United States Department of Defense used the film as a learning tool in matters of guerrilla warfare, to assist during the Iraqi insurgency in the early 2000s.
It’s one of my all-time favorite films, and certainly temporally apropos, not only in light of July 4 celebrations, but also uprisings that have been taking place around the world in recent years – notably in Northern Africa, and even here in the USA (think #BlackLivesMatter). It’s available on home video as well.
4- How about something *musical*?
Three summers ago, Kino Lorber released a double feature DVD containing 2 rarely seen works featuring Nigerian musician, composer, multi-instrumentalist, human rights activist and revolutionary, Fela Kuti.
The one-of-a-kind Fela Kuti DVD includes the 1984 documentary “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense,” as well as the concert film, “Berliner Jazztage ’78,” considered by many to be the best live footage of Fela Kuti ever captured on film.
As a pioneer of Afrobeat, and a seminal figure in the history of world music, Fela Kuti created an outstanding artistic body of work that continues to influence new generations of musicians and fans. His political activism helped fuel revolutions in continental Africa, and his music inspired generations around the world.
“Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” (1984) is an under-seen documentary, mixing candid interviews of Fela Kuti with selected live segments from his stirring performances. Examining his life, music, and political views, the film serves as a guide for anyone interested in learning more about a transformative artist. Almost all modern music owes something to the work of Fela Kuti, and the movement that he founded.
The radical and revolutionary content of his lyrics influenced and inspired many. One example out of countless, the track “ITT” remains a song that continues to have a clear revolutionary class approach to Nigeria’s political and economic crisis.
5- For my last selection, I’ll go with something that was released more recently than the other 4, which are 30+ year-old productions.
Swedish director Goran Hugo Olsson’s “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,” produced by Danny Glover, attempts to contextualizes the Black Power movement, at home and abroad, highlight its successes and failures, and note its importance today. It wants to raise awareness and reignite discussion on the movement, by introducing it to a new generation, in a format that may be more accessible to them – the concept we call the “mixtape,” hence the title.
The late 60s/early 70s saw Swedish interest in the US Civil Rights Movement peak; and with a demonstrated combination of commitment and naivete, Swedish filmmakers, armed with 16mm photography equipment, driven partly by what they perceived to be a shared objective with the Black Power Movement (broadly, equal rights for all), traveled across the Atlantic to investigate the movement, in order to confirm or nullify its purposefully negative portrayal by the US press. Their efforts resulted in some amazing and explosive 16mm footage of key Black Power figures and Civil Rights activists of the day.
The found footage includes interviews and even intimate moments with the likes of Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, Harry Belafonte and an incarcerated Angela Davis. Watching a young, confident Davis’ lengthy and forceful retort, when questioned on the use of violence as a tool in revolution, was deeply affecting and invigorating. Stokely Carmichael discussing Martin Luther King Jr. and the meaning of nonviolent resistance, was also a stirring moment.
All that archival footage is layered with audio interviews from contemporary African American artists, activists, musicians and scholars, like Erykah Badu, Professor Robin Kelley, Talib Kweli, Melvin Van Peebles, and Sonia Sanchez.
The film is most certainly available on home video, and, unlike the other 4, is indeed streaming on Netflix.
Alright – so there you have it folks! A *starting five* list for the upcoming “revolution cinema” holiday weekend, as I’m calling it.
Obviously, there are so many other titles I could’ve included on the list, both fiction and non-fiction; Part of my intent was to mix it up a bit, and give you what I think are some diverse, interesting options.
But there is indeed much to choose from, so feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section below.