19th 05 - 2017 | no comment »

Heather Booth: Changing the World (2017)

Director: Lilly Rivlin

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“They said, ‘Elizabeth, if you really want to push for this consumer agency, you’ve got to get organized.’ And I said, ‘Great! How?’ They said, ‘I’ve got two words for you: Heather Booth.’” –Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the subject of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Ever since the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election became known, people throughout the country and the world have been mobilizing in a resistance to the current regime the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1960s. The current outrages to human decency that are emanating from Washington, D.C., however, are neither as unprecedented nor as unusual as many newly woke people seem to think. Again we have had to learn that democracy is not a spectator sport. Now is the perfect time to reflect on the power of community organizing, and virtually no one has been a more important community organizer than Heather Booth.

People who know what community organizing is usually think immediately of the late Saul Alinsky, a Chicago-based educator and activist who wrote Rules for Radicals and is often called the father of community organizing. Or they may picture young community organizer Barack Obama, who we see in a still photograph at the very beginning of Heather Booth: Changing the World knocking on someone’s door. However, although few outside the groups that call on her for help know about Heather Booth, her influence is enormous. One interviewee says: “It’s like Zelig.” Anywhere a progressive cause needs a helping hand, you’re likely to find Heather Booth.

The sheer volume of Booth’s activities could be a challenge to any documentarian, but director Rivlin takes us through Booth’s life and career economically through the use of Booth’s audio diary, begun in September 2015, and interviews in which Booth recounts her personal history. What emerges is an inspiring portrait of a highly effective activist who has accomplished a great deal in her 70+ years on this planet.

The film starts with a look at the nuts and bolts of organizing, as Heather records in her audio diary the steps she is taking to organize a September 2015 rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for a group called Moral Action for Climate Justice. Booth lays out the basics of a successful action: “Clarity of purpose, clarity of the specific tasks, accountability on the tasks, and interconnection on the tasks.” Rivlin films her laying the groundwork for the event and then the successful rally itself. It then segues into a rough chronology of Booth’s life and activities.

Booth was raised in Brooklyn by progressive Jewish parents. When they moved to Long Island, she realized that did not feel comfortable in a suburban social setting. She spent as much time as she could in the free-wheeling atmosphere of Greenwich Village, taking up the guitar and hanging out with “the beatniks.” It was there that she took her first steps as an activist, handing out flyers for a group opposed to the death penalty, a task that intimidated her. Her own experience informs her approach to activism: “We need to give people confidence to take even simple steps like that.”

She lived on a kibbutz in Israel, but galvanized by news of the 1963 March on Washington, she returned to the United States to be part of the civil rights movement. Among her activities at the time involved going to Mississippi to set up freedom schools and to register voters. Her visit to Shaw, Mississippi, during Freedom Summer put her in touch with the Hawkins family, who eventually sued the city for equal access to services the white side of town enjoyed, such as sewers, traffic lights, and fire hydrants. Booth says that some consider the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of Hawkins to be as important as Brown v. Board of Education, which codified equal access to education for white and nonwhite citizens.

She met her husband Paul, then the national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society, in 1966 while both were involved in a sit-in on the University of Chicago campus to protest the war in Vietnam. He proposed on the third day of their acquaintance, and their life together, says Heather, “gets better and better. We work on our marriage the same way as our organizing.” It was inevitable that once the Booths had children, in 1968 and 1969, Heather’s work would turn to the plight of families. She helped organize the Action Committee for Decent Childcare in 1972 that eventually squeezed $1 million from the City of Chicago for childcare services. Her account of how the group accomplished this amazing feat shows her humor, ingenuity, and tenaciousness.

It’s not often commented upon, but the progressive movement was and often still is dominated by men. Booth decided that to help women avoid being marginalized in the movement, she would help found an institute to train more women in community organizing. The Midwest Academy, which she chairs to this day, was the result. Other work on behalf of women included JANE, a service that provided illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade made the procedure legal and widely available.

Rivlin’s film, which includes title cards, archival footage and still photos, and talking-head interviews, moves briskly, even breezily, with encouraging news about the wins Heather Booth helped effect, all scored by the infectious Bob Marley-like social justice song by Kyle Casey Chu, “Woman Strong,” that repeats “ain’t nobody gonna stop her now.” Her accomplishments are too numerous to recount here—a very good reason to see this movie and hear people like Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Sen. Warren, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, and other community activists sing her praises.

The forces that shaped Booth’s destiny helped her empower others. Booth said that visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel with its monument to the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, had a profound effect on her. She says, “This was a place where people stood and and fought back—this feeling of better to go down standing up than living on your knees.” Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, whoever and wherever they are. A sign on Booth’s desk confirms this idea, but prescribes an attitude that refuses to admit despair: “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.” It’s a good thought to keep in mind for the fight ahead.

Heather Booth: Changing the World screens Friday, May 19 at 7:45 p.m. and Saturday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Heather Booth and director Lilly Rivlin will be present for audience discussion after both screenings.


4th 12 - 2011 | 5 comments »

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

Director: Göran Olsson

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As the hubby and I made our way to International House at the University of Chicago to attend a free showing of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, he said to me, “But you know, Angela Davis did shoot a man.” “Did he die?” I asked. “I don’t think so,” the hubby answered. This conversation alone justifies the existence of this film. Not only did we learn that Angela Davis never shot anyone—her legally owned and registered gun was used in an attack without her knowledge—but that she did 18 months in jail awaiting a trial that could have sent her to the gas chamber; she was subsequently acquitted.

Misinformation about the civil rights/black power movements in the United States is rampant among both opponents and supporters. That’s why Mixtape is an unusual and valuable look from an outside source—Sweden. During the years mentioned in the title, Swedish television journalists covered aspects of the movements both in the United States and abroad, providing a more in-depth and generally sympathetic look at the Black Panther Party and its allies than could ever have been found within the States, then or now. Indeed, the continued neglect of this important time in American and African-American history—the film opened on exactly two screens on September 11, 2011 and has not played on more than 13 screens during any week since—shows how frightened people still are of black power, even as a black-identifying president occupies the White House.

Rediscovery of this footage gave the film’s producers (including actor/director/political activist Danny Glover) and director Göran Olsson the very bright idea to offer today’s audiences a window on the past, as well as give contemporary African Americans a chance to reflect on the effect of this legacy on their lives and careers. During the panel discussion that followed the film, a number of Black Panthers reaffirmed the continued existence and activity of the Panthers, and young audience members showed their eagerness to commit to continuous transformation of society.

The film begins with a look at impoverished African Americans and segues into extensive footage of Stokely Carmichael, a handsome, educated, articulate spokesperson for black power. Carmichael is shown meeting with foreign dignitaries, including the king of Sweden, but his most affecting moment is in his mother’s apartment in Chicago. He grabs the microphone from the Swedes and interviews her about the cramped living conditions in which the Carmichael family struggled, teasing out with question after question the reasons for their poverty. Finally, his mother asserts that her husband was always the first laid off because he was “colored.” Carmichael was a separatist who broke with the Black Panthers over their decision to collaborate with white activists. In various interviews, he asserts his respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while disagreeing with his belief in nonviolence.

In voiceover, hip-hop artist and poet Talib Kweli ruminates on the legacy of Stokely Carmichael. While confessing that he was not that aware of Carmichael, when reviewing the authors Carmichael read, Kweli sees they are more than brothers of the skin, learning as they did at the knee of many of the same people, including Richard Wright and Malcolm X. The extension of the black power movement through the artistry of hip-hop and rap artists is more inferred than stated in this film, but it is clear that the legacy has been carried forward and made relevant to young African Americans in a new way.

Panelist Dr. Charles Payne pointed out that the film takes a top-down view of the black power movement, focusing on such leaders as Carmichael, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale, and making some unfortunate factual errors, such as giving the incorrect dates for the murders of Medgar Evers (1963, not 1967) and Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (1969, not 1968). All of the panelists complained that the film gives little time to the “survival programs”—the free breakfast program, self-defense classes, free medical clinics and first-aid training, political and economic education, and other services—that made the Panthers a bulwark in the African-American community. Following up with contemporary commentary from the likes of Melvin Van Peebles, Erykah Badu, and Harry Belafonte continues this high-profile approach, though their faces are never seen and their comments are worth listening to.

Further, in the sensationalist style we’ve come to expect of modern journalism, the film shows a Panthers’ class in which the youngsters chant “take up the gun” repeatedly. Further questioning of Angela Davis in her prison cell by the journalists results in a takedown of epic proportions. Davis, angered by the continued focus on violence, recalls in harrowing detail the day the four little girls she knew during her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama were blown to bits by a racist bombing, an incident made most famous by Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls. The horror that invades her eyes is memorable and fully explicates the need for the armed neighborhood watch that resulted to prevent further violence against African Americans. Indeed, a misunderstanding of the notion of nonviolence—not passivity in the face of attack, but rather a freeing of oneself from a desire to commit violence to further a cause—was elucidated by the post-screening panel. One of the panelists, Black Panther member Stanley McKinney, teaches martial arts to this day in accordance with the party’s 10-point program.

The film digresses rather humorously to a TV Guide article of the period that branded Sweden as the most anti-American country in the world because it shot and aired the footage we see in Mixtape, as well as of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Again, the bromide that the bad is not balanced with the good is trotted out to quell criticism by Swedes, but one criticism of their coverage does have some validity. It is rather hard to make sense of anything happening in the United States, then or now, without a thorough understanding of the country, and of the various factions of the civil rights/black power movements. While the footage provides a different perspective on well-known figures, it remains near the surface.

J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the dirty tricks infiltration of perceived subversive organizations known as Cointelpro (Covert Intelligence Programs) said, “The Breakfast for Children Program represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” The film repeats assertions that drugs were introduced into the African-American community as a way to destroy the momentum of the black power movement. Many Vietnam veterans, both black and white, came back to the States addicted to heroin; whether it was by design is beyond my powers to discern. That drugs created problems for community organizers is a given, and reinvigorating an effective movement was on the minds of everyone attending the screening. As the panelists said, there is no way to achieve unity in a country as diverse as the United States, and that it is better for the various groups to work toward converging goals to form a powerful coalition for change.

Despite its shortcomings, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 gives contemporary audiences back a piece of their history, not only setting some records straight but also offering the passion of past activists as inspiration to a new generation. A Harlem bookstore owner in the film mentions how some young people came into his store one day talking about black power. He told them, “Black is beautiful, but knowledge is power.” Applause erupted in the audience at that line.


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