BAM! Chicago’s Black Arts Movement – a rich documentary from English professors Lewis and Narayanan

A Chicago Story

The role of artists and writers “is to make the revolution irresistible,” said African-American author, documentary filmmaker, civil rights activist, and scholar Toni Cade Bambara. During the 1960s, many cities cultivated an innovative and revolutionary arts scene in African American communities. Oakland, CA, Detroit, New York, and Newark, NJ were some of the major early locations producing avant-garde art and cultural work. But Chicago was not only an epicenter of the kind of cultural workers that Bambara envisioned, it also sustained its work into the 1980s and beyond. The city nurtured and in turn, was transformed by a vibrant community of Black artists, musicians and activists who worked tirelessly for social change and justice. The revolutionary impact of Chicago’s Black pioneers and visionaries on the city of Chicago, American arts and culture, and Black Studies is the focus of Thabiti Lewis’s contracted book project, “Chicago and the Black Arts Movement.” As he planned the interviews for the edited collection, it dawned on him that the material could also be the subject matter of a documentary film. So, he reached out to his colleague Pavithra Narayanan, who had the expertise in filmmaking and editing, and asked if she would collaborate with him to make a documentary to complement the book. 

The Movement
Thabiti Lewis with Angela Jackson, award-winning poet, playwright, novelist, and member of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC)

The two Associate Professors of English come from different backgrounds. Thabiti is a scholar of Black Studies. He decided to major in English after being introduced to the language of Black Arts poets like Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Amiri Baraka and others. Baraka’s one act play The Dutchman simply blew him away as the protagonist revealed Baraka’s own inner struggles and rage that led him to form The Black Art Repertory Theatre in New York (BART). After double majoring in English and History at the University of Rochester and receiving a Master’s degree in Education (English), Thabiti spent two years working at Third World Press in Chicago from 1991 to 1993, where the people involved in the Black Arts Movement became a central part of his life. “I learned so much during my time at the press. People were always giving me a list of books that I needed to read. People like Safisha Madhubuti gave me many articles to read about the independent Black School movement. I went to so many lectures; so many people came to the city of Chicago. On any given day or week, I might meet Sonia Sanchez, John A. Williams, Ishmael Reed, Keropetse Kogisile, Eugene Redmond, or be asked to go to Gwendolyn Brooks’s house to pick her up to take her to Chicago State University for a class she taught. During those drives, I got a chance to learn from Miss Brooks what it meant to be gracious, patient and genuinely interested in people. She would write me over the years after I Ieft Chicago, sending me poems, or signed copies of her new books. I thought I was special and later learned that she thought all the people she encountered were special.” 

Lewis and Narayanan

Pavithra’s area of specialization is postcolonial studies. Born and educated in India, major influences in her life include her parents, who were union members (her Mother was a union leader), Kerala’s radical left politics, and political frameworks of decolonization. Her undergraduate degree is in Zoology! A love for books and for writing, led her to pursue a Master’s degree in English and a second Master’s in American Literature. She was part of the first group of students in India to receive the University Grants Commission Junior Research Fellowship, which was started in 1989. The award gave her the opportunity to enroll in a PhD program. “Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Osborne’s Look Back in Anger impacted me and I might have gone in that direction, had I not attended a workshop at the Dhvanyaloka Center in Mysore where I met several Australian scholars and writers including Helen Tiffin, Chris Koch, and Les Murray. And, Australian Literature, specifically, Patrick White became the focus of my PhD. For my post-doctoral work, I focused on Indigenous writers from Australia and Canada.” She moved to the U.S. in 1998 to earn another Master’s degree in Mass Communication, where she acquired filmmaking and editing skills and made a documentary film that examines India’s economic policies in relation to the worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal gas leak. 

Haki Madhubuti

The film, BAM! Chicago’s Black Arts Movement, is their first collaborative project. For Pavithra, it involved doing research in a new area. For Thabiti, it meant gaining an understanding of documentary filmmaking. Supported by funding from the WSU Vancouver mini-grant, the duo packed filming gear and made their way to Chicago in the summer of 2015. The first conversation with Val Gray and Francis Ward, who started the Kuumba Workshop, one of Chicago’s oldest Black theatre groups, set the tone for all the interviews. Participants were welcoming, gracious with their time, and happy to share stories about their own work as well as the contributions of other leaders who built and made the Movement a reality. Individual conflicts did not stand in the way of building the movement; the focus remained on creating a culture of solidarity and support, on community organization, and creating functional art that was accessible to the people. Schools, publishing houses, cultural organizations, arts centers, and theatre groups were some of the many institutions that Black intellectuals established in Chicago. They nurtured the youth and fostered literary, artistic, and cultural activities for African Americans in that area. The Black Arts moment, which forced what Eugene Redmond calls, “accidental academics” like himself and Haki Madhubuti on the scene, changed academe. There is a sense of regret that the south side of Chicago is no longer the hub of cultural production and activism. Today, Haki’s Third World Press, the largest independent black-owned press in the United States, is among the few remaing establishments from that era that still remains in the south side. 

Between interviews, Thabiti and Pavithra visited several museum exhibits, collected archival material and secondary footage. Added bonuses during the trip included an afternoon with Sterling Plumpp at Pearl’s Place, lunch with Carole Parks and Ann Smith, and a two-hour tour of Chicago’s Black historic sites with Useni Perkins. All the interviews were arranged by Thabiti Lewis. While the two of them had clearly designated roles, they acknowledge that the project was a truly collective effort. For example, although Thabiti conducted interviews and Pavithra was behind the camera, she pitched in with many of the questions. And, Thabiti always helped with setting up and dismantling equipment, learning about sound, lighting and production from Pavithra. But the filmmaking was not limited to static cameras. Thabiti seized every opportunity to interview artists and scholars, and IPads and phones became necessary video recording devices. His 2017 interview with Phil Cohran, one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), is probably Cohran’s last interview before he passed away in June 2017. 

AACM

There are a total of 19 interviews and about thirty hours of footage. Each of the interviews is a documentary in itself. Editing the material to a one-hour film was a monumental task for Pavithra, who created an impressive aesthetic that reflects the film’s topic and people. Extensive conversations with Thabiti, her own research on the subject, and most importantly, the interviewees’ narratives shaped the editing process. The film does not follow a traditional story-telling style (voice overs or blocks of texts) to trace the history of the movement. Instead, the speakers narrate the history in their own voices. 

Carole Parks, journalist and managing editor of Negro Digest/Black World

The Black Arts Movement is an important period in U.S. history and Thabiti and Pavithra were anxious about how it would be received, particularly by the leaders who had created and shaped the movement. Safisha Madhubuti, Angela Jackson, Gerald Williams, Bennett Johnson, and Carole Parks who are featured in the film, attended the screening in Chicago on September 14th. They loved the film. They said that the film captured the history and spirit of the movement. “The youth should see the film. The mayor of Chicago should see it. It should be screened every month in Chicago,” Safisha said. The film was also well received by audiences at WSU Vancouver and Pullman. 

The name of their production, PATH, derived from the first two alphabets of the filmmakers’ names, symbolizes their own filmmaking journey as well as paths of justice and equity paved by public intellectuals, grassroots activists and social movements.

 BAM! Chicago’s Black Arts Movement: Featuring interviews with Angela Jackson, Haki Madhubuti, Safisha Madhubuti, Carole Parks, Eugene Redmond, Mwata Bowden, Carol Adams, and many other artists and scholars, the film introduces viewers to the history of Chicago’s Black Arts Movement (BAM) and reflects on the extensive national and international impact of Chicago’s Black writers, musicians and community organizers and the organizations and institutions that they supported and founded including the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Afro-Arts Theatre, the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), Negro Digest/Black World, Ebony Talent Agency (ETA),Chicago Theatre Alliance, the DuSable Museum, Third World Press, Afri-Cobra, Johnson Publishing, Path Press, Kuumba Theatre, and the South Side Community Arts Center. To preview the film go to: https://vimeo.com/295695342.

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