In Motion: Amiri Baraka
This engaging, cross-cutting film documents the final two weeks of the notable writer Amiri Baraka’s life before serving his sentence for “resisting arrest” in Newark, NJ while sitting in his parked car arguing (but no physical fighting) with his wife. St. Claire Bourne’s project was produced in 1982 at WXXI-TV in Rochester, NY, with help from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council of the Arts, the American Film Institute, and the Nation Foundation. It’s a time capsule of a creative man in his time and place, but rich with issues still facing Black Americans four decades later.
We see a home on a pleasant street with a 1970s car in the driveway, then a kid on drums practicing a Max Roach score. We quickly see the stern face of the lad’s father, Baraka. Then we cut to a black-and-white scene from his play, “The Dutchman,” of an angry Black man extolling the virtues of murder to a rather contemptuous white woman. Lois Jones, Baraka’s mother, calls him a genius for creating his own neighborhood newspaper as a child, and carrying on his writing while in the military. His father Leroy Jones sits beside her. Allen Ginsberg speaks of Baraka’s inclusion in Donald Allen’s New American Poets anthology under his given name Leroi Jones, as well as participation in Greenwich Village literary salons and publishing. Ginsberg remembers their trip together to Washington DC and “Roi’s” poem that ends in a question, “Which of the masks is cool?” Writers A.B. Spellman and Joel Oppenheimer discuss Baraka’s confrontational “events” and “radical breaks” in his aesthetics, especially his struggle after witnessing the role of poets in Castro’s Cuba to not see poetry and activism as mutually exclusive. We cut to Baraka reading a scathing indictment of the Black bourgeoisie at Howard University.
His wife Amina talks of their “working relationship” raising five children as a daughter plays with the dog. The couple was arguing about household expenses in the car when police intervened and hit Amiri with a billy club. Three or four cops were on the scene. He was sentenced to 90 days but wanted the police indicted for harassment instead. Probation was recommended, but that was obviously not the Prosecutors’ plan for him. Attorney Conrad Lynn affirmed, “At no stage has he surrendered to the Establishment”. At a press conference, where Baraka criticized the nation’s rightward trend in this first term of the Reagan Presidency, Amina added she is “not a passive woman” in this struggle.
Baraka reads the poem, “Bad News,” using the metaphor of a truck accident, over pans of the cityscape and Black urban crowd and some multitracking of different readings of the poem. “Is there something you can think more horrible than capitalism?” Next, he’s behind the mic to spin LPs — Arthur Blythe’s — on radio WBAI’s Jazz Notes, though grumbles his regret that he was “de-nightowl’d” from a nocturnal shift he preferred. At a protest at the office of South African Airways, he links the struggle against apartheid to Northern Ireland. “People vs. Imperialism! Let us unite!” He also announces an upcoming reading at St. Mark’s.
We cut to a performance of his play “Boy and Tarzan Appear in a Clearing,” where Boy’s post-colonial epiphany is of maintaining Western hegemony with subtlety: “I dug, I dug to understand how to rule [Africans] —You too crude!” Baraka reads “We Wailers”, with both whaling imagery and Reggae allusions, evoking Bob Marley’s, Lester Young’s, Thelonious Monk’s memorable wails. The rhythm of the poem engrosses, in fine vocal word jazz. He was evidently exciting in performance.
As “my October 16th date with the state” approaches, a black and white drum and dance sequence accompanies the chant, “Land’s Gonna Change Hands.”
From a sunny rooftop Ted Wilson and Askia M. Toure recount how Baraka brought poetry and theater to Harlem in the 1960s “and the masses dug it. However, Amiri was not ready to cut loose his dealings with European Americans at that time.” There was a cultural shift as Black Harlem residences wondered what the Greenwich Village types were doing up here? There was intense Black community business to be discussed, and outsiders weren’t welcome. Oppenheimer sadly admits how he had “no more to talk about anymore” with his old friend, yet Spellman credits Baraka for an unafraid personal confrontation with power, “one of the most naked poets”. Baraka criticizes himself, how at the founding of his Black Arts Repertory Theater School, “my philosophy was too vague”. Wilson and Toure shake their heads, “Amiri was run out of there”. A clip of “The Dutchman” has the Black man saying to the white woman on the train, “Sorry, baby, I don’t think we can make it”— which prompts her to maniacally stab him, and when he tumbles, she growls, “Get this man off of me!”
The call for a “New Art” filled the air after Newark’s riot. Black and Puerto Rican representatives chose a slate of candidates, and Ken Gibson was elected Mayor along with some City Council people who embodied the peoples’ needs. Baraka had been influenced by cultural nationalism though he didn’t firmly believe it. He saw nationalism as largely bankrupt, for elected Black people soon proved themselves “divorced from the masses.” As his poem, “Weimar 2,” extolled, “It’s about…MONEY!”
Disinformation and propaganda against Baraka circulated. One flyer depicted him as Haiti’s dictator Papa Doc atop a swastika and was circulated by local followers of Lyndon LaRouche, likely funded by — or certainly resembling projects of —COINTELPRO. Allen Ginsberg examines it and sighs that this stuff was a funhouse mirror of the poet, a “karmic result of anger” on Baraka’s part. Baraka then reads, “Poem for the US Bourgeoise and Their Running Dogs”.
Attorney William Kunstler joins the struggle to take his case to Appellate Court, to avoid a stay in Riker’s Island jail. Baraka’s mother fears for him in jail, but his father takes pride, predicting he’ll organize his fellow prisoners. The 30-month process drags on, with hopes he can serve weekends, like big-time organized crime figures often do.
On December 17, 1981, Amiri Baraka is convicted of resisting arrest, to serve a 90-day sentence.
One wonders if these days — 40 years later — Amiri Baraka might have been terminally throttled by militarized police like Eric Garner or George Floyd. Or shot in his car, before horrified Amina, like Philandro Castile in Minnesota. We should be thankful he was only hit once and railroaded by the courts into a jail term.