NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 151

BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE Several minutes were devoted to the case of Angela Davis, imprisoned on conspiracy charges in the widely-publicized courtroom shoot-out to free George Jackson in August 1970. The botched escape attempt left a judge and several prisoners dead and Davis on the fbi’s “Most Wanted.” The film linked Davis’ fate to that of the unknown inmates who were all political prisoners unable to obtain fair trials and sentences. The episode was timely and prophetic — just four months later, George Jackson died at the hands of prison guards at San Quentin prison. “Justice” was rebroadcast a week later, followed by a Black Journal special to focus on Jackson’s death, which included an invitation to the audience to call in during the broadcast. These initiatives reinforced Black Journal’s role as the de facto electronic public sphere for black America. The New York Times’ new television critic, John J. O’Connor, was impressed by the “startlingly candid interviews” and was clearly moved by the portrayal of George Jackson, who had been imprisoned for 11 years for being an accessory to a $70 robbery. But O’Connor decried what he saw as the program’s lack of balance, stating that the opinions of white officials and prison guards was absent from the program. 149 During his first years as producer, Brown marshaled the corps of Black Journal filmmakers, including Greaves, Kent Garrett, and Stan Latham, to develop memorable documentary projects. Among them was “Justice,” first broadcast in April 1971. The episode, filmed on location at San Quentin and Soledad prisons in California, offered unprecedented glimpses into the experiences and perspectives of black prison inmates and articulated a powerful critique of racism within the criminal justice system. Produced by Latham, it presented interviews with prisoners, attorneys, and prisoner-rights advocates against a backdrop of urban blight and claustrophobic prison cells, pressing home the relationship between inequality and incarceration. The cameras zoomed in on the despair etched on prisoner’s faces, the menacing relationships with prison guards, and the monotonous labor in prison shops. Said one young man: “I’d like the whole thing to be torn down. This ain’t nothin’ but a concentration camp. Half the brothers in here are in here because they’re poor… As a prison system this is a total failure.” The December 1971 episode inspired another round of intense criticism from the New York Times. In a careful, yet blistering, attack, O’Connor tore apart an episode titled “Black Paper on White Racism,” which featured Rev. Albert Cleage, Professor John Henrik Clarke, and Preston Wilcox, of the Congress of African People, all strong proponents of Afrocentrism. The panel followed Black Journal’s tradition of providing a platform for the spectrum of black political thought, but O’Connor was horrified when Cleage declared that white Jews had no blood connections to black Jews in Biblical Israel or when Wilcox argued that in white society there was no objective truth. In O’Connor’s view, the program was filled with “sweeping generalities” that were “a blend of facts, half-truths, myths and legends that are essentially unarguable.” He deemed the discussion racist and anti-Semitic, and blamed Brown for encouraging their commentary. The review ended with an acknowledgement that Black Journal and Brown “deserve to be treated seriously,” but also “seriously questioned.” Brown went on the offensive, holding a press conference to deny the charges and affirm Black Journal’s goal of presenting black American perspectives “without undue concern for white sensibilities.” He took O’Connor’s final words as a threat to the program’s survival, rather than as a critical intervention. Brown’s suspicions were on target.