Black Like Them
by Shelton Hull
I received a couple of interesting DVDs in the mail recently, both courtesy of the MVD Visual film distribution company out of Oaks, PA. As an African-American, I find them particularly insightful in light of the unfolding crisis of consciousness afflicting segments of my race, both here and abroad. Each film acts, in its way, to reinforce the most savory aspects of the black folks’ global contributions, while posing questions about the future in the form of ruminations on the past.
Roots Daughters: The Women of Rastafari features the Jamaican singer Judy Mowatt (born 1952). Mowatt, along with Marcia Griffiths and Rita Marley, became known as the I-Threes in 1975 and eventually become Bob Marley’s backing singers after the original Wailers split. Her music provides much of the film’s soundtrack, but she is just one of a number of diverse and devoted Rasta women interviewed by director Bianca Nyavingi Brynda, who presents a capsule history of the faith’s evolution from colonial Africa to the present day. Familiar names like Marcus Garvey, Ras Makonnen Tafari (aka Haile Selassie I) and Bob Marley are here, but the real stars are the regular Rasta women whose hard-won insights comprise the bulk of the material.
Much of the film is spent considering the patriarchal tendencies of Rastafari and the potential contradictions with its underlying dogma of equality. A testy exchange with the sage Fitz Elliott, who openly depicts women as “inferior” to men and “the root of all evil,” is one highlight, but the ladies more than hold their own. It’s also nice to see all the Rasta children, as well as a Rasta school in Jamaica; what comes through it all is a sense of the faith’s permanence, its timelessness and increasing viability at a time when our faith is under constant challenge. One also gets a sense of how vast the African diaspora really is. This film has played festivals in England, Germany and Italy, as well as in New York, California and South Bend, Indiana.
Whereas Women of Rastafari is an entirely mellow flick, What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Party Library is dense and intense. This four-disc, 12-hour package collects new and vintage footage from the Panthers’ 40 year history, in the process exposing both the righteousness of the movement and the extreme lengths to which the US government (namely, the FBI) went to neutralize them.
There is such a profound paradox at the core of the struggle that it goes more or less without mention or discussion: the success of blacks in this country is routinely tied in with the exploitation, materially or otherwise, of the African diaspora. As such, there are certain existential questions that are raised as one rises in status. This is hardly a race-specific thing; these issues arise in most immigrant and minority groups, and it manifests as “liberal guilt?” among elites. This concept is best-known today through Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierre Leone,” whose two versions are best understood as one long song making explicit not the link between the “bling” phenomenon begun by hip-hop and the rampant genocide that has swept across the African continent, but the personal conflicts such dynamics invoke in the artist. It is hardly a coincidence that West’s mother is a teacher and his father a former member of the Black Panthers’ Chicago bureau. The verse from Jay-Z, whose knowledge comes from different channels, brings it all together.
Dr. Octagon, aka Kool Keith, made his MTV debut on the November 1st TRL, with a track called “Trees,” about the destruction of natural habitats. Now, Kool Keith is one of my favorite people, an undisputed master of the hip-hop form, but the sight of teenaged girls (in Times Square, no less) screaming as they were prompted to for one of the most densely scatological performers in music history gave me pause. At the same time, I did recognize that doors were being opened, and that it was a good thing.