The Unsung Soundtrack for a Revolution

Last night I went with some friends to see Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s new Oscar-nominated documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution” and found it to be rife with historical inaccuracies, superficial and vapid interviews, and a narrative that has been repudiated by serious Civil Rights/Freedom Struggle literature in the last 20 years, if not longer. Thus, I must take issue with Susan G. Cole’s glowing recommendation in NOW Magazine of the film as a depiction of that movement:

As a document of the American civil rights movement of the early 60s, Soundtrack For A Revolution is astonishingly good. (For the full review see Soundtrack for the Revolution)

Now to be clear: if you continue to believe that Obama is “change” we can believe in,  that he will bring forward a minimal social-democratic program, akin to the New Deal, and find yourself enamored by the Black Caucus of the Democratic Party then you will love this film. You will be one of many who will be praying that this film wins an Oscar and you cried when the directors flashes a picture of Obama at the end of the documentary. This film is a perfect reproduction of the conventional establishment narrative of the Civil Rights movement that primarily focuses on Martin Luther King, the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The strategy was non-violence, the hero was Gandhi and the tactics were sit-ins, peaceful rallies and the famous Freedom Rides. This documentary cannot but help remind us of Ossie Davis’ eulogy to Malcolm X in 1965:

There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times.

Gone from this film is the labor movement, gone are the communists, gone is the African Blood Brotherhood, gone is Paul Robeson, Harry Haywood and countless others, gone are the Sharecropper Unions of the American South which were largely black workers, gone are the Deacons of Defense, Malcolm X and Robert Williams, the Invaders and the true originators of the Freedom Rides that were not organized by the SCLC (Amy Goodman of Democracy Now did an excellent episode recently about this), gone is the Black Power Movement, the Black Panther Party, the League of Black Revolutionary Workers. Indeed, gone is the last few years of King’s own life and the shift in his consciousness to a staunch anti-imperialism and critique of capitalism itself. Indeed, their presence is so effaced in this film that their contributions musically, politically and socially are present yet painfully absent. Thus, civil rights activists will sing labor songs with adapted lyrics (like “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Which Side Are You On?”) and songs by Communists (they sing Phil Och’s classic “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” which ironically enough was denounced by the SCLC at the time). Indeed, one of the interviewees said that we have been told that these songs are labor songs, but they aren’t because they learned them in the Black Church. This overlooks and ignores the long-standing relations between the labor movement and the churches in the 1920’s and 30’s due to the sharecropper unions organized by the Socialist Party (USA) and the CP(USA). Standing in at least 2 of the new clips of documentary footage that are presented in the film are standing bodyguards, next to Martin Luther King who as recent literature demonstrates normally came from the armed self-defense and nascent black power movement, yet Martin Luther King is portrayed as committed to non-violence throughout the film without any shifts in his own politics.

Indeed, the film consistently argues that the only way to have social change in policies is through non-violent social movements that make demands of the bourgeois State to reaffirm and practice the promises of bourgeois right. For the film’s title use of ‘revolution’ we are only being told to engage in a gradualist politics of reformism, although under the liberal narrative of anti-racism the election of Obama to the presidency of the US  is probably their revolution. Thus, the high point in the film is the famous speech by LBJ in which he reaffirms the need to overcome active segregation and uses the slogan, “We shall overcome” (one of the interviewees proudly states that MLK cried when he heard LBJ use the slogan because that is what they had wanted, this of course overlooks MLK’s active opposition to the war in Vietnam – perhaps even Obama was more honest in the debates when asked who MLK would endorse, replied that MLK would pick neither candidate). The film is replete with archival footage of a young Bobby Kennedy and references to the elder brother are also necessarily present. Of course the film ends with a picture of a smiling Barack Obama. There is nothing in this film that does not reaffirm the institutionalized forms of protests that make minimal demands on the State and ensures the maintenance of the status quo.

This documentary is a soundtrack for reformism and a historically flawed and disingenuous account of the Civil Rights Movement. The film is highly stylized and operates within a framework that the director announced as “a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down”. Indeed, the re-recordings of “civil rights” music adds nothing to this film besides star power, and the desired spoonful, and it is not clear that besides the tired old songs that are consistently mentioned in relation to the Civil Rights movement, that this film contributes anything to a better soundtrack of the movement. Indeed, famous songs by Paul Robeson, the Black Panthers etc are missing. And the reproductions are not very good to be honest. Indeed, they have been changed from expressions of rage and hope into commodities. No more can the people sing them on a picket line, but must be sung by a Choir or Wyclef Jean or the Roots.

This revolution is passive, and better passed.


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