Sunday, July 22, 2007

Woodie King Jr.'s Segregating the Greatest Generation

The Black Documentary Collective's New York chapter hosted the screening of pioneering African American theater director and New Federal Theatre founder Woodie King Jr.'s new documentary Segregating the Greatest Generation at Anthology Film Archives on Wednesday, July 18th. King was in attendance along with a some of the film's subjects, including filmmaker William Greaves, Hue Man bookstore owner Clara Villarosa, educator/Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe Brown and architect Don Ryder.
(pictured above, Woodie King, Jr. (left) talks to legendary filmmaker William Greaves after the screening)

The audience was also rich with creative history including, film scholar Clyde Taylor, long-time curator, and black independent film distribution doyenne Michelle Materre (Materre was part of KJM3, the marketing group that formed to distribute Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust) filmmaker Julia O'Farrow who interviewed King following the screening, and filmmaker/editor Nicole Franklin. (pictured right, BDC member and filmmaker Julia O'Farrow introducing Woodie King, Jr.)

The film is a compelling look at artists and media makers, African American and European American, and one Asian American, who came of age during WWII, many of the men having served in the armed forces. King reached out to Black Theater Movement colleagues behind the scenes; the interviews were conducted by directors Shauneille Perry and Irving Vincent. Along with the attendees listed previously, included among the interview subjects are: artist/filmmaker Camille Billops; theater director/historian James Hatch; journalist Evelyn Cunningham; theater director Lloyd Richards; Broadway composer/musical arranger Luther Henderson, Lee Strasberg acting teacher Therese Hayden and theater producer Philip Rose. The film was narrated by Ruby Dee, and had interviews with Ossie Davis before he died. King was fortunate to be able to interview a number of people before they passed, Richards and Henderson among them, truly a poignant aspect of the work. (pictured left, Clyde Taylor(left) and Dr. Roscoe Brown talk to an audience member)

The film was overflowing with stories, as was the audience. I was fortunate to receive additional information about the film and its subjects from both Materre and Franklin. Apparently King has some 20 hours of interviews to edit from. There was detailed reminiscing from Phillip Rose, about meeting and befriending Lorraine Hansberry whose play Raisin In the Sun, he produced, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee who he would later work with on Davis' musical Purlie. Lloyd Richards talked about his early years in Detroit, creating theater groups and early theater education. Luther Henderson supplied the trajectory of his experience growing up in Harlem, attending Juilliard, working with Duke Ellington, and carrying a letter of introduction from Ellington into the army in the hopes he'd get a position with an entertainment division. He did, and ended up staging large shows in the military, and from somewhat accidentally ended up working in musical theater, as Henderson gives a coyly understated narrative King shows some of his credits: Ain't Misbehavin; Funny Girl, Flower Drum Song, and Jelly's Last Jam. Ironically, in the case of both King, Richards, and to a lesser extent Henderson, the lack of opportunities on stage lead to them acquiring skills integral to the actual mounting of a production, and running a theater, enabling a whole new generation of actors, directors, and playwrights to develop their craft. (above right, Michelle Materre, Woodie King, Jr, and William Greaves)

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the father of longtime Japanese American arts administrator, Natsu Ifill (Harlem Arts Alliance, Frank Silvera Writer's Workshop, La MaMa, NYC Dept. of Culural Affairs), was deported to Japan. Ifill and her remaining family were interned in camps during the remainder of WWII. Ifill talked about how little people were allowed to take (1 suitcase per person) and that you had to bring your own sheets. The barracks housing with shared bathroom facilities with other families and whole families living in a single room. The camps had doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. But the supervisors were all anglos, and while they made $10K/year, the Japanese American professionals working under them made approximately $16/month (!) according to Ifill. She noted that years went by and suddenly the U.S. government realized they had created another Indian Reservation scenario, with a whole potential underclass of Japanese Americans. So the government established employment training centers in the camps. Ifill took secretarial course, when she was released from the camps she applied to work for the U.S. military in a civilian foreign service position in the hopes of getting placed in Japan so she could visit her parents, which she did on the weekends for two years of the job. She didn't continue with the position because, understandably, she didn't want to work for the U.S. military indefinitely. It wasn't clear if she got to see them again after that. (pictured above right, Michelle Materre and Gregory Gates of imagenation)

Pittsburgh Courier journalist Evelyn Cunningham related the experience of getting to fulfill her dream of becoming a reporter as a result of WWII, as many of the male reporters were drafted into the military. One of her stories included risking her life trying to get an interview from Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama, and participating in a sit-in during the 1960s—so scary, because she was a woman none of the male cops would touch her until they got a woman into the diner to take her away, so she was left alone there, terrified, with the racist patrons who also didn't touch her, instead each one spewed a river of invective at her; she said it was worse than being hit. Nevertheless Cunningham clearly loved her career, having met and interviewed every history maker she wanted to, and successfully negotiating quite a bit of amorous attention. The elegant Cunningham, also a founding member of The Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc., mentioned she could write about book about all the times she was hit on while reporting. A classy lady now, she was a stunner in the pictures from the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Ossie Davis told of the desegregation of his base being prompted by a black soldier of large stature who felt he was constantly being targeted by white soldiers, particularly white MPs. This soldier stole a military vehicle with a mounted gun and killed a number of soldiers, from the sounds of it, mainly other African Americans before taking his own life. Perhaps fearing an wave of violence from similarly demoralized African American troops the unit immediately desegregated. (above left, (l-r)Dr. Roscoe Brow, Louise Greaves, Woodie King, Jr. and Don Ryder)

Dr. Brown spoke about being a Tuskegee Airman and the flying instruction of the day. Brown flew a number of highly successful, and was received awards for his military service. When he returned from the war he attended graduate school and got his doctorate, eventually becoming a professor at City College of New York (CUNY). Interestingly enough, as a decorated veteran he had some really stirring comments about the nature of war in latter half of the 2oth century and now the beginning of the 21st. Unfortunately, I'm not able to do it justice here, but he said something to the effect that WWII was the last war where there was a clear enemy that people could unite against that was doing something clearly horrible—killing people because of their ethnic/racial identity. They were fascists, of course there was also fascism being practiced in the U.S. Now, people try to use war to solve ideological problems that can’t be resolved by dropping bombs on people. Warfare isn’t an applicable method of resolution for our current geo-political conflicts. Now why isn’t anybody in the White House willing to admit that?

King was motivated to document these stories because of journalist Tom Brokaw’s landmark book, The Greatest Generation, which only had one(!) African American interviewee, and no mention of the Tuskegee Airmen. King asked Brokaw about that stunning omission, and Brokaw responded that his researchers(!) hadn’t found anything on that subject(!), and it wasn’t brought to his attention. Say what?! In addition, Clint Eastwood's WWI epic Flags of Our Fathers (2006; again with the mama's baby, papa's maybe, racially stratified paterfamilias narrative: whose fathers?) omitting the presence of African American soldiers when the flag was raised at Iwo Jima, provided another incentive for putting these stories on screen. A number of African American WWII veterans relayed to King that there was "a whole wall of black folks watching" as the flag was raised on Iwo Jima, but the newsreel cameramen and photographers wouldn’t put them on film. So there’s no “official” record of black soldiers being there. But having the resources of a Clint Eastwood, including having a wife who’s a journalist, would seem to belie the impossibility of getting information to verify and correct the “official record.” These historical revisions imply that African Americans were just laying back somewhere, having avoided mandatory service, waiting for it all to be over so they could celebrate the good times to come (hmm, good times like redlining, lynching, jim crow?)

King mentioned that Spike Lee has announced that he’s making a WWII film, also motivated by the stories of black WWII veterans. That's great, the more mediums in which the stories are circulated, the better. I was really happy to see what Woodie King Jr. had created. It's the best way to make a difference—not just craft a response to a specific injustice, but to create something that can stand on it’s own.

(pictured above, (l-r) Dr. Roscoe Brown, Louise Greaves, Woodie King, Jr., Clara Villarosa, William Greaves, Don Ryder)

Michelle Materre reminded us of how important this sort of documentation is, letting us know that we had lost another storyteller/history maker earlier that day with the passing of poet/performer Sekou Sundiata, who was also a colleague of Materre's at the New School for Social Research. Materre lamented the possibility that no one had archived interviews with him. This prompted me into research mode, of course, and I found some audio interviews available on the internet (more on this soon). In the meantime, various poets, writers, and performers have been sending their memories of Sundiata across the internet, and the New York Times noted his passing as well.


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