The late poet and activist Amiri Baraka, shown in a vintage photo with his family, is the central figure in the documentary “Why Is We Americans?”
Words matter. And if you ever doubt that in New Jersey, ask someone what happened in Newark in the summer of 1967.
Some people will say “a riot.” Some will say “a rebellion.” And if you can keep those two sides talking — which may be difficult — you may find that’s only the start of their disagreements.
So moviegoers should know right off that “Why Is We Americans?,” a new documentary, stands squarely with those who consider those days of rage an uprising — a painful but necessary revolt that led to the election of the city’s first Black mayor, Kenneth Gibson.
But that is still a reduction of a film whose real subject is the artistic, ambitious Baraka family: the poet and activist Amiri; his partner in life, art and politics, Amina; and their son, the current mayor of Newark, Ras. Loyal Newarkers, they have helped define, and re-define, Brick City.
Yet the movie project began with a Brooklyn filmmaker, Udi Aloni.
“As an Israeli Jew who works in solidarity with the Palestinians, who is devoted to progressive causes, it’s important for me to understand radical voices,” he says. “I already knew Amiri Baraka as an amazing poet. And then, when I was introduced to his son, the mayor, and then I met Amina, the mother — who reminded me so much of my own mother — it felt so right to tell this story.”
Aloni, though, realized he was approaching it as an outsider. He needed an insider, too. He found her in Ayana Stafford-Morris, a teacher, filmmaker and fourth-generation Newarker who owns the city’s outdoor Moonlight Cinema and had previously done social media and digital content for Ras Baraka’s mayoral campaign.
“I’ve known the mayor since he was my fifth grade teacher,” Stafford-Morris says. “He would assign us James Baldwin, talk about black art. Later I got to attend a summer camp funded by Puff Daddy, and Ras Baraka was one of the counselors there, too. He has always been about providing people with opportunity.”
Stafford-Morris began the project as Aloni’s assistant director. By the end of it, she was his full partner.
“Ayana is so talented, it was ridiculous to have her only as the assistant director,” Aloni says. “We were a team, and we taught each other so many things. She brought so much to the work.”
Lauryn Hill is a co-executive producer of “Why Is We Americans?,” and is interviewed in it.
One of the things she brought: the full-on participation of Lauryn Hill, who became not only a major interview subject but also an executive producer, handling tricky music clearance issues and helping push the project along.
“Ras had worked on her breakthrough album,” Stafford-Morris said. “So we reached out to someone on his team, and they got us Lauryn’s mother’s number, and suddenly Lauryn was onboard. And as soon as we started interviewing her, listening to her speak so eloquently, we felt the story — which could have gone in so many directions — coming together.”
Not surprisingly, the center of the film is still the fiery, sometimes infuriating Amiri Baraka. There is archival film of his reciting his work, the verses exploding like firecrackers. We see him in a vintage press conference from ‘67, his head still bandaged from a run-in with police. And we see him in the years before his death in 2014, still fighting the system.
He was still controversial, too. His 2002 poem, “Somebody Blew Up America?”, claiming that Israel knew in advance of the 9/11 attack, outraged many. (At the time, critics called for Baraka to be fired from his post as the state’s Poet Laureate; when that turned out to be legally impossible, the legislature and Gov. Jim McGreevey eliminated the position altogether.)
Aloni admits that that incident made funding this film difficult. But he insists that a few words don’t define a person, and denies that Baraka was anti-Semitic.
“People use ‘anti-Semitism’ to criticize progressive voices all the time, and it’s unacceptable,” he says heatedly. “Amiri Baraka wrote one poem that had that one ridiculous line; even his wife told him, ‘This is stupid, don’t put that line in.’ And I agree with her. There are many ways to criticize Israel; you don’t have to use conspiracy stuff to do it.
“Amiri was not an anti-Semite, but he was a poet, and poets are not politicians. They can write beautiful things. They can write stupid things, also.”
“For something to be reduced to one moment in time, to not really take heed of people’s political evolution, it’s a bit ignorant, I think,” adds Stafford-Morris. “What I love about our film is that you see the evolution of this family, and their ideology … We’re all evolving. I don’t know that I’m the same person I was 10 years ago.”
Nor is Newark the same city it was in 1967.
“Some things don’t change without struggle,” Stafford-Morris says. “But Newark is one of the few communities that was able to come back from that. Slow but steady, but come back. I see new restaurants opening, new small businesses. My husband is a developer, and he’s working with the city on some housing projects. The city is changing. The landscape is changing.”
“But,” adds Aloni, “the struggle goes on.”
“Why Is We Americans?” opens Jan. 14 at the IFC Center in New York before expanding to additional cities in February, in honor of Black History Month. For information, visit corinthfilms.com/films/why-is-we-americans.
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