Friday, August 3, 2012

Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power [2004]

MPAA (Not Rated)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power, a documentary directed by Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts about pro-gun Civil Rights era North Carolina African-American activist Robert Williams, is a film that I honestly never would have heard of before beginning my blog.  Yet as a Catholic priest who is also a blogger writing about films, I find myself (often smiling from ear to ear) in a rather unique position to give voice to such well made and provocative films as this.  I belong to a universal (Catholic) Church, one that firmly believes that we are all God's children and since I write in my spare time and simply for the occasional donation, I actually get to write more freely than most anybody else about the films that I choose to see (and as readers of this blog will certainly note, I really, really enjoy casting a "very wide net.") So I'm becoming more and more certain that a lot of the films that I write about on this blog are films that they too would probably have never heard of otherwise.  Yet hopefully, readers will rind the films reviewed here compelling and, further, written about in a compelling way ;-)

I discovered this film last week while I was looking for a place that was showing the recently released youth oriented dance movie Step Up Revolution [2012] but in 2D rather than the "industry preferred" 3D (which would have also cost me $4 more to see it...).  Most of the mainstream theaters in Chicago were only offering one showing a day of the film in 2D and, unsurprisingly, at very inconvenient times.  However, I found that the ICE (Inner City Entertainment) theater chain had a multiplex on 87th Street off of the Dan Ryan expressway in Chicago that only showed the film in 2D (and at multiple times).   I found this just great. It was while I was there I found out that ICE ran a monthly program called "Black World Cinema" and that this particular film was playing the following Thursday at the theater.

Those who've followed my blog would know that I've come to appreciate the various film festivals that pass through Chicago during the year as well as the more "avant guard" / "art theaters" in Chicago like Facet's Multimedia (Near Northwest Side), the Gene Siskel Film Center (Downtown) and Landmark Century Centre (Lincoln Park), The Music Box Theatre (Northside).  So it has been a joy to discover ICE Theaters on the South Side as well.  And I do hope to see / review films from the Black World Cinema series as they occur from now on.

Negroes with Guns is a documentary that has aired on PBS's Independent Lens program about Robert Williams, who during the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s-60s when honestly no one knew how the struggle for black equality was going to end up took a very "Southern path" to the Civil Rights Struggle.  He started  _peacefully_ arming blacks, by starting a series of legal gun clubs across North Carolina though mostly centered around his home Monroe County.  He did work with the NAACP and had _some_ contact with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  But as a representative of the NAACP in the documentary noted, both the NAACP and the SCLC frankly kept a distance from Robert Williams and his Black Guard for fear of losing northern white liberal support. 

The documentary also showed that Robert Williams' approach did eventually get him into trouble.  In 1961, during a particularly tense summer when a number of NAACP/SCLC "freedom riders" had arrived in Monroe County and were peacefully protesting in the center of town, a couple of local white women perhaps trying to avoid the protests in the center of town ended up making a wrong turn and passed through the African American section of town instead.  Finding themselves surrounded by ARMED BLACK MEN and actually having been escorted by Robert Williams out of the neighborhood and back onto right road, they turned around and accused Robert Williams and his men of having "kidnapped them."  This became the pretext that the local police needed to try to bring an end to Robert Williams' group.  Informed that the State Police were going to come and arrest him, Robert Williams and his family fled the back roads out of the county and (perhaps tragically) out of the state.  Since he crossed state lines, he found himself as a fugitive wanted by the FBI.    So he ended up fleeing all the way to Castro's Cuba, which certainly _did not_ ingratiate him the U.S. government at the time.  Remember, only a short time later came the Cuban Missile Crisis.  (Then during his time in Cuba, Robert Williams did produce a radio program of his own design FOR (Communist) Cuba's foreign radio service called "Radio Free Dixie).

Finding himself on the other side of Cold War lines, he was something of a hero for a time in the Communist Bloc, but he remained too independent.  Eventually, he found himself going to Communist China in the late 1960s.  Finally, as U.S. President Richard Nixon began his overtures to opening diplomatic relations with Communist China, Robert Williams was allowed to return to the United States.  Soon after being "extradited" back to North Carolina almost immediately after returning to the United States (he arrived initially to Detroit) the "kidnapping" charges that he faced in North Carolina were quietly dropped as well.

In the documentary Robert Williams is portrayed as having been an inspiration for the subsequent Black Panther movement.  That may be.  However, upon his return, Williams remained rather quiet, never being particularly interested in becoming a "successor figure" to either Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr as the FBI had apparently feared.  Indeed, it would seem that Robert Williams never really advocated violence (hence probably why he was able to return and why the charges against him in North Carolina were dropped).  Instead, he simply advocated armed self-defense claiming equal rights as whites to the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which guarantees the rights of Americans to bear arms).

I found the situation that got Williams into trouble in North Carolina as more or less inevitable.  And all things considered, at least nobody died in that confrontation that resulted in Williams having to have to flee for his life all the way to Castro's Cuba and Communist China before he was able to come home.  However, I do believe that people do have a right to self-defense.  I'm not sure if guns are necessarily the solution (and Williams life can be taken to teach lessons on both sides of the "gun" question in the United States:  If Williams and his group were not armed, perhaps he would not have had to flee all the way to Cuba to save his life.  On the other hand, I've never been threatened with being lynched or having my house threatened with being burned to the ground.  So I think I understand Williams' dilemma and why he chose to advocate the path that he did.

In any case, this documentary certainly gives _everyone_ much to think about.

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