New Film: Black August
“Black August: A Hip Hop Benefit Concert,” a documentary directed by writer and filmmaker dream hampton, debuted at Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theater on Thursday night to a sold-out auditorium. The event was essentially a social forum as the hallowed halls of Lincoln Center were transformed into a vibrant platform for social change with musical performance and informative dialogue preceding and following the screening. The film was produced in association with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a national organization whose work was at the crux of the story and the focus of the benefit.
The opening performances set the tone for the evening. Blitz the Ambassador and his six-piece band raised the spirits of the crowd with his rousing lyrical delivery, inflected at times with his native Ghanaian dialect. Dressed in a crimson blazer, M1 the event host and Talib Kweli joined him for a reprise of “Its Bigger Than Hip Hop.” M1 spoke with conviction about the role the Black August movement has played in his work as part of his opening remarks.
While the film is presented under the guise of a concert series, “Black August” is a brave effort to shed light on the plight of political prisoners, an issue that far too often sails under the radar. The context is set through footage that spans over the decade and includes rare interviews with activists Assata Shakur, Kathleen Cleaver and Mutulu Shakur, who each have suffered from unjust persecution by the U.S. law enforcement since the 1970s, for charges that remain largely unsubstantiated and overblown.
Within this framework the contemporary Black August movement is fleshed out as American hip hop artists are impacted by the powerful stories of the revolutionary elders and the residents they come across in their journeys. The Black August concerts that took place in Cuba and South Africa over the past decade center on artists such as Common, Kweli, Dead Prez and Mos Def. Their performances are complemented by personal perspective in scenes that come across as tour vignettes. Mos Def speaks with charming candor of how he was moved by the Cuban crowds and in an uncomfortable moment Talib Kweli, M1 and Jeru the Damaja find themselves at a loss for words on South African soil in a panel discussion about race where the organization went awry. The power of dialogue and communication are covered in subtle ways, as the artists learn from the intercultural experience, and in turn educate new fans about what they do. In the end, the impetus for the cause is revisited as the work of Black August moves forward, revisiting individuals such as Assata Shakur who are still the target of persecution. Ultimately this is a film about how art and social movements cross pollinate, bridging barriers between generations and cultures.
Following the screening, the director, Kweli and M1 joined professor Marc Lamont Hill and former Black Panther Francisco Torres and Black August co-founder Lumumba Bandele joined in for a panel discussion on the film and the organization’s work. Though the event lasted well over four hours, the pace was consistent, and the house remained full to the end. Remarks were poignant, and relevant to the current day contradictory political climate. No one, it seemed, wanted to miss a word.
dream hampton, a native Detroiter (who has driven for Gotryke! Watch out for her words.) brought ten years of work to fruition with the completion of this film, documenting a cause she’s personally engaged with as a founding member of the Brooklyn chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. What she has produced will become an educational tool when it’s released on DVD later this fall. Here’s the film trailer: