At the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Friday, filmmaker, poet, educator and former Black Panther Jamal Joseph screened his new film, Sonia Sanchez: Shake Loose Memories. In it, he uses music and poetry to explore the art, work and activism of Sanchez, a legendary poet and co-founder of the Black Arts Movement.
Joseph, who believes strongly in the power of black art and artists to bring change and justice, spoke with The Root about what filmmakers can learn from rappers' activism and the Trayvon Martin film he'd like to see.
The Root: Tell us about the history of black activism in film. If we consider the case of Trayvon Martin, what is the work that it still has to do?
Joseph Jamal: I think black artists are faced with the same challenges that were faced during the civil rights movement. Then, you really saw people using the stage and using music to talk about what was really going on. But once Jaws was released, studios began to see that black people would go to white movies. When the studios saw that, they stopped funding the films. They started funding certain kinds of films, like comedies, or things they thought they could cross-market.
But today, technology has given us the opportunity to have digital cameras, to edit on laptops and be able to tell these stories. We have studios without walls now. Brooklyn is a back lot. Oakland is a back lot. Harlem is a back lot. Our distribution can be digital in terms of what we communicate with people. We don't have to wait for a studio or networks. We can go to college campuses and create that consciousness that is so needed in terms of black activism.
TR: Where in black art can we locate activism today?
JJ: What we see happening with black activism in hip-hop, for example, is that there are lots of revolutionary rappers who are doing amazing work, putting their stuff on the Internet, releasing their own music and, more importantly, getting out into their own communities and doing workshops and performing. They are letting young people know that there is an alternative voice. There isn't one way to be a rapper or an artist. Filmmakers have to do the same thing. Filmmakers have to take on these issues, and in the spirit of the African griot, it can't just be issue-driven; it has to be entertaining.
TR: What's next for you and your activism?
JJ: I'm doing a film this summer called Chapter and Verse. A situation that really concerns us is the plight of mass incarceration of our young black men. There is a one-in-three chance that they'll wind up in prison, a one-in-five chance that they'll wind up in college, a one-in-four chance that they'll wind up like Trayvon Martin and die from violence. Sometimes it will be at the hands of the police or a white racist. Oftentimes, it's from each other's hands. That's what the film will explore.
TR: If you were to make a film about the Trayvon Martin case, what angle would you take? Which part of his story would you most like to see explored?
JJ: I would like to explore the conditions and circumstances that created Zimmerman. Unless we deal with where the disease or where the cancer is coming from, then it's going to happen again and again. Also, we should explore and honor his parents for following in the footsteps of Mamie Till, Emmett Till's mom. They are saying, "We're not letting this go. You have to understand what happened to my son. America, world, you need to know what happened to my son."
But we really need to understand the mind and the circumstances that created the mind that pulled that trigger that thinks it's OK to stalk a black boy and shoot him, and also the other minds that let [Zimmerman] go with impunity. Unless we attack it from both points, unless we understand man's inhumanity to man, it will be useless.
Akoto Ofori-Atta is The Root's assistant editor.