by Whitney Strub
Amiri Baraka’s lost Chronicles have been recovered and will premiere to a new audience today. The Black Power movement has been defined cinematically by the iconography of black-and-white grain of groups like Newsreel, and in national memory through the lens of a white-dominated media awash in reductive and violent imagery. The city of Newark, meanwhile, is held prisoner to the memory of 1967, when the riots devastated the city and also its African American citizens, who suffered the overwhelming majority of the (state-inflicted) violence during the upheaval. For providing a valuable corrective to all of these frameworks, Amiri Baraka’s The New-Ark (1968) deserves attention — yet it’s been largely unseen and unseeable for the past three decades. Only one known print exists, at Harvard Film Archive, whose new restoration will premiere, fittingly enough, in Baraka’s hometown, at Rutgers-Newark on April 22.
In The New-Ark, Baraka depicts Black Power activism and organizing in a city devastated not just by media-sensationalized riots, but by decades of chronic racial injustice, sutured into the very textures and structures of everyday life, from casual police violence to community-destroying redevelopment policies to the white flight and disinvestment that were already well underway by 1967. Born in Newark in 1934, and recently returned after achieving fame as a Greenwich Village playwright followed by a tumultuous stint in Harlem, Baraka himself had been personally affected by the riots, having been severely beaten by Newark police and then arrested and convicted on gun charges during them. Yet with the same clarity of vision he had earlier shown in his plays and poetry, he recognized the opportunities for regrouping and asserting, at last, Black political power in a city whose recent demographic conversion to African American majority had been but barely reflected in city governance, still dominated by corrupt, racist white ethnic machine politics.
The New-Ark was thus an unabashed Black Power propaganda piece, albeit one made at the behest of the system itself. Baraka had made one earlier film, Black Spring, while briefly teaching in California in 1967; lost today, it documented the Black Arts scene in and around San Francisco. The New-Ark seemingly fell into his lap. He was commissioned to make a short documentary by the adventurous Public Broadcast Laboratory of National Public Television, which was also pursuing avant-garde filmmakers like Jonas Mekas at the same time. Baraka had recently written a long essay, “Newark Before Black Men Conquered” (collected in Raise, Race, Rays, Raze, a book of his essays), which began with the proposition, “Black People in Newark are strong. They only need to KNOW IT. And ACT on it!”
The New-Ark screens at Rutgers University-Newark, Tuesday, April 22, at 6pm in the Paul Robeson Center, free and open to the public. For more information, go here. Filmstrips used to illustrate this article are courtesy of James Hinton Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University.