Out of all the documents of the landmark, radical left protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, most people tend to focus on those involving the Youth International Party (more commonly known as the Yippies) and the Abby Hoffman-led “Chicago Seven.”Yet such a focus ignores the crucial role played by the Black Panthers and general unrest in city’s black and lower-class communities.On November 18th, Theaster Gate’s Black Cinema House Live/Work Space—a recently revived two-story space run by the Dorchester project in collaboration with Chicago Film Archives and South Side Projections—sought to give these lost stories their due through a screening of “American Revolution II.” Produced by the Chicago Film Group during this critical period of civil unrest, the documentary has gained a cult following, though not the sort that could spawn a cottage industry to support its makers.
The film opens with chaotic scenes of picket signs and shouting directed against the U.S. military action in Vietnam. The crowd is being handled with baton twirling, pepper-spraying policemen that for many defined the age. Yet, the picture soon finds its focus, moving away from crowds of thousands into the more intimate settings of South Side billiard parlors, bars, and meeting houses. Here, the camera encounters citizen after citizen who state, as plain fact, that police brutality in this city is nothing new, that the “damn pigs” have never had any problem with “whupping somebody upside the head,” and that the only reason this is now news is that the color of the victims has changed from black to white.However, even this racialized schematic falls apart in the third and final act of the film. Viewers are introduced to the Young Patriots, a group of predominantly white youth activists in Uptown, many of whom had recently relocated from Appalachia and other impoverished areas south of the Mason-Dixon line. Despite the Confederate Flags that many of these men wear proudly on their berets, they are anti-racist activists who choose to reach out to—of all people—Bobby Lee, one of the lead organizers of the Chicago Black Panther Party. Many of the film’s most interesting scenes involve passionate three-way debates among the Patriots, the Panthers, and the neighborhood police commissioner, all of whom were seeking some sort of peace for the lower-class living in a city on the brink.
The Sunday screening was accompanied by a Q&A with Ron Pitts, an elder statesman of Chicago cinema who contributed some of the film’s original footage. Pitts chose the film as part of the Cinema House’s monthly “Black Cinema Is…” series. The Bronzevile filmmaker became involved in the project while in the midst of working on a far more commercial endeavor.“I was filming this advertisement for Kentucky Fried Chicken, right.” Pitts informs his audience, “and I was in there meeting with Colonel [Sanders], when my friend comes in all bloody and tells me ‘there are white people getting beat in the streets.’”
According to Pitts, “that just wasn’t something that you saw happening at that time, ever. There were plenty of black people getting beat, but never whites.” Pitts then ran out to the convention protest to try and film the ensuing chaos. In working with the Chicago Film Group on the work that resulted from this initially spontaneous shoot, Pitts—a long time South Side resident—played an integral role in bringing the filmmakers into the neighborhoods where police brutality was not news, but rather, commonplace.
Pitts says that he initially picked out the Muhammad Ali documentary, When We Were Kings, as his selection for the Black Cinema series, but in the hype that surrounded the recent Presidential race, Pitts felt that American Revolution II made a more relevant statement about the nature of political discourse. Yet the majority of Pitts’ post-screening discussion focused not on the need for political change, but, rather, on changes that may allow communities to interact as neighbors and fellow citizens.
“We don’t talk to each other anymore,” the 71-year-old filmmaker said. “We just text each other. We’ve lost that community aspect. Because of that, nothing’s changed.”Pitts, who helped break racial barriers in Chicago as one of the first African-American film professors at Columbia College, still remains pessimistic about race in Chicago. He still believes it is one of the most segregated and oppressive parts of the country—in his words, “worse than Mississippi, worse than Alabama.”
But not everyone at the screening shared Pitts’ pessimism. One audience member raised her hand and asked him, “Doesn’t this screening at this cinema house show that we are still ready to organize?” From beneath his long, grey beard, Pitts smiled back and replied, “Well, maybe you’re right about that.”
Black Cinema House, 6901 S. Dorchester Ave. For screening dates and times visit blackcinemahouse.org