- The Baraka Film Archive:The Lost, Unmade, and Unseen Film Work of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka
If the first wave of Black film history, running roughly from the pioneering work of Thomas Cripps and Donald Bogle in the 1970s through Ed Guerrero, Paula Massood, and others in the 1990s and beyond, focused on recovering and organizing the oft-overlooked and undervalued contributions of Black filmmakers, recent scholarship has begun to construct something of a counterfactual canon of lost or unmade films.1 From the failed late-1960s major studio production of The Confessions of Nat Turner at 20th Century Fox, to James Baldwin’s abandoned script for a Malcolm X biopic, and into Larry Neal’s forgotten forays into a Black Power cinema, these unrealized films do much to enrich our understanding of the conditions of possibility for Black cinema.2
Perhaps no figure more merits entry into this growing field of inquiry than Amiri Baraka, best known as a playwright, poet, essayist, and activist. While the voluminous Baraka scholarship frequently situates him within artistic genealogies of jazz, surrealism, and Dada, rarely has the central role of film in Baraka’s political and aesthetic sensibilities been highlighted. More to the point, Baraka’s actual film work—both realized and not—has remained almost wholly absent from biographies and accounts of his work. In fact, aside from adaptations of his work (the best-known being Anthony Harvey’s 1967 Dutchman), Baraka directed two short films, Black Spring (shot in 1967 and shown in 1968) and The New-Ark (1968), and worked on several other uncompleted projects, from his own early attempt at a Malcolm X film to a provocative animated short, Supercoon.3 Restoring these efforts enriches the Baraka narrative in a number of ways, from grounding his vision of cultural politics in the very concrete setting of late-sixties Newark and San Francisco, to contextualizing the heavily cinematic aesthetics of some of his Marxist plays, such as The Motion of History (1979) and Boy and Tarzan [End Page 273] Appear in the Clearing (1981), both directly informed by his cinematic aspirations.
The absence of this work from the scholarly record does not reflect research shortcomings of those who have worked on Baraka. Only quite recently, with the opening of new archives, can we begin to fully account for Baraka’s film work. In particular, the papers of Ronald Hobbs Literary Agency and the Amiri Baraka Papers, both at Columbia University and processed and opened in 2013 and 2014, respectively, begin to afford us historical access to Baraka’s actual cinematic labor.4 Meanwhile, The New-Ark went apparently unseen for several decades, until Lars Lierow discovered it in the Harvard Film Archives; his mention of it in a 2013 Black Camera article led to its restoration and digitization, then a premiere at Rutgers University-Newark before subsequent screenings at the Anthology Film Archives and elsewhere. Black Spring, meanwhile, remains a lost film, with only a sparse paper-trail of documentation.
In this essay, I offer an overview of Baraka’s engagement with film, drawing on these newly available collections, as well as material from severely under-utilized archival collections, such as the Amiri Baraka Playscripts Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture. I break his work into three categories: the two films he completed, the various unfinished projects he attempted (including Supercoon and several others, ranging from bare sketches to more fleshed-out scenarios), and the heretofore-unexplored film and video work he undertook in Newark and elsewhere in the 1970s, currently held in his papers at Columbia but unviewable until the numerous reels and videotapes have been digitally preserved, but promising a rich source for otherwise under-documented radical activism of the years before and after his conversion to Marxism.
Amiri Baraka, Filmmaker
For the young Leroy Jones (Baraka was born as Everett Leroy Jones in 1934), movies and popular culture provided not just escape, but also unintended insights into American culture. According to family lore, one of his first childhood recognitions of racism came while visiting his grandparents in South Carolina, when his father Coyt took him to a screening of Bing...