Nationtime: Last Century, Last Week, by David Bax
Nationtime (or, as the onscreen title says, Nationtime – Gary), William Greaves’ film document of the 1972 National Black Political Convention, is coming to virtual cinemas this weekend via Kino Marquee. The never officially released film has been restored by, among other parties, Indie Collect and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, reportedly in color, though the screener I received was in black and white.
For three days in March of 1972, delegates from across the United States gathered in Gary, Indiana to create a political platform for the interest and advancement of all Black Americans. They also came to see an impressive number speeches from notable names; Nationtime features Amiri Baraka, Jesse Jackson and Harry Belafonte, as well as both Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, not to mention that the film is narrated by Sidney Poitier.
All of these speeches are lively, engaging and persuasive, none more so than Jackson’s stirring contribution, which takes up the lion’s share of the film’s first half. But the attendees–as well as we the viewers–are also treated to some entertainment from the stars on hand like Isaac Hayes and Richard Roundtree (who enter to the Shaft theme before Hayes performs another number) and some standup comedy from Dick Gregory (who gets some timely digs in at George Wallace and Spiro Agnew).
With all of this wattage on stage, it’s notable that Greaves kicks off Nationtime with the only real bit of “behind the scenes” footage, in which the organizers address the media before the convention begins in earnest. It seems far more reporters and cameras have shown up than were expected and there are worries that they may be a distraction or hindrance. It’s an interesting sequence on its own but the prevalence of news people may explain why Greaves has so many angles to choose from. Jackon’s centerpiece speech is positively dynamic; we see him in profile, full body, straight on, gazed up at from a first row low angle and, at one point, peered at almost surreptitiously from behind a column. Nationtime anxiously buzzes with the same energy of those at the convention.
That energy–or let’s call it spirit–is much more the focus of the film than actual policy. We know that issues were voted on and a platform was assembled but Greaves mostly elides the specifics, with the exception of some interesting bits of protocol and procedure when a number of the Michigan delegates walk out in disagreement. The one, unifying issue that dominates Nationtime is blackness itself, how it unites the attendees in oppression and indignity (Jackson bellows, “I do not trust white Republicans or white Democrats!”) as well as what can be accomplished with their uniquely American blackness, so great in number and, as one man puts it, “more materially comfortable in our enslavement” than black people suffering in many other countries, like the apartheid-governed South Africa.
Apartheid ended but you’d have to be naive and very, very privileged to assume that racism did too. That’s the most depressing–yet galvanizing–thing about watching Nationtime today. Though a few particulars stand out as dated (the usage of the words “ghetto” and “Orientals,” especially), almost everything said, every grudge aired, every injustice decried are still sickeningly relevant and familiar.