Historical tales of revolutionary icons are often plagued by hero myths that exalt individuals at the expense of the community that formed them. With “Why Is We Americans? , A documentary about the impact poet and radical Amiri Baraka and his descendants have had on the city of Newark, directors Udi Aloni and Ayana Stafford-Morris take a different approach. In this compressed account of the multiple generations of artists and activists who make up the Baraka clan, the patriarch, who died in 2014, is a single (albeit central) knot. It’s a story that spans past and present, arts and politics, kinship and country – and the film, with its haphazard montage, struggles to contain it all.
In the opening minutes of the film, archival footage of Amiri Baraka’s rousing speech at the 1972 Black National Political Convention in Gary, Indiana – “What time is it?” It is the hour of the nation! – gives way to scenes from his son Ras’s campaign to become mayor of Newark, a post he currently holds. From Ras we move on to the other children including Amiri Jr., a political strategist who participated in student protests at Howard University, and Shani, a girl whose murder led to the creation of a women’s resource center. to his name. Amiri’s wife, Amina, emerges as the most striking figure in the film, sharing moving anecdotes and sharp feminist critiques of the Black Power movement.
But the film’s fuzzy edits often raise more questions than the film can answer. Amiri Baraka’s first wife, poet Hettie Jones, is only mentioned in passing, and other important themes, such as Baraka’s feelings about the sexual orientation of a sister and a lesbian girl, are approached too superficially. These elisions seem even more shocking given the ample time devoted to Lauryn Hill, an executive producer for the film, who appears throughout the offering to offer broad, mostly free, cultural commentary.
Why are we Americans?
Unclassified. Duration: 1 hour 41 minutes. In theaters.