What if I told you that it doesn’t matter whether or not the Civil Rights Movement was successful? What if I told you that, after sitting in Manhattan’s Riverside Church from 2:30 PM-8:30PM on Monday, I walked away knowing that the questions so many of us ask ourselves about civil rights movements past and present—Did they work? Are they working?—are irrelevant. I walked away from “MLK Now” (presented by Ryan Coogler’s Blackout for Human Rights and The Campaign for Black Male Achievement, along with Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY), with a new understanding of a conversation and a struggle that’s been happening in America since the 18th century, and is still unfolding today.
Five years ago, if you’d told me I’d be attending a day-long event in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., I’d have guffawed. Like so many others, even though I should have known better, I was guilty of trivializing King’s activism, even going so far as to occasionally write him off as a prince of peace in a time when, I felt, many more black Americans should have been shouting “by any means necessary.” I can admit that my understanding of his work didn’t really shift critically, until I saw Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which presented a very different King from the image I’d settled upon for so long.
Of course, even that excellent movie wasn’t going to get me to trek into the city and sit inside of a church for six hours. Like many others, I was drawn in by the big names attached to “MLK Now”—Ryan Coogler presents five hours with Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Chris Rock, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Octavia Spencer, Condola Rashad, Harry Belafonte and Andre Holland (AKA my boo from “The Knick”?) Yes, please. Of course, the other big names had compelled me as well. All of these people reading speeches and works by not only King, but Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth and James Baldwin meant that I had to go. Getting to call it work, while sitting in the press section was a nice bonus.
No sooner had the program begun did CBMA’s Shawn Dove, one of the organizers, plainly say, “These people are not here to entertain you.” In other words, if you came merely for the celebrities, you’d be disappointed in a way. That’s partly because we weren’t there to watch Michael B. Jordan, but to experience Jordan as Fred Hampton, waxing poetic and political about the marriage between theory and practice in his speech, “Power Anywhere Where There’s People.” Lin-Manuel Miranda as King asked us to re-envision love as a powerful force, rather than a mere sentiment, with “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” (the speech King delivered in 1964, in the very same Riverside Church). Tessa Thompson as Angela Davis let her voice ring out (I can still hear those opening lines: “It’s really a wonderful feeling to be back among the people”), speaking on the American prison system as a method of oppression at a victory rally in Los Angeles. Chris Rock (after explaining that he didn’t appreciate “having to follow the heartthrob,” Michael B. Jordan) astounded everyone, as the sole performer to read without a script in hand. Rock’s recitation of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook,” was a highlight of a day with far too many highlights to name them all. Condola Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and Octavia Spencer all commanded the stage as they transformed for their readings. And André Holland, who took on Malcolm X’s speech on police brutality and mainstream media, made it abundantly clear that it’s time for another “Malcolm X” biopic—he might be the one actor who could rival Denzel Washington’s 1992 performance.
The message of the event was clear: Every last one of these speeches (curated by Blackout and S&A’s Jai Tiggett) could be delivered today, with little to no variation. The prison system is still, as Davis said, “a method of repression.” Wells’ argument about the importance of educated blacks speaking out against the killings of so many other blacks—even if they believe they are not affected, because of their status—still applies. Baldwin’s comments about how white people know the truth about white supremacy and its benefits to them, but struggle to act upon what they know, remains, unfortunately, a very real, very American truth. After so many speeches that rang so true, the event felt like an acknowledgement of a certain failure. If it’s all still applicable, why are we here celebrating these people? If it’s all still true, to a great degree, doesn’t that mean that these speeches and these movements, did not work?
We were lucky to have Harry Belafonte, accompanied to the stage by Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler’s brother Keenan Coogler, in the room to speak to some of this. The only one among us who’d actually stood alongside King, shared a powerful story about his last encounter with MLK, in which King himself declared his own work to be a failure. He’d just returned from a trip to Newark, in an attempt to talk a group of armed black men out of violent retaliation or defense. Belafonte said, "he couldn’t reach them and was grieved."
More frightening for King, it seemed, was the fact that—although he disagreed with the methods of these young men—he agreed with their grievances. “We are integrating into a burning house,” he told Belafonte. Others in the room asked King, “Well, what would you have us do?” As in, we’ve come this far, only for you to sit here and say that, perhaps, this whole integration thing was a bad idea? King replied, “Well, I tell ya, we’re just gonna have to become firemen.”
Belafonte’s presence and his performance of Patrice Lumumba’s “Proclamation of Independence,” worked to highlight a crucial fact about all of the movements represented at “MLK Now.” They cannot be understood as existing on a single line, with a definitive beginning, middle and end. Rather, they exist on a continuum. The movement is still ongoing and unfolding—hence, MLK now. Malcolm X now. Shirley Chisholm now. Failure and power are, similarly, not states of being represented by a single fact. These are concepts that are meant to move us forward. And what feels like failure can be a gateway to power. What feels like power can be an entire community’s downfall.
One of the most compelling moments of the evening highlighted this relationship between failure and power (and the evolution of both, for black America) further, as Ryan Coogler and rapper J. Cole sat down to engage in an artist talk. Coogler admitted, perhaps for the first time publicly, that he has never watched his first feature film, “Fruitvale Station.” Not only is the story too grievous for him to witness in its entirety, but Coogler even went so far as to confess that, for some time, he considered his work to be a complete failure, as the years continued to bring more police brutality and killings of black people like his subject, Oscar Grant. It seemed “Fruitvale Station” didn’t “work,” in the same way that King’s movement didn’t “work.” But Cole was quick to point out that Coogler’s definition of “work” or success, must be complicated. No, the film, like the Civil Rights Movement, did not succeed in eradicating white supremacy and its effects. But that’s because the film—like the movement—is not finished. “Creed” is a descendant of “Frutivale Station,” just like “Black Panther” and all of the films Coogler will go on to create will be. The story of Oscar Grant is still being told, and because it has been transformed into a work of art, it will be viewed and interpreted by audiences to come; it will continue to be made and re-made, like all powerful creations. The movement is still being made and re-made—another point driven home by a final panel of today’s “activists,” (one of whom cautioned against use of that word—as it assumes that some of us are not activists, merely by existing as people of color in America).
Cole and Coogler’s conversation represented one of those many, “Why aren’t they showing this on TV?” moments that we are going to continue to have as more events like this take place. They had disagreements about the focus of Black Lives Matter, as Cole repeatedly asked that black people “look inward,” lest they succeed in overthrowing a system that has already poisoned them so much that, such an overthrow would still result in a certain failure. Coogler insisted that we could concern ourselves with both the inward and outward forces working against us, simultaneously. But the most powerful moment of the conversation came at the end, as Cole continued to profusely thank the director for inviting him to the event.
“Stop thanking me, bruh,” Coogler said. “We’re part of the same body. One hand don’t wake up and thank the other hand. We just move.”
Coogler’s beautiful image circled back to this idea of a movement as a continuum. The bodies are not separate (unless we allow them to be); the hands are not separate, and the movement continues on (especially if we can change our understanding of failure and power).
There was an energy at Riverside Church that was neither strictly spiritual or strictly political. It was a day full of odd occurrences and a few blunders. Coogler, for example, was not supposed to ask J. Cole about his new life as a married man. Actor Adepero Oduye fell ill and could not complete her speech, but Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon, who was not on the schedule, came in and finished it for her. There were many surprises, like Jussie Smollett showing up to perform Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit" before making a quick exit; there was much coming and going from performers and audiences alike. But all of this movement felt exciting, and somehow spoke to this greater concept of energy as a constant. “MLK Now,” as I experienced it, suggests that we must stop asking if a movement worked, when it’s so abundantly clear that the energy of black people in America has never been destroyed, but changes its state with the times.
So if I took anything away from this event—one that I hope will continue for years to come—it’s to, simply, keep moving. If the house is burning, we must learn to fight fires; then learn to treat the bodily wounds; then learn to treat the mind (with all manner of intellectual and creative works). We speak, we gather, we fight, we converse, we create, but above all, we just move. As long as we are moving—and I do not say this lightly—I believe there is a movement, and I believe that the movement is “working.” There is failure in that work, and there is power in that work—violence, glory and a continually unfolding struggle. “MLK Now” asks that we embrace it all, celebrate those workers, and allow their energy to propel us in a movement that does not end at the mountaintop, or the promised land or even with The Dream, because all of these things keep evolving. That evolution is all the “proof” we need that black truth in America is marching on.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste Magazine, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shannonmhouston.