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Reviewed by Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

Thursday, November 28, 2013.

Herbert Danska’s excellent, but rare, Right On! Poetry on Film is undoubtedly the standout film at this year’s British Film Institute [BFI] African Odysseys Season of films and documentaries. Featuring The Last Poets who - alongside many other ground-breakers - created the template for contemporary Rap music, this documentary showcases the passionate and incendiary original trio reciting poems on culture, love and revolution.

Introduced by poet T’Shaka Campbell, who also performed his own thoughtful and cerebral work, the film generated careful reflections and discussion on the film, the 1960s and ‘70s, and contemporary music.

With an almost amateur production mood generated by the ragged hand held cinematography the limits of low budget early 1970s film production are apparent. Keeping this in mind is important in watching the film. But watch any recent performance based Rap video [Channel U, SBTV] and see the similarities. Of its time in the literal sense, Right On! is dated but definitely not out of date.  

Danska’s 1971 film captures the original members and self-proclaimed guerrilla poets - Gylan Kain, David Nelson, and Felipe Luciano - on the streets, alleys and rooftops of New York City’s Lower Manhattan performing 28 innovative pieces from their 1969 Concept-East Poetry appearance.

For those who look beyond Rap as it now is to the art form as it once was, this genuine blueprint should be searched out like a vinyl junkie digs the record racks for rare groove.

These rhyme masters and pioneers of contemporary Rap and Spoken Word are rightly hailed as innovators alongside standouts such as Amiri Baraka, The Watts Prophets and the late Gil Scott Heron. Mr Heron’s enduring classic The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was penned as homage to and in response to The Last Poets When The Revolution Comes.

From these two pieces alone it is clear that the artistic expressions of the era drew from a time when revolutionary transformation was a confidently anticipated prospect.  Both poems speak to an age when intractable problems – war, racism, injustice, inequality - were taken up for solution with optimism that change was necessary and achievable.  

At a distance of four decades maybe such assurance seems idealistic but the discomforting militancy with which these pieces were performed blended with the passion, anger and energy of the time.  The sentiment was reinforced by a global movement against colonialism and imperialism, which reverberated as much in the developed as in the developing world. Looked at alongside the approach of the time The Last Poets method - aggressive and perhaps lacking subtlety - is a reflection, an echo of the urgency of those dramatic years.

Typified by the enduring painful Die Nigger, Die - which in one piece captures the vernacular use of the word and refutes the ugly stereotype it embodies - we have a mirror to the trio’s militancy and confrontational technique as well as their use of slang as caricature, pastiche, parody and satire – all sophisticated artistic expressions.

This mood was captured by and reflected in all forms – literature, film, art, music.  It’s the environment which gave confidence to musicians such as Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye in the USA; and to similar developments throughout the African Diaspora. [See the Soul Power documentary on the concert which paralleled Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle.] Reggae music personified by Bob Marley, the progressive Calypsos of Black Stalin, Sparrow or Chalkdust and of course Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat are all illustrations of cultural and artistic developments emerging from the grassroots, all were touched by the People’s Movement for change and given strength by it.  The Roots and John Legend’s Wake Up! collaboration of 2010 is a tribute to this sparkling period.

The retreat since that exciting time [Reaganomics, Thatcherism, perpetual wars] has its effect in contemporary art, music, and literature where the people’s artistic expressions have resisted persistent attempts at infiltration, corruption, liquidation and neutralisation as a potent and positive force. Or a more optimistic note, The Last Poets are still on tour - with new personnel - their important work and words still resonant. And when the retreat turns to advance their words will still be a battle cry.

There are more films to see in the African Odysseys Film Programme. Check them out if you can.  

Right On! Poetry on Film

Director: Herbert Danska

Part of African Odyssey Film Programme

until December 2013

BFI Southbank, London
Tickets (includes BFI London Film Festival)

020 7928 3232

Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.

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