St. Clair Bourne’s Cinema of Solidarity

St. Clair Bourne’s Cinema of Solidarity

St. Clair Bourne’s Cinema of Solidarity

The Black and the Green, which follows Black American activists who travel to Northern Ireland to learn from Irish allies, documents the necessary messiness of political organizing


In Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1983, a Black soldier was a rare sight. What could he be doing? As a member of the occupying British Army, he was there for the same reason that five Black American civil rights activists were: because of “the Troubles,” the latest manifestation of the 800-year conflict between Ireland and Britain. But in the end, the soldier and the activists were on opposite sides.

Almost two decades earlier, in 1968, two seemingly unrelated events took place, one in Northern Ireland and the other in New York City, that would eventually be linked by this encounter. That year saw the first marches and protests in Northern Ireland for nationalist and Catholic civil rights, which would escalate into the Troubles. And in New York City, in Morningside Heights, a budding Black filmmaker, St. Clair Bourne, was expelled from Columbia University for his role in the student takeover of an administration building. That expulsion was the beginning of a 36-year career in which Bourne made over 40 films, and one of his most controversial was The Black and the Green (1983). The documentary—which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art last month thanks to the director’s sister, Judith Bourne, who helped spearhead a new restoration—chronicles the meeting between two somewhat improbable allies in the struggle for civil rights: Black Americans and Irish republicans.

Bourne had walked off the Columbia campus into a position as the associate producer for Black Journal, the first national television news series to be created, directed, and produced by Black media workers. Along with the likes of William Greaves, Madeleine Anderson, Camille Billops, Stan Lathan, and others, he was part of a collaborative orbit of Black independent filmmakers devoted to cinematic self-determination, using documentaries to challenge the disfigurements of Black life in mainstream American media. Bourne would eventually go on to create the Black Documentary Collective, and he was exemplary of the serious investment in community shared by these artists, as he prioritized mentorship throughout his career, leaving a legacy of cinematic offspring that includes Thomas Allen Harris, Yoruba Richen, donnie l. betts, and Kathe Sandler. MoMA’s screening of The Black and the Green was accompanied by an important piece from Bourne’s time at Black Journal: New-Ark (1970), his stunning 25-minute documentation of a political rally in New Jersey that featured thunderous speechifying by Amiri Baraka, an appearance by Stevie Wonder, and conversations around Black and Puerto Rican unity.

The Black and the Green is a political travelogue. Over the course of the documentary, the Black American delegation heads to Northern Ireland and convenes with local Irish republican activists in large group meetings, guided tours by foot and car, a press conference, a cemetery outing, a prison visit, informal conversations, and an evening of musical performances—all interspersed with talking-head interviews and archival footage. By chronicling the exchanges between these two groups as they discover their similarities and confront their differences, Bourne’s film presents a dynamic record of the truly hard work required to forge political alliances. The question of the necessity of violence in fighting for radical change becomes a main point of contention between the two groups, and the film depicts this debate with sensitivity and without imposing an answer. It also models a specifically cinematic form of solidarity by using the formal techniques of the medium to generate a sense of comradeship beyond the events documented. Through sound and image, music and montage, The Black and the Green achieves an impressive synthesis, using cinema to facilitate our understanding of the inevitable difficulties of organizing across difference.

Born in Harlem and raised in Brooklyn, Bourne made New York City the center of his work—but, as manifested in The Black and the Green, his perspective was global. He was shaped by the confluence of the civil rights movement, Black Power, the Black Arts Movement, and the availability of more affordable and portable filming equipment. (These innovations opened film as a viable art form to Bourne’s generation). He was an agile filmmaker who choreographed his documentaries by drawing on the tactics of cinema verité, inflected with a Pan-African sensibility. Like his father, Bourne started out as a journalist, and what would become his lifelong internationalist vision was no doubt influenced by his time in Peru, where he worked at a local newspaper, El Comeno.

Considering this trajectory, The Black and the Green comes to seem a natural fit in Bourne’s output of largely socially conscious films. While it has had little mainstream presence, The Black and the Green was neither unknown nor forgotten by the community he belonged to. It was the most-cited film in a collective elegy to Bourne that appeared in the spring 2008 issue of the cinema journal Black Camera. Made through the Chamba Organization, the production company he formed in 1971 after leaving Black Journal, it stands as a significant piece of the Black documentary tradition, as well as one of the earliest contributions to a greater understanding of the civil rights movement’s international scope. As noted by Brian Dooley in Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America (1998), this field of political and cultural study reveals how much the Irish republicans were inspired and influenced by the efforts toward Black liberation in the United States.

A sense of ongoing activity and urgency sets the tone for The Black and the Green, which begins in the midst of a meeting in a New York City church between the Black activists, some of whom were affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and their Irish American counterparts in the H-Block Committee. The Black delegation consists of the Rev. Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick, James Burrel, Matt Jones, James Dunn, and Jean Carey Bond, a close friend of Bourne’s and the one who invited him to document their trip to Northern Ireland. While Bourne’s style as a filmmaker was expository and contextual, it was also transparent, skirting the scourge of neutrality, objectivity, and passivity. He rarely presented an issue without foregrounding the possibility of differing interventions and interpretations.

Take, for example, the opening scene: Bourne’s critical sensibility directs the framing and tone of this initial meeting to spotlight both the difficulties and the promises of building solidarity. A muted clip of Jones speaking and gesticulating in animated frustration is paired with a voice-over that tells us: “Questions and conflicts arose almost from the very beginning. During our visit, many of us would struggle to reconcile our personal commitments with the grim realities of life in Northern Ireland.” As George McLaughlin of the H-Block Committee frankly acknowledges, one barrier to the alliance these two groups seek to establish is the entrenched anti-Black racism of the Irish community in the United States. Crucially, in his principled approach, Bourne does not seek to forcibly smooth over these disjunctures; instead, he uses the documentary to insist on the expansive dimensions of solidarity.

Music is crucial in this capacity, as a political tool and leitmotif across Bourne’s cinematic corpus. The director’s affinity for sound design is on full display in films like In Motion: Amiri Baraka (1982), sinuously edited for the rhythms of the poet’s speech. It is also the starting point of The Black and the Green, which Bourne began on the final day of shooting the earlier documentary, and a precursor to his later dexterous and strategic use of sound. As the final pre-departure meeting comes to a close, the Black participants begin to sing the emancipation spiritual “Oh, Freedom” and are joined by the Irish Americans in the room. As the film cuts to a montage of their travels, the chorus is conjoined with a fiddle-heavy Irish folk song. This is echoed again on the plane, when McLaughlin (surprisingly) launches into an SNCC freedom song, and in reverse when blues music swells in the background during the group’s journey between Dublin and Belfast.

Earlier, during the meeting in New York, Dunn asserts the need “to communicate a natural sense of solidarity,” and Kirkpatrick, who notes that he was with Martin Luther King Jr. for years, positions himself as an inheritor of King’s internationalist legacy, emphasizing “the historical point that the Irish and Third World people are natural allies.” The group arrives in Belfast with prior knowledge of a shared terrain of struggle, but also to observe and learn from the Irish republicans. Bond is the only woman in the Black delegation, and it is notable that she supplies the voice-over and therefore frames the film, as gendered inequalities emerge when she is interrogated about her familiarity with the Irish republican struggle with a degree of hostility that isn’t seen anywhere else in The Black and the Green.

Just as Bourne’s chronicle does not paper over the inevitable tensions in these political alliances, it avoids playing down the violence of the Troubles. Bond’s voice-over, which hangs over the images of murals made in tribute to slain Irish Republican Army members, describes how they “expressed the deepest feelings of a people under siege.” This militaristic language brings forth the colonial dimensions of the struggle, described by one of the locals as a battle in “the British occupation zone.” In an interview, Dunn articulates the situation with comparable rhetoric: “I’m beginning now to see the whole politics of it and it not just being a religious kind of struggle—it’s a political struggle, and the people are colonized.”

The shots of the murals are followed by footage of British soldiers strolling around Belfast and riding in tanks. It’s in one of these montages that we meet the lone Black soldier, whose appearance occasions a comment from one of the Irish republicans that underscores their grasp of the fraught power dynamics at play: “The problem isn’t his. The problem is ours if we treat him as a part of the war machine.” These images are supplemented by the testimonies of relatives of imprisoned IRA members in the infamous Long Kesh prison.

The film’s pivot point centers on the question of violence versus nonviolence, which is introduced at the New York City meeting and recurs throughout. McLaughlin is asked about it early on and proposes that having a plurality of positions on the question is a good thing for the movement. Jones, of the SNCC, expresses his apprehensions about violence on several occasions, but toward the end concludes that the Irish republicans had exhausted all of the nonviolent options at their disposal and have no choice but to engage in armed struggle. Burrel arrives in Northern Ireland similarly steadfast in his opposition to violence but is altered in the same manner. Only the Rev. Herbert Daughtry understands the mercurial situation before their trip. He clearly and persuasively says, “I don’t believe there is any such thing as nonviolent change. What we tend to call the ‘nonviolent ’60s’ wasn’t very nonviolent at all. The question isn’t one of nonviolence; the question is who’s going to receive the violence, and whether there will be reciprocity.” His argument is still chillingly applicable.

By the end of the film, shaped by musical solidarity and political clarity, the delegation of Black Americans have shifted toward an acceptance of violent struggle’s necessity. As the only one who held that position to begin with, Daughtry points to a critical issue with his intervention: namely, why these Black civil rights activists, with a clear knowledge and understanding of the degree of white supremacist terror and state violence in the United States, would only come to change their stance while in Northern Ireland. In a voice-over early in the trip, Bond says: “We were leaving the realm of political and social theories; soon we would be on the battleground.” This pithy statement is an apt encapsulation of how The Black and the Green functions as a compelling political lesson. By raising challenging questions and not meeting them with easy answers, it is an open-ended invitation to seriously work through the uncertainties of our own convictions, in the same way as do the organizers in the film.

Expediently preparing to accompany the delegation before his previous project was even finished, Bourne approached The Black and the Green without knowing what its trajectory would be, rendering the film’s exploratory quality an honest reflection of the production process. Bourne’s formal tactics and sound design—relying on music to layer the connections between these two distinct efforts for civil rights—go beyond merely depicting political struggle to show how culture can participate, too. In this era of tote-bag solidarities, there is an immense force in the education one can glean from The Black and the Green, as an archive of the necessary messiness of organizing, and as an unflinching depiction of a debate that still plagues those devoted to transformative change.

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