Film as Protest: Madeline Anderson’s Civil Rights Documentaries

A look at a pioneer of protest documentaries

A state trooper stands on top of an armored vehicle, surrounded by armed officers in riot gear. He speaks into a megaphone: “You are directed to disperse and return to your homes or you will be arrested for violation of this lawful order to disperse.” In response, a Black student turns and faces a line of young men, women, and children behind him. He raises his hands and begins to conduct the crowd behind him in a Spiritual. They raise their hands above their heads in that international symbol – don’t shoot. “Gas masks,” says the officer.

There is something startlingly familiar about this scene from Madeline Anderson’s short documentary, I Am Somebody (1970). There are, of course, echoes today during the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis and beyond, as police use force in an attempt to quell protests across the nation. In fact, if it weren’t for the particular graininess and color palette that date the film, one might have difficulty placing this scene in the “long, painful history of police brutality in the US.” Such scenes of officers dispersing crowds of protesters are hardly uncommon, but in Madeline Anderson’s work as a documentary filmmaker they take on an integral role – these images are her bread and butter. 

Film still from I Am Somebody (1970)

Anderson is something of a wonder. Although her films were few in number and have largely been forgotten by the public, they have a lasting quality that connects an emotional push with a political mission. Her directorial debut, Integration Report 1 (1960) – which was recognized by the National Museum of African-American History & Culture as the first documentary film made by an African-American woman – testifies to her personal drive and perseverance. These films were difficult to make, requiring a physical presence on the site of protests that frequently ended in arrests. Unable to find funding, Anderson relied on a combination of donations and her salary. 

Anderson’s small corpus is defined by a unique ability to capture both the context and spirit of political movements led by Black Americans. These films share a desire to record – stemming from the idea that seeing is believing – that gives them a deeply personal feel, while stressing the profound importance of the movements. In a more recent interview, she explained this motivation: “Sometimes you could read a book and people would say it’s not true…now if you saw it, then maybe you had a better chance of 100% belief in what you were looking at.” This is demonstrated in three of her short films, Integration Report 1 (1960), A Tribute to Malcolm X (1967), and I Am Somebody (1970), which were recently featured on Mubi as a limited series. What makes these films so effective, so emotionally impactful, is that they not only show footage of marches and rallies, but actually become a part of them. Anderson’s films are, themselves, protests.

Many documentaries attempt to make political statements, but Anderson takes the message and meshes it with the form, recreating the effects of protesting on the viewer. In the protests Anderson documents, we see three techniques: calling attention to the problems (i.e., chanting, holding signs, etc.); repetition and occupation (i.e., the continued presence of protestors, making it difficult to ignore them – successful protests are never one-day affairs); and the elevation of the personal to the level of the political (i.e., taking the experiences and voices of individuals and extending them to the collective). Anderson uses similar techniques in her films, reinforcing the protesters’ messages. She does not merely hold the camera in front of protesters so that we can passively watch them do the above, rather, she uses the camera as a tool to further these aims. It’s unfortunate that these films are reemerging in our particular context, as they would be worth watching simply for these technical feats. 

Film still from Integration Report 1 (1960)

Integration Report 1 begins with a slow Spiritual. “Over my head I see trouble in the air” drifts over images of police officers lining up in front of a church. A voiceover tells us that it is 1960, and that we are in Montgomery, Alabama, outside of Martin Luther King’s church. This, Anderson’s first film, covers the desegregation protests of the late ’50s. Due to a lack of funding, Anderson was never able to make the follow-up. In twenty minutes, Anderson weaves a complex tapestry of protestors and their voices, showing that this was no monolithic fight limited to a single time and place, but rather a nationwide movement made up of a plurality of voices. We hear “a voice from Africa” (Tom Mboya of Kenya) paired with “a voice from America” (MLK); we hear civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and Andrew Young; we hear the chants of NAACP and SCLC leaders, college students, mothers, and Jackie Robinson; we even hear Maya Angelou sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Anderson particularly stresses – via voiceover and footage – a far more complex image of the Civil Rights Movement than we are often shown. Integration Report 1 shows that racism existed not only in Alabama and South Carolina, but in northern, “liberal” cities as well. In Glendale, Queens, the camera pans over a sign reading “Blacks Go Home.” In Brooklyn, she calls attention to a Black man who was shot for not placing a can in a garbage bin. Interviews with white mothers in New York reveal that many do not want the schools desegregated. One woman confesses that she doesn’t want the local public school integrated even though she sends her children to a private, religious school. These images are a stark reminder that racism knows no borders and that any history of the Civil Rights Movement (and of the BLM movement) cannot be limited to a singular perspective.

Anderson’s technical brilliance is demonstrated by her ability to balance the succinct, impeccably-timed editing of Integration Report 1 with an intense focus on details. To fit so much into twenty minutes is a marvel of editing. In one scene, the footage cuts between short clips of Black men and women walking through a business street in a “southern city” where department store lunch counters refuse to serve Black students. The camera cuts between signs – “Do We Eat Today?” and “You Just Can’t Lump Justice” – and the faces of solemn young people. Other scenes juxtapose the heavily-armed police officers with the line of peaceful protesters singing and chanting. We get all the information and emotional impact we need in these sequences, despite, or perhaps because of their brevity.

Another frequent technique is Anderson’s use of close-ups. These are used both to call attention to certain details, like the large lock on the outside of a paddy wagon, and to invade the personal space of the oppressors. Inside a department store in that same “southern city,” we hear police officers threatening to arrest Black students. Much like livestreams today, Anderson’s camera is up close, focusing on the faces of the white store owners and the unconcerned Black students calmly smoking, waiting for their arrest records to be typed out. The camera thus occupies physical space – just like the protesters – and eliminates the department store owners’ anonymity. 

Many of these techniques are repeated in Anderson’s short tribute to Malcolm X. This film appeared in 1967 on William Greaves’s Black Journal (1969-77), four years after the Nation of Islam spokesman’s assassination. Although short and less polished than her other films, A Tribute to Malcolm X features a complex understanding of the controversial figure. Anderson’s “tribute” is less explicitly focused on the protests, dealing instead with his legacy, but the film does not shy away from controversy, as the ending voiceover reveals: “Although some of us may have disagreed with Malcolm X, or we disagree with each other about him, let his going from us serve to bring us together.”

What is remarkable in this film – as in her others – is the unique attention given to the voice. Although she uses voiceover and interviews, these tend to fade into the background, giving the privileged spot to the interviewee. Interviewees and rally leaders are shown speaking without prompt, many are not even introduced but simply begin to enumerate their beliefs. The effect is twofold: it seems to produce an air of immediacy, allowing us to feel somehow closer to the speakers; and it also raises their struggles to a more universal level. One of these interviews, for instance, is with Betty Shabazz, civil rights advocate and Malcolm X’s widow. Shabazz focuses on his more universalizing beliefs, saying that “he wanted to raise the level of the struggle from civil rights to human rights” by extending beyond the borders of the US. In this conversation, the camera focuses on her, and we hear little from the interviewer, letting her words take over. 

Film still from I Am Somebody (1970)

“We was women, and we didn’t have no weapons or nothing. I felt like they wouldn’t hardly hit us with those big clubs and things because we didn’t have no weapons.” 

While Integration Report 1 is a groundbreaking debut, Anderson’s definitive masterpiece is the half-hour documentary film, I Am Somebody, which covers the 1969 protests in Charleston, South Carolina. This is a film that bears particular relevance for the simultaneous battles against a pandemic and racism today, as it tells the story of Black hospital workers striking for better pay. I Am Somebody is thus a truly intersectional film, uncovering the connected issues of race, gender, and class – issues that were near and dear to Anderson. “Of the 400 strikers, all but 12 were women,” says the narrator. “All of us were Black.” The title is taken from a chant we hear throughout the film: “I may be Black, but I am somebody…I may be poor, but I am somebody.” 

Anderson frequently referred to the “kinship” she felt with the strikers in Charleston. I Am Somebody exemplifies her ability to connect the personal and collective. The Charleston protests drew thousands – including over 10,000 people on Mother’s Day alone – and lasted for 113 days. The goal was unionization for the nurse’s aides at the Medical College Hospital and an increase from $1.30 an hour, a wage that helped keep nearly half of the city’s Black population below the poverty line. Dr. William McCord, the hospital president, categorically refused any reforms. He even offered workers “an extra holiday for Robert E. Lee’s birthday.” South Carolina Governor Robert E. McNair likewise banned the workers from anything resembling “collective bargaining.” In late April, the Governor declared a state of emergency, ordered state troopers and the National Guard to Charleston, and set a curfew. Protesters didn’t back down. They marched at night, sang songs, held signs, and were vilified, beaten in the streets, and arrested. After over 100 days, a visit from Coretta Scott King, an economic strike of King Street, countless arrests, etc., etc., etc., McCord rehired the strikers he had fired and raised hourly wages by 30-70 cents.

The success of the Charleston protests may be disputed, but they and Anderson’s film are prime examples of the will of the people, the violence of the police, and the hypocrisy of politicians in America. The scene I described at the beginning of the article is one of many protest moments in I Am Somebody. It is ironized by the camera’s slow pan from a church tower that reads “Jesus Saves,” over the crowd of Black students, to the line of armed officers. In an earlier scene, shortly after curfew had been implemented, we see a group walking across a bridge at night, led by Rev. Abernathy. An officer (possibly the same one?) stops them, declaring that it is illegal to march at night. Rev. Abernathy responds that they are on their way to a prayer vigil, and the crowd kneels down on the street and begins to pray before being arrested. We see similar events during daytime protests as the officers declare certain streets off-limit in order to detain protestors who remain; over and over and over again. The film thus recreates the feeling of sustained striking: the 113 days of protesting become more tangible through the seemingly unending repetition. 

As in her Tribute to Malcolm X, Anderson lets her interviewees speak for themselves. Immediately following statements from two Black women – one saying that white nurse’s aides make more money than the Black ones for the same work; the second listing “nicknames” Black aides are called in the hospital – we hear McCord say: “I do not believe this is a civil rights issue whatsoever.” The interviewer asks why not, and McCord has no other answer than “I just don’t believe it’s a civil rights issue.” The juxtaposition of these interviews lets viewers form their own opinions, but it is always clear where Anderson stands. 

It took 113 days of protesting in Charleston. Over 100 days of arrests and brutal conditions to bring minor changes to one town. I Am Somebody shows both the near impossibility and the necessity of real change. Anderson’s work, moreover, demonstrates that in the US, protests, no matter the cause or scale, no matter how they are manifested – even in peaceful marches, sit-ins, singing, holding signs – are met with police violence. At one point in I Am Somebody, one of the protesters, listing the movement’s demands, tells the assembling police: “we want better pay for you, too.” The police, in return, chase them from the corner. 

By juxtaposing images of singing crowds, of mothers holding infants, of children, of peaceful marchers praying on the ground, on the one hand, with images of officers in riot gear, carrying bayonets and nightsticks, on the other, Anderson creates a stark visual language rooted in historical documentation. Through the repetition of these scenes of police brutality, Anderson deconstructs the good protester/bad protester rhetoric, calling attention to the fact that no matter what these dissenters did, they were met with escalation and violence. Finally, by emphasizing both the individuality of the protesters and their collective importance, she turns weeks of marching into a movement for the millennium. 

Footage of protests is much more common today as bystanders, police, and protesters record and livestream every angle. These images have the ability to galvanize the public into action and to hold officers accountable, but there is also real danger in documentation without context. Videos can be used to push different narratives and can lead to retaliation. Anderson’s documentaries doubtless involved certain risks both for the creators and the subjects, but the end effect was to document the efforts of countless protesters. These may be controversial films for some – particularly in their inclusion of figures like Malcolm X or NAACP leader Robert Williams, who, stressing the failure of the legal system to deal with systemic racism and police violence, said: “Sometimes violence must be met with violence.” But Anderson is never without nuance or compassion. 

Anderson’s films should be required viewing for this new generation of protesters. Their importance is historical, educational, and monumental, and blazed the trail for filmmakers like Ava DuVernay. For today’s viewers, Integration Report 1 teaches us about the origins of the movements and honors those who fought for desegregation and civil rights; A Tribute to Malcolm X honors and clarifies the legacy of a martyr; and I Am Somebody teaches us how to protest and reminds us that this movement is based in the struggles and actions of poor, Black women and men.

I Am Somebody ends with a shot of a Black woman wearing a union hat walking slowly by the river. In a voiceover, she describes the importance of the protests to her, personally, and to her community. In the background, we hear the sound of a large crowd chanting “soul power.” It is a powerful and beautiful image, and a reminder to stand up for what is right.

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