Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally desegregated the American South, discrimination was still rampant. It meant it was almost impossible for black people to register to vote. Martin Luther King and his supporters fought a titanic battle for suffrage in Selma, Alabama.
Brian Jackson was Gil Scott-Heron’s writing partner and pianist. Together they produced some of the most insightful music of the 1970s. Nick Grant reviews the new film ‘Selma’ and Brian Jackson’s gig in London.
The point I’m trying to make, movin’ from place to place and time to time
(is that) vibrations that bring on new vibrations
is all that’s on peoples minds.
(They tell me) Don’t be ‘fraid of revolution!
It ain’t nothin’ but change and change is surely bound to come.
Put a little revolution in your life
and you’ll understand where I’m comin’ from.
Delta Man by Brian Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron
From the album ‘Bridges’ 1976
On Sunday 25 January 2015 I was lucky enough to attend both a cinema and music event in London that echoed each other’s concerns about beneficial change for black Americans.
The first was a preview showing of the film Selma at the Tricycle cinema in Kilburn.
In the time since his 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King has taken on an almost saintly status. Stevie Wonder, boosted by his 1981 hit Happy Birthday, took up a campaign for an annual public holiday in King’s memory in a nationwide Hotter Than July concert tour supported by Gil Scott-Heron.
Ronald Reagan signed it off as law in 1983 and most US states now observe this in January each year, even if most employers do not pay their staff to have the day off. There are streets all over the globe named after King.
Above all his commitment to non-violent civil rights protest is likened to Gandhi’s. He had received a Nobel Peace Prize in his lifetime. King is also commonly counterposed as an American black radical to the ‘by any means necessary’ insurrectionary approach espoused by Malcolm X.
The political leadership shown by Gandhi (1982) and Malcolm X (1992) have been debated in cinematic biographies. King’s has not.
It has taken till now for a film-maker to examine some of the context and pressures of a very public life lived against prevailing odds. Ava DuVernay’s powerful film Selma is now on release in the UK but is not a conventional bio-pic. Like Lincoln (2012) it focuses just on a crucial period and constitutional issue in US history.
1964 ends with King receiving his Nobel prize. 1965 starts with King determined to reform democratic rights.
Inside the Oval Office he insists to President Lyndon Johnson that change is not happening quickly enough. King’s aim is to make the legal right of all to register as a voter a fact in those states where endemic institutional racism prevents most black people from successfully doing so.
Because Johnson refuses to prioritise this proposal over a “war on poverty” King moves his Southern Christian Leadership Conference organisation into the deeply reactionary Alabama town. Selma’s mayor, police, public officials and most residents are active supporters of state governor George Wallace, a despotic traditionalist southern Democrat.
King’s tactic of calling for a fifty-mile protest march from the town across the Alabama river to Montgomery is conceived with the newly-important mass media in mind as a way of embarrassing Johnson. Whilst the historic outcome is well-known the manner in which this film portrays a man, his loved ones, as well as his allies and enemies is strikingly nuanced and engaging.
DuVernay has not flinched from showing with structurally dramatic effect the differing scales of state and redneck violence towards anyone challenging racist norms. For example the intimacy of FBI surveillance of King is quite shocking if only because its chief J. Edgar Hoover makes it very plain to Johnson what his geeks can do.
The outright beating and murders of innocents take the breath away.
The film’s central performance is compelling. David Oyelowo manages to suggest anger, disappointment and self-doubt whilst radiating King’s famously still, considered and empathetic presence and the beautiful vocal cadence we know from radio and TV news footage. The additional cast features the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, rapper Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., The Wire’s Wendell Pierce with London-born Carmen Ojugo excellent as Coretta King.
The script has had to contend with contemporary legal prohibitions imposed by King’s estate on using actual speeches. Instead credible approximations have had to be devised to convincingly carry the same public messages with the typical poetic allusions and economy.
But the script’s challenge to mainstream political thinking shows private conciliatory passages where King engages with his left-wing critics in the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee and Malcolm X, played by lookalike Nigel Hatch.
These hint at the broader alliances King was considering in supporting local refuse workers at the time of his death. The contemporary resonances of this film are obvious, even without the concluding Common/John Legend song about Ferguson, Missouri.
Black Americans remain disenfranchised socially and politically despite a black President in the White House. Militarism still trumps social justice as much as it did when King denounced the numerous costs of the Vietnam war.
Selma deserves to engender a massive audience of activists in spite of its derisory number of Oscar nominations, and may spark further dramatic treatments of this period.
Meanwhile across town in Peckham Rye a different conjunction of art and politics was being readied.
Brian Jackson met fellow Lincoln University student Gil Scott-Heron in the year after MLK’s killing. They went on to form The Midnight Band recording nine albums.
This was indeed a golden era of popular conscious black music. Not just the odd song but whole albums from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye as well as The O’Jays, Millie Jackson and Bob Marley. Nevertheless Jackson’s music and Heron’s words produced the most comprehensive case for social revolution of the lot. No theme went unaddressed.
Their first 1971 album opened with the pair’s most famous tune The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The title track Pieces of A Man is the most heart-wrenching tale of being sacked. Home Is Where The Hatred Is and The Prisoner spotlight extreme depths of existence in the home of the brave, land of the free.
In subsequent work the pair riffed on nuclear power, Reaganomics, the Klan, miscarriages of justice, working as a miner, substance abuse and more.
But there were plenty of songs about love as well as resistance.
Gil’s arresting baritone voice over a sweet Fender Rhodes was a constant feature. Yet by 1980 they split. Brian slipped out of the music business. Gil’s increasing substance abuse and incarceration meant fewer solo albums and gigs.
Fast-forward thirty years and Gil dies aged 62 in 2011.
Remarkably, Brian then decides to step out of the shadows, celebrate his departed comrade and renew their Midnight Band as a very special tribute band. In 2013 he records Evolutionary Minded – Furthering The Legacy of Gil Scott-Heron with assorted new rappers, singers and musicians.
The Peckham show was the last of a short European tour for this project at the Bussey building.
On stage following DJ Patrick Forge’s set were drummer Marque Gilmore, legendary bassist Reggie Washington, co-leader of Dead Prez M1 and Roots guitarist/singer Martin Luther – an unexpected link in my cultural evening – and Brian playing keyboards and flute.
From the off the cry was revolution, with a version of The Liberation Song (Red Black and Green) from 1975’s The First Minute of a New Day.
M1 rattled off a litany of black individuals killed by police in America recently calling for resistance and revolution. Martin Luther’s lovely voice sang an agitated version of Winter In America, a song written about the period of 60s assassinations.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was only fleetingly distinguishable in a prolonged rap and instrumental version. The version of Lady Day and John Coltrane was pretty loyal to its original from Pieces of A Man.
The keyboard and bass riffs from Angola Louisiana on the Secrets album were treated to another rap and riff alternate lyric.
Brian took the sadly dodgy sound levels down to relate a story of how even the call for revolution gets commodified. On tour in the South he and Gil had walked into a record store to find the quote ‘put a little revolution in your life ’ from their song Delta Man emblazoned on a large poster selling the Bridges album.
The thrilling aspect of the evening was that the couple of hundred punters cheering Brian and his band on were mostly under 35 raising clenched fists and cheering even louder when the call was for revolution.
Then they went berserk for the dance-floor classic – and sad precursor of Gil’s demise – The Bottle. The hour and forty minute show seemed much shorter, only leaving time for Home Is Where The Hatred Is as an encore.
Both Selma and Brian Jackson’s rejuvenation and homage to Gil are to be thoroughly welcomed.
Don’t miss the chance to revisit these kings.
Selma is released in the UK on 6 February