Registering the Registry 2019: I Am Somebody (1970)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Cognress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, we discuss Madeline Anderson’s coverage of the 60s’ last major civil rights strike in I Am Somebody, the first half-hour televised documentary directed by a black woman – a second documentary first for Anderson.

* * *

Allow me to set the historical stage once more. It is 1969, in South Carolina. Five after the Civil Rights Act’s passage, four after the Malcom X assassination, and one after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations. There have been enormous legislative and social gains for the African-American population in the preceding decade-and-a-half, and the fight looks to be headed in a radically different direction than the marches and sit-ins and speeches of the last ten years, spurred by anger and outrage at the constant deaths of leaders and allies within the community, and the stubborn refusal of those persons and institutions most responsible for ongoing, on-the-ground unrest and strife and violence. Much work remains to be done, as it does today, fifty years later. In Charleston, South Carolina, employees of the Medical College Hospital and nearby County Hospital know this well – they are referred to by derogatory names on the job, arbitrarily reassigned at a moment’s notice, put through needlessly strenuous and discriminatory conditions on a daily basis that their white coworkers never face, and on top of it all, they make thirty cents an hour below minimum wage for the same work. After-hours meetings amongst the workers bring with them talk of unionization, contact with Local 1199 to establish a Charleston hospital workers’ chapter (1199B), and eventually talks with the hospital’s president, Dr. William McCord, fostered and led by Mary Moultrie on March 18th. Talks break down, however, when McCord shows no interest in anything beyond intimidation into silence, so Moultrie and eleven other employees briefly take over his office, singing protest songs for the remainder of their lunch break before returning to their tasks. In short order, McCord terminates these twelve, which prompts sixty workers to walk out, which eventually spills into over 400, all black and almost entirely women, and eventually a major, city-crippling, 113 day strike.

Enter Madeline Anderson, a documentarian from Pennsylvania. In the last decade, she has struggled to make her mark as a chronicler of injustice and the fight for change in her country. Nine years prior in 1960, she directed Integration Report One, the first such televised work produced and directed by a black woman, which collected footage of interviews, speeches, protests, and police brutality to present as live and wide a look into the state of civil rights activism of the moment as possible. Despite of such success a mere year after going independent, further funding proved difficult to come by, and so Anderson turned to work with industry friends and eventually film unions to get by and tell her stories, working in the intervening period as assistant editor on Shirley Clarke’s (fellow Registry inductee) The Cool World, and producing and directing A Tribute to Malcolm X, cut from interviews throughout his time in the public eye to examine his impact and legacy in the wake of his death. When Anderson hears of the protests in Charleston, naturally she wishes to film and distribute the event, proof the civil rights movement still lives and still has vitality in its veins for the good fight… yet no outlets or producers are interested in backing such detailed coverage. It is only when Anderson turns to Moe Foner, director of education and culture at Local 1199, and cooperates with the union to cover its own strike out of their pocket, does she find funding and the chance to cover the event. After a time, the ongoing strike becomes national news, national outlets develop a desire to see it covered extensively as possible, and we arrive at the object known as Madeline Anderson’s I Am Somebody, ultimately a half-hour documentary covering the strikes from beginning to end.

The film takes the form of an in-the-moment after-action report, cutting interviews and narration from an unnamed striker with footage of major events as they unfolded, alongside archive materials from local television coverage when Anderson’s late arrival made immediate filming impossible. In full color, we see a Charleston controlled by the National Guard, under order from Governor Robert McNair to keep the peace during a state of emergency, as strikers and sympathetic protestors march in the streets to picket the hospitals and listen to speeches. Arrival of speakers like Ralph Abernathy, Coretta Scott King, and Andrew Young are spoken of and framed as signs of forward progress, attention from major figures in the civil rights movement, playing on a field perfectly suited to their cause and rallying talents in a high-profile arena for the first time since Southern Christian Law Conference leader MLK’s death the previous year. Their speeches receive the camera’s longest periods of unbroken attention, particularly Scott King speaking out in favor of fair wages for black women, Abernathy advocating a general business boycott, and Young organizing protestors to enact said boycott from the porchstoops of the poorer districts. Though the long takes are given to the big, important, famous figures as you’d expect, the main of the film, the montaged view of the strike as it happens and the voices of those who guide us through the event, belongs to the workers as they face down unsympathetic citizens, hostile police, and strikebreakers alike over a four month period compressed into half-an-hour.

Being a product of the very union whose work it documents, the film is naturally one by and of the people. It understands the strike is strenuous, and hosts open discussion on how participation requires sacrifice of material goods and personal comfort and family time, whilst arguing these as necessary if one wishes to escape from workplace tyranny and enact meaningful change. It does not show the worst of police brutality present as with the beatings and hosing captured in Integration Report One, yet we see the police force as a stone-faced, willfully arrest-happy with no desire to understand or sympathize with those they oppose, and still make room for a speaker professing solidarity with the underpaid cops. For all the voiceover discussion of the strike as the hardest of times for all involved, Anderson’s choice of images present it as a movement of support, one where the strength of numbers and trust in the brothers and sisters at all sides generates a positive, beneficial air for all who stand in kinship. Nothing about this is easy, or inevitable, or so powerful the mere act of standing hand in hand will eradicate the need for strong negotiations and above-average willpower and restraint when provoked and support from the community if it is to last beyond however long a family can survive without money or food; but it is potent, it is necessary, and it is the best path towards equality your everyday laborer has at their fingertips. Injustice must be met with a righting response, and in the sphere of worker’s rights, a union bringing its might from the masses to bear on those who would mistreat and exploit their employees is that response, now and forever.

Unfortunately, despite the happy ending present in I Am Somebody, the story of the 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike does not have the happiest ending. Following 113 days of concentrated action, during which their marches and boycott cost the city millions of dollars in lost economic revenue, Chapter 1199B does win their fight against McCord. Coming to a settlement with the MCH on June 18th (13 days before the County Hospital strike ends), they win equal pay in accordance with minimum wage laws, the implementation of a substantial and functional grievance filing system for on the job abuses, and the rehiring of all those fired during Moultrie’s initial demonstration. They do not, however, receive any agreement to recognize and permit collective bargaining through the union, a compromise brokered to end the strike, and one which leads to Local 1199 withdrawing from South Carolina inside a year, owing to lack of legal recognition. By accounts, discrimination and abuse continues at the hospitals regardless the new grievance system, and within a few years, Mary Moultrie again unjustly loses her post at MCH. The film, unable to know any of these events which transpired after its production, closes on the unnamed striker reflecting on how hard they fought, all they won, and how she is certain the spirit of union organization and the power of the strike will continue to effect positive change for underprivileged women of color in the workforce all across the nation. Even knowing of the further legislative gains written and won in this last half-century, one cannot help but wince at this, knowing also fifty years of union busting, right-to-work laws, hostility from politicians and media figures alike, and increased exploitation of the American worker has enormously weakened the prevalence and power of unions in this country, leaving seemingly on the most corrupt and mishandled institutions who protect abusive and murderous police from well-deserved consequences as the only prominent examples.

Friends and readers, I write to you today from what is probably a soapbox, preaching to what is almost certainly a choir given the readership of the-avocado, but if I am to justly and properly cover I Am Somebody as it relates to the National Film Registry, as a living, breathing document of American history, relevant to our culture and lives as much today as it was on release, I must reiterate its sentiments as my own. It is not and should not be too late to reverse the situation, to make the American union strong and capable once again. Although I am stupid and don’t know the first thing about anything when it comes to enacting these changes, especially not from my position at a low-profile county job, I do know the stigma against unions have gotta go, as I know right-to-work laws that make it harder for unions to operate financially must be overturned, as I know there must be a push for real consequences on the head of employing entities who would violate workers’ rights, as I know the only path towards these goals is the active and constant engagement of as many people as possible in the political arena. Writing representatives, marching when possible, supporting what picketers and demonstrations still exist when possible, entering into politics as a legislator when viable and working to introduce meaningful legislation or else overturn harmful laws. My words are simple and uninformed, yes, and there are those you can turn with better detailed plans and superior information on how to make this all happen beyond, “Well it’s gotta happen, so I say it should happen, and we’re all golden.” But it must be understood, and understood deeply and truly: the chant echoed throughout the film, the chant which gives I Am Somebody its title, that chant must endure, as it has endured through repetition in Sesame Street, under Madeline Anderson’s tenure as producer, from the lips of Jesse Jackson, and as it has endured through use in When We Were Kings, and as it must endure every last day till our final dying.

The purpose in denying unions power and influence is to keep the worker small, isolated, convinced they have nowhere to turn and no intrinsic value beyond that they find in their labor as defined by their taskmaster. Even if I cannot effectively and eloquently speechify a series of guideposts towards a brighter future backed by collective bargaining power, I can say these things matter, speak out for them in my small way, and repeat until my tongue goes dry from the repetition that we all are somebody, we all are somebody regardless creed or color, we all deserve a voice, we all deserve to escape exploitation, and raise our fellows higher, and assert the importance of the thousandfold individual willing to struggle together in the name of taking what we are earned and owed in basic decency and a living wage. It’s not much, it’s hardly anything, but it’s what I can say in the now, and it is well-aligned with the noble and undying goals of today’s picture, so it is what I shall say. I may not be much, but I am somebody – and so are you, whoever you are.

(Also be sure to vote Democrat cause I’m not sure much of anything I say above means dink if we’ve still got a Republican-controlled legislative and executive body come January.)

* * *

Thank you for tolerating this week’s screed. Next time, the first product of Elaine May’s many, MANY fights with studio executives, starring herself and Walter Matthau – it’s 1971’s A New Leaf! See y’all then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, and rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter.