Community, destiny and filmmaking

A series at Harvard Film Archive showcases African American cinema in the '60s and '70s including works by Kent Garrett '63. 

By Cherie Hu '17

“In order to secure your rights, you must give up your life.” Kent Garrett ’63 includes this line in Black G.I., a 1971 film that examines the struggles of African American soldiers in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War and expresses a paradox at the center of many African American experiences in the late 20th century. With the military in particular, minorities often felt stuck in between allegiances, questioning the morality of fighting on behalf of a country that was still deeply segregated. To underscore this conflict, the narrator of Black G.I. asks: “Is the real war in Vietnam or in America? In Saigon or in Harlem?"

Such questions about African American identity lay at the center of Garrett’s work, presented by Harvard Film Archive on Nov. 14 as part of the series Say It Loud! The Black Cinema Revolution. Showcasing the rise of African American cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, the series has featured a mix of hyperlocal, national and international films, including sociopolitical documentaries, blaxploitation action sagas and musical films featuring Sun Ra and Nina Simone. The title of the series follows in the footsteps of similar programs, such as the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, alluding to the brutal honesty that often accompanies heightened political awareness.

Garrett’s screening – which featured his films Black Cop, Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant and The Last Negroes at Harvard in addition to Black G.I. – was one of the first in the Say It Loud! series to take place after Election Day, shedding a particularly pertinent light on his themes of racial relations and repressed minority voices.

Indeed, Garrett sees the art of filmmaking as integral to political progress. “Film can raise the consciousness of people so they can make more informed decisions about their lives, whether familial, civic or political,” he said.

Filmmaker Kent Garrett '63
His penchant for film as a political and educational tool stems from a journalism background. After graduating with a degree in social relations from Harvard College, Garrett attended medical school for a year before pivoting into the advertising and media world. In 1969, he made his first foray into broadcast journalism as a producer for Black Journal, which is widely considered to be the first weekly public TV broadcast by, for and about African Americans. Black G.I., Black Cop and Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant were all filmed as part of Black Journal’s programming at the time. Garrett later moved on to larger networks, serving as a producer both for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and for the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, over a span of 20 years.

The Pentagon gave Garrett permission to film Black G.I. on the ground in Vietnam in the early 1970s –“probably the last war in which [the Pentagon] gave journalists carte blanche, before they began embedding and restricting them,” he said. He captured several candid shots of African American soldiers across a wide spectrum of emotional states, from empowerment to containment and confusion; they discussed ranging topics such as the challenges of desegregation and the military’s restrictive standards of uniformity, which prohibited them from donning their natural hair or wearing dashikis and other traditional garments.

While Black G.I. focused on racial tensions overseas, Black Cop focused on domestic law enforcement, following an anonymous African American police officer as he navigated his way through the Los Angeles Police Department. He opened up about the paradoxical challenge of protecting his African American community while enforcing the law, remaining wary of the historically rocky relationship between police violence and racial relations.

Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, an episode conceived by Robert F. Kennedy, sought to highlight the intellectual and familial, rather than crime-ridden, side of the neighborhood. The excerpt shown at the screening featured renowned singer and actor Harry Belafonte, riffing on the lack of a coherent minority image on TV.

“There needs to be a platform for the African American community to address itself to itself," Belafonte insisted to the camera. For him, a strong media presence is one of the keys to social success, influence and self-sufficiency: “A community that doesn’t have control over its own destiny is powerless.”

Belafonte’s words resonate strongly even today, as the media struggles to keep both communities and public figures accountable in light of the Presidential Election.

“[President-elect] Trump came from the world of entertainment, and the media treated him as such,” said Garrett. “In a normal political situation, the media fact-checks Politician X, and Politician X changes his actions because he doesn’t want to be shamed for his mistakes, and wants to continue to get the respect of the people. With Trump, you correct his lies, but he says them again anyway. It’s a very tough situation to deal with.”

Garrett himself ultimately departed from broadcast news because of changes in the industry that emerged in the late 1990s. “By that time, broadcast television news was starting to become a form of marketing,” he said. “Before, news was not considered a moneymaking operation. You never thought about how your product would make money; you would just do your job of informing the people about what mattered. Over time, however, we began looking more closely into Nielsen ratings, which told us where our audience was during every single minute of our shows. Aside from the big standard national stories of the day, there was then a lot of pressure to cover stories or products that related to our most important demographic markets.”

Since 2007, Garrett has been pursuing independent film projects through his own production studio, Kent Garrett Productions. His latest work-in-progress is The Last Negroes at Harvard, a documentary-turned-book about the 19 African Americans who matriculated in his class at Harvard ­– the largest group of African Americans on campus at the time. Garrett has traveled to more than 10 cities nationally to interview alums, many with whom he had not been in touch since graduating from Harvard more than 50 years ago.

As for the future of video journalism and documentary filmmaking, Garrett pointed to how technology and the internet are giving everyday citizens a stronger voice. “I believe strongly in the concept of citizen reporting,” he said. “The world would be better off if everyone had a cellphone with a camera.”

More importantly, this disintermediation effect of technology will not render traditional filmmaking obsolete. “In this day and age of electronic media, preserving the cinema experience becomes even more important,” said Jeremy Rossen, assistant curator at Harvard Film Archive. "Using film as a means of bringing people together into a shared space to witness and discuss complex sociopolitical issues is more relevant now than ever.”

The final screening in the Say It Loud! series, featuring Bill Gunn’s black vampire film Ganja & Hess, 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3 at the Harvard Film Archive. Admission is free for Harvard Students; click here for information on admission.