He wanted to document the racism and oppression around the world and the first subject he chose was Apartheid. However, without the technical know-how and the means, he had little chance of going to South Africa to make the documentary. Instead, he taught himself how to work a camera and turned it towards the Bowery in New York. The result was one of the greatest documentaries of the fifties, On the Bowery (1956), winner of numerous awards internationally as well as a nomination at home for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Rogosin finally made that movie on Apartheid after he gained the necessary capital from On the Bowery, resulting in the equally impressive Come Back, Africa in 1959. Rogosin spent the next eleven years pursuing themes of racism and oppression culminating in a brilliantly realized hour-long documentary, Black Roots, made and released in 1970.
The premise of Black Roots was simple: gather black activists and musicians and listen to them talk about their experiences intercut with the songs that grew out of their personal trials and dreams. The camera first focuses on Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, referred to as "Kirk" by the group. Kirk tells horrifying tales of his family working all year on cotton crops only to have the buyer at market use deceit and intimidation to give them next to nothing for it. Or the time his grandfather died and the white farmer that employed him spoke at his funeral and referred to him with racial slurs throughout.
Larry Johnson speaks of how he worked as a shoeshine boy in a white man's barbershop and that, on the occasions the owner's wife and daughter would offer Larry a ride home after work, the owner made sure Larry stood on the running board outside the car, holding on for his life. He wasn't about to let Larry sit in the backseat with his daughter.
The stories get even more horrifying as the great bluesman Rev. Gary Davis speaks of a shooting and lynching when he was a boy. But some of the stories have a more positive edge. Attorney and feminist activist Florynce Kennedy speaks with pride at how her father never cowered before any white man, even when the Ku Klux Klan marched to his doorstep and told him to leave town. He grabbed his gun and told them if any one of them ever set foot on his doorstep again, he'd shoot them.
Intercut with these stories is the music formed from their experiences with racism in the United States. The music is rich and powerful throughout but perhaps the highlight is Jim Collier and Wende Smith's wonderful performance of "I Want to be Somebody." But there's also Rev. Gary Davis and Larry Johnson, two of the all time great bluesmen, performing before the camera, a sight worth the whole of the documentary alone.
Rogosin takes the camera away from the group only when the music is playing and we wander onto the streets to see black men, women and children, filling the urban sidewalks, laughing, talking and living. It presents a novel juxtaposition. Rather than let the stories of racism weigh the spirit down, by showing the contemporary city dwellers, alive with hope and confidence, he shifts the focus to the promise of their future in a different world.
Black Roots didn't do as well as many of his earlier documentaries and Rogosin fell on hard times. In 1960, he had opened The Bleecker Street Cinema in New York's Greenwich Village and it quickly became the most renowned independent art house theater in the country, hosting numerous independent and foreign films. By 1974, he had to sell it to make ends meet. Unappreciated, and all but unknown, in America, Rogosin left for England and only returned to the states in the late nineties. Rogosin died December 8, 2000, just two weeks before Florynce Kennedy died on December 22nd.
Black Roots didn't make a big impact upon its release. Maybe it was too non-commercial to make an impact. Maybe the lack of a narrator or other clichés of the genre turned the audience off. Maybe they just didn't understand what all of it was supposed to mean. Whatever the case, it now has a good chance for re-discovery. Fully restored in 2012 at the L'Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory in Bologna, Italy, it is now ready to be seen again and should be, by anyone with a love of spoken history, poetry and music. It's a beautiful piece of work that may finally get the recognition it deserves.
Producer: Lionel Rogosin
Director: Lionel Rogosin
Cinematography: J. Robert Wagoner
Music: Reverend Gary Davis, Larry Johnson, Jim Collier, Wende Smith
Music Consultants: Alan and Anna Lomax
Film Editor: Ruth Schell
Cast: Jim Collier, Rev. Gary Davis, Larry Johnson, Florynce Kennedy, Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, Wende Smith.
by Greg Ferrara