The Museum of Modern Art presented the film Right On! this week as part of the art world’s nationwide act of solidarity with progressive politics. The digital screening was a better idea than social media’s #BlackoutTuesday stunt (posting black squares on one’s personal profile or feed), which inadvertently advised silence and blankness — a day of noncommunication — although intending to proclaim “racial justice.” MoMA curators Raj Rajendra and Ron Magliozzi wisely chose to let Right On! — made by producer Woodie King Jr., director Herbert Danska, and legendary rap group the Last Poets — speak for itself. Reviving this 1970 film revealed how far contemporary protest has come since that era of sane, honest, and artful provocation.
Never before in the history of black American culture has its urge to proclaim liberty been so overtaken by others. But the Last Poets originated in 1968 in response to the fervor of that decade’s Black Nationalist movement. Harlem-born Gylan Kain, David Nelson, and Felipe Luciano star in Right On! (several other members were involved in the group’s complex early history). The group struck a nerve by defying the very notion of well-meaning white solidarity. The Last Poets demonstrated that black artists can speak, march, protest, and dance for themselves — and do it best because it’s their own passion.
The Millennial fashion to always equate contemporary race issues with Sixties civil rights and Black Power shows a narrow, stereotyped way of thinking about race and about black life. (Bay Area writer Ishmael Reed denounced the glib anachronistic appropriation of James Baldwin.) To suggest that these contrasting eras are the same is just another type of profiling and stereotyping — and it denies history in the same condescending sense that white liberals often admit with surprise that a black person is “articulate.”
Right On!’s 28 numbers in 75 minutes preserve the cultural fact that Seventies black artists were more truly articulate than today’s jargon-riddled pontificators who are unable to reason beyond their superficial feelings or the usual talking points borrowed from the media.
Director Danska focuses Right On! as a performance film in a realistic setting. It fulfills producer Woodie King Jr.’s legendary mission to create theater as community sustenance (black theater being virtually nonexistent today). The Last Poets combined literature and performance, craft and inspiration (the skills Chuck D described as “I don’t freestyle much but I write ’em like such”). Danska locates their verse as spoken from rooftops, in between documentary street-life images that anticipate the neorealism of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep.
In 1970, when Felipe Luciano shouted “mother***er” in the rap “Hey Now!” it was a shock. Its feeling contained nerve and audacity, not the jivey shtick that today’s music industry pays black kids to turn into hits. Without originality and felt experience, black pop language has been co-opted into bogus audacity. Only a clueless liberal would mistakenly think that the Last Poets and James Brown and Marvin Gaye have Millennial equivalents in Common, Alicia Keys, or John Legend. Right On! exposes the chasm between what used to be black pop consciousness and today’s political attitudinizing.
The film’s most captivating moment occurs when Kain, Nelson, and Luciano weave R & B lyrics into their own personal expressions. Metaphorical lines from “I Wish It Would Rain,” “My World Is Empty Without You,” and “Reach Out,” provide a political connection to a larger, more vital and sustaining culture. There’s anger in the Last Poets’ declaiming, but the energy is joyous whereas the retaliatory expression in Black Lives Matter and the 1619 Project sounds vicious and psychically disturbed. After all, the Last Poets weren’t theorists or politicians, but, agitated by the dystopia surrounding them, they became culturally spontaneous, as asserted in Nelson’s dreamy, youthful litany “I am the spirit of the world / the living voice / I am Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey, and DuBois / I am Bird and Lester Young I am Dinah and Lady Day, I am Malcolm and Martin Luther King. I am the Magi. I have walked in the shadow of pyramids.”
The Last Poets’ performances, though often profane, derive from the tradition of gospel preaching (a vocation eventually claimed by some of the members). When the trio sings “Wade in the Water” (from Alvin Ailey’s once-popular ballet Revelations), it coheres with the film’s closing rendition of “People Get Ready,” written by Curtis Mayfield and made famous by the Impressions, as a tribute to the spiritual edification that used to define black American political activity.
Right On! was filmed the same year Miles Davis recorded his game-changing Jack Johnson album. Side one of Davis’s danceable opus was titled “Right Off,” knowingly riffing on the slang affirmation. This was a period of extraordinary personal and political expression for black artists who could be simultaneously popular and radical — as when Davis enlisted actor Brock Peters to perform an aural equivalent of both men’s ebony physiognomy and race-man status for the album’s closing Jack Johnson quotation: “I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black, alright, I’ll never let them forget it!”
Davis and Peters distilled the Last Poets’ credo. That brash eloquence is missing today. It is clear now, in the highly funded grantsmanship era churning out poorly argued, tendentious rhetoric, that this moment of white pity and condescension is the worst thing to happen to black artistic expression. Gatekeepers want to keep themselves — and black artists — in a place of self-righteous narcissism. All the history and culture the Last Poets espoused has been replaced with shrill, unpoetic, non-spiritual self-assertion, parroting Communist rhetoric. Right On! contains no chant so infelicitous as “no justice, no peace.”
Felipe Luciano recorded an introduction for MoMA that claims, “The prophetic voice . . . We were right then, we are right now. Right on.” Public Enemy, Geto Boys, De La Soul, and Son of Bazerk surpassed the Last Poets example, and in the aftermath of hip-hop’s decay — and given the way that mainstream media has come to control much black expression — Luciano, Kain, and Nelson appear to have been the first of the last poets.