Thursday, March 26, 2020

I Am Somebody: A Review

Image result for i am somebody short filmI AM SOMEBODY

The documentary short I Am Somebody is a pure documentary. While certainly with a point of view, I Am Somebody does not have what many documentary/advocacy films have: a narrator guiding the audience to a preconceived conclusion or a manipulation of information to lead audiences. Instead, the on-the-ground nature of I Am Somebody showcases the intersection of race, gender and labor struggles.

 I Am Somebody chronicles the 1969 hospital workers strike in Charleston, South Carolina by black female workers at both the University Medical College and the County Hospital. They want to unionize and have representation to fight for equal pay with their white counterparts and be treated with dignity.

Their petition for a redress of grievances is ignored by the white and male power structure, but the black women will not stand by quietly. They picket, they protest, they get arrested. As the strike goes on, they pull in big names to their cause, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s widow Coretta Scott King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. In the words of Mrs. King, they will no longer stand for "full time jobs for part-time pay".

Eventually, it is the power of the purse that pushes the College and County Hospital to the negotiating table. By doing a boycott of white businesses, the strikers put the squeeze on the economy. After 100 contentious days, the University Medical College agree to the Drug and Hospital Union Local 1199's terms, the County thirteen days later.

Image result for i am somebody short filmI Am Somebody was directed and edited by Madeline Anderson, a first for an African-American woman. She is an exceptional filmmaker in that she allows the workers to tell their own stories, sometimes literally. The film has several interviews with the women who tell about how the strike impacted their lives both professional and personal.

The film also shows the buildup of tension between the strikers and the police and even National Guard. We see surprising moments of violence, such as when a group of unarmed women are hauled into the police wagon. We also see some curious moments, such as when a police officer through a megaphone instructs that no babies are to be taken onto the police buses, sparing one protester who had brought her infant.

The film is clearly sympathetic to the strikers: the opening says that "The American Foundation on Nonviolence" presents I Am Somebody. There isn't an effort to interview anyone who had objected to the strike, the press conferences with officials up to then-Governor Robert E. McNair being the closest to it. I Am Somebody is not intended to be objective, but it is also not agitprop. It documents the events of this strike, making it a genuine documentary versus many of today's so-called documentaries which are political infomercials in all but name.

It is about the strike from the strikers point of view, and it is a fascinating portrait of the power that a group doubly discriminated against has when it pools its collective resources.

I Am Somebody is a moving and powerful testament to the call for human dignity. Near the end of the film there's a press conference that announces the settlement; a reporter asks one of the strike leaders, "Miss Simmons, what do you think the strike accomplished?" Without missing a beat, Miss Simmons replies, "Well, we gained recognition as human beings for one. We gained that recognition as human beings". That quest for recognition continues.


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