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Restoring Harlem Theatre Film 1968
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Gary Boiling(left) George Lee Miles(right)
Rochelle Sara Miller along with UnionDocs were proud to give HARLEM THEATRE its first-ever public screening in New York City, with NLT actors Gary Bolling (who also appeared in Shirley Clarke’s THE COOL WORLD) and George Lee Miles (THE WARRRIORS, THE EDUCATION OF SONNY CARSON) in person for a retrospective panel discussion.
HARLEM, USA: in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s murder, German filmmaker Klaus Wildenhahn turned his 16mm camera on the New Lafayette Theatre as its players rehearsed scenes, ran public workshops and conducted exercises in uptown Manhattan. New Lafayette (or NLT) had been founded by actor-director Robert Macbeth the previous year, with the aim of producing theater for black people, by black people, to reflect the experiences and vernacular of the Harlem community.
Within the Black Arts Movement, NLT would become a significant institution: it published the journal Black Theatre, and employed a host of talents – including the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture, Ed Bullins, and the great pianist Junior Mance, both of whom appear in Wildenhahn’s film as resident collaborators.
Bracketed by quotes from Eldridge Cleaver (read aloud by its German makers, a clue to the film’s distended gaze), HARLEM THEATRE is an extraordinary portrait of a neighborhood during a volcanic period of history.
The film also doubles as a profile of Macbeth, equal parts arts-therapist and radicalized salesman; his wry appearances and agonizing group-therapy exorcisms make HARLEM THEATRE an explicit interrogation of the artist’s ability to speak back to power, a shriek of rage against an abusive system.
Newly resurfaced after being considered lost or unexhibitable for decades, HARLEM THEATRE is a startling and essential document. It captures Black Power in mid praxis, a constant renegotiation of culture’s role against police harassment and government indifference, and the contradictions of grassroots activism circa 1968 – including scenes from a Ford Foundation-backed Black Panther picnic, capped by a riveting speech from Bobby Seale, who delivers a list of demands still unanswered 50 years later.
Gary Bolling(right) grew up in the Abraham Lincoln Projects, in Harlem, New York. His acting career began in 1962, when he was 16 years old and cast by Shirley Clarke in “The Cool World.” In addition to being a professional member of the New Lafayette Theatre, he toured with the Free Southern Theatre in the South during the Civil Rights era. He is a third degree black belt in Juijitsu and drummer (traps and djembe drums). He has a daughter and five grandchildren. Gary is proud that several of his films (The Cool World, Losing Ground, and The Taking of Pelham 123) have recently screened at repertory cinemas in
George Lee Miles (left) has remained faithful to the creed of the New Lafayette Theatre’s Black Ritual Theatre process through drama therapy/creative expressions workshops in prisons, most recently the “The Boat” Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, Hunts Point, Bronx (the world’s largest prison ship). At schools through the Leadership Program, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Attention Homes (Cheyenne, Wyoming) and at the Addicts Rehabilitation Center, Harlem. He regularly produces and directs dramatic readings of plays by Ed Bullins and others, recently directing a work-in-progress reading of “THE ANTHEM SUITE: Celebrating James Weldon Johnson’s ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’, a collection of songs, poetry and speeches conceived and written by Robert Macbeth. This Fall he will produce and direct a series of readings of ancient and forgotten texts to be aired on the MNN Cable Network. As an actor he has appeared most recently on “Adult Swim” (Cartoon Network) and in the feature film “PURGE: The Election Year.” He is an ordained Universal Life minister and a licensed member of the New York State Chaplain Task Force.
After being considered lost or unexhibitable for decades, HARLEM THEATRE is a startling and essential document. It captures Black Power in mid praxis, a constant renegotiation of culture’s role against police harassment and government indifference, and the contradictions of grassroots activism circa 1968 – including scenes from a Ford Foundation-backed Black Panther picnic, capped by a riveting speech from Bobby Seale, who delivers a list of demands still unanswered 50 years later.
Rochelle Sara Miller is a cinephile, PhD student, and teaching fellow in the Cinema Studies Department at New York University. She is currently completing a dissertation in the field of media industry studies. She has taught undergraduate film courses at NYU, Seton Hall University, and CUNY Brooklyn College —
UnionDocs (UNDO) is a non-profit Center for Documentary Art that presents, produces, publishes, and educates.
They bring together a diverse community of activist artists, experimental media-makers, dedicated journalists, big thinkers, and local partners. They are on a search for urgent expressions of the human experience, practical perspectives on the world today, and compelling visions for the future.
It’s no secret that protest rippled around the globe in 1968, a year equally marked in the bourgeois memory by political upheaval and widespread paranoia. After five decades of tectonic capital shocks and never-ending privatization, we’re experiencing another cascade of unrest – but what if it’s really the same one? FROZEN REVOLUTIONS, a series co-organized with critic and programmer Steve Macfarlane, looks to the archive to reexamine images and stories produced in the heat of this worldwide social movement beyond the broad strokes of “official history”. These documents of dissent ask us to assess the impact of their collective movements, foregrounding the challenge of looking directly into the extinguished promises (and lingering romanticisms) in their wake.
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