Nationtime

Nationtime

1972, NR, 80 min. Directed by William Greaves.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 27, 2020

The newly restored documentary Nationtime is a cinema verité record of the National Black Political Convention, an assembly of approximately 10,000 African Americans who gathered in Gary, Indiana, one weekend in March 1972 to coalesce around a platform of issues critical to the Black community but long ignored by the white political establishment. Attendees from all over the country (including approximately 3,300 state delegates) packed the convention venue over the three-day period, and the raw energy of their presence was captured in unvarnished film footage shot by pioneering and prolific African American filmmaker William Greaves.

The guest list of activists, politicians, artists, and other luminaries who spoke, performed, or otherwise appeared at the convention reads like a who’s who of Black America: Coretta Scott King, Bobby Seale, Dick Gregory, Representative Walter Fauntroy, Mayor Richard Hatcher, Betty Shabazz, Harry Belafonte, Richard Roundtree, Isaac Hayes, Queen Mother Moore, Wali Siddiq, Ben Branch, Amiri Baraka, and the conference’s undisputed breakout star, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Indeed, the film’s title is the enthusiastic chorus shouted in response to Jackson’s frequent calls to action during his rousing first-day speech: “What time is it?” he rhetorically asked time and time again.

“NATIONTIME”!

The pleasures of Nationtime are largely observational. Its you-are-there immediacy can be thrilling; you often feel like you’re witnessing something important. What you see is what you get. Greaves eschews editorializing on the action, with Sidney Poitier’s unobtrusive narration primarily bridging time and summarizing highlights with minimal color commentary. (The occasional lines of poetry recited by Belafonte are nice, but don’t contribute much.) This objective approach has its frustrations, however, particularly given how little audiences know about the 1972 National Black Political Convention, if anything. The film’s introductory messaging states: “The convention adjourned without reaching consensus, and some deem it a failure.” Although you see the Michigan delegation walk out of the building over a disagreement with the New York delegation near the end, the nature of the conflict is not specified, leaving you uninformed about what transpired behind the scenes. And there’s the rub. As an archival document that preserves a seminal event in American history on film, Nationtime is great stuff. But as a lesson in American history, it leaves you wanting to know so much more.

Back in 1972, this 80-minute version of the documentary was deemed too radical for television, and only a heavily-edited 58-minute version has circulated since. True, many of the speeches, such as Black Panther leader Seale’s oratory, do not preach “Kumbaya,” and rightly so. Dick Gregory’s brilliant stand-up bit may have ruffled the suits’ feathers as well. Consequently, the film that subsequently aired was neutered to a length of around an hour. Thanks to funding provided by Jane Fonda and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the documentary – once thought to be lost – has been digitally restored to its original length and color quality under the supervision of Greaves’ widow. We should be grateful for this gift.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Nationtime, William Greaves

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