It’s 1968, and the young black American being interviewed on the street by the ever reasonable (a conundrum in this time and place) Swedish crew says that people have been talking about a conspiracy. It must be, he says, with the Kennedy brothers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., all assassinated, though you get the sense he’s speaking less to any particular plot than to the sad certainty that freedom fighters turn up dead in the land of the free. This clip turned up last year in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, a documentary compiling archival footage initially shot for Swedish television. I thought of it again watching Santiago Alvarez‘s strident LBJ (1968). Like the Swedes, Alvarez was an outsider looking in on American dissent; but where they aimed for measured analysis, the Cuban agitprop specialist was all too happy to stoke the coals. Commanding a full repertoire of rhetorical technique including satire, burlesque, incitement, and lament, Alvarez delivers the cinematic equivalent of a j’accuse. Structured as a triptych, the film insinuates that President Johnson is responsible for the deaths of Kennedy, Kennedy, and King—a slanderous claim on the face of it, and yet one with delivered with a passion that speaks volumes about the film’s moment. The Black Power Mixtape claims a continuing relevance of black power leaders, though the idea is betrayed by its reliance on musicians (and not, say, activists) for latter-day commentary. There is no latter day in Alvarez’s film.
Working only with a Life magazine spread of LBJ’s daughter’s wedding, snippets of Western movies, Winchester commercials, and Playboy centerfolds, Alvarez takes little time (and less money) to paint his picture of decadence.
But is it a documentary? It’s impossible to answer the question without dislodging conventional notions of reportage, which, it’s fair to say, was one of many related goals underpinning Alvarez’s craft (a revolutionary form for a revolutionary politics, like Dziga Vertov before him). LBJ’s defamatory montage is pitched against the rationalism that places documentary in the orbit of what the theorist Bill Nichols calls the “discourses of sobriety.” Of course, tarring Johnson as the emblematic figure of reactionary violence doesn’t square with the president’s Great Society programs nor his complicated relationship with Dr. King. Taken symbolically, however, Alvarez’s indictment seems a visionary if hysterical account of state-sanctioned terrorism.Alvarez’s signature resourcefulness first shows itself in his excoriation of America’s cult of cowboy presidents. Working only with a Life magazine spread of LBJ’s daughter’s wedding, snippets of Western movies, Winchester commercials, and Playboy centerfolds, Alvarez takes little time (and less money) to paint his picture of decadence. The filmmaker famously said, “Give me two photos, music, and a moviola, and I’ll give you a movie,” and while there’s nothing intrinsically subversive in this, one might also note that overturning the order of images meant something different in the context of the Cold War’s politics of projection (Emile de Antonio was Alvarez’s North American counterpart in this regard). Certainly, Alvarez’s brimming poetic transfiguration left its mark on culture jammers like Craig Baldwin and Johan Grimonprez. Alvarez wrings superb drama from still photographs, and if the implications are often unfair, they’re not always baseless. His jarring cuts within the famous photograph of Johnson and a stricken Jacqueline Onassis during his swearing on Air Force One, for instance, intuits some of the same tensions underlined in Robert Caro’s recent account of the event in The Passage of Power, a book which like LBJ makes much of the “blood feud” between the new president and Robert Kennedy.
Alvarez’s dark mirror on America’s domestic affairs is stronger for its celebrations. It’s typical of his films that he allows the freedom fighters to speak for themselves (this in an era when self-appointed vanguards were all too often happy to speak for others). Tellingly, Alvarez begins the chapter on King with a long clip of the radicalized Stokely Carmichael asserting black beauty and the barbarity of America’s white mainstream. The argument is echoed in Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” and the song’s inclusion points towards Alvarez’s sensitivity to the manifold expressions of black consciousness.
But is it a documentary? It’s impossible to answer the question without dislodging conventional notions of reportage, which, it’s fair to say, was one of many related goals underpinning Alvarez’s craft (a revolutionary form for a revolutionary politics, like Dziga Vertov before him). LBJ’s defamatory montage is pitched against the rationalism that places documentary in the orbit of what the theorist Bill Nichols calls the ‘discourses of sobriety.’
When King’s “I Have a Dream” comes, it’s unmistakably the moral center of the film. Alvarez shows photographs of the crowded National Mall as the audio recording begins, but the speech itself invites a bracing cut to black so that only King’s words (in Spanish subtitles) fill the screen. The speech is interrupted every few beats with the same image of a fascist firing line. Poor taste? I suppose so, but then it’s no small thing to restore one of the most famous orations in modern history to its volatility. The rhetorical power of text as image is something very few filmmakers appreciate. One thinks immediately of Travis Wilkerson, who is clearly influenced by Alvarez in this regard, and of Jean-Luc Godard. Most historical documentaries ensconce King’s speech in familiar images. Here they resonate with literal force: unfulfilled and demanding of us who watch it now.If Alvarez’s deep interest in the diverse expressions of resistance is one thing that distinguishes his agitprop, one might also note that LBJ does not propose a solution to the maladies it describes: not Fidel Castro, not Cuba, not communism. If this is partly attributable to the internationalist spirit of 1968, it also flows from the visionary quality of Alvarez’s critique: the film is so committed to its hypothesis that it cannot pause for an answer. Instead of serving posterity, as in The Black Power Mixtape and so many other fine documentaries, LBJ insists on splitting open the present. Paradoxically, this urgency is itself a transporting artifact of the age. And as the work of contemporary filmmakers like Wilkerson, Ken Jacobs, and John Gianvito tells us, there is no time like the present for Alvarez’s brand of polemic.