Would Pan-African nationalist Marcus Garvey have supported United States president Barack Obama and his vision?
The hypothetical question was posed to University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) history professor and Garvey expert Robert Hill last Friday night at the University of Toronto following the screening of Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind.
“I certainly think he would even though I don’t think his followers would,” suggested Jamaican-born Hill who was the executive consultant in the production of the film which was released in 2000.
“Garvey wanted to convince Black people that success was open to them and this was not something that Europeans had a monopoly on. And to the degree that Barack Obama sought to win the presidency and succeeded represents a major psychological breakthrough. I think Garvey would have said that is what I am talking about. Now, whether he would have believed that he could overnight or over the long run change the balance of racial power is another thing.”
Jamaica’s first national hero, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Black Star Shipping Line to provide transportation to Africa, and the Negro Factories Corporation to encourage Black economic independence.
After he was deported from the United States to Jamaica after serving a two-year jail term for mail fraud, Garvey turned his energy to Jamaican politics, campaigning on a platform of self-government, minimum wage laws and judicial reform.
In 1929, he formed Jamaica’s first political party – the People’s Political Party – and was elected to a seat in Kingston & St. Andrew Corporation. His party however was soundly beaten in the national elections.
“A major reason he lost badly is that he refused to challenge the limitation on the franchise in Jamaica,” said Hill who was educated at St. George’s College in Jamaica, the University of London, the University of Toronto and the University of the West Indies where he obtained his Masters in Political Science. “Under the colonial constitution, you had to show proof that you paid in taxes annually 10 shillings. Garvey accepted that. He did not say that is undemocratic and we have to challenge that which is the only way he could have won office. He accepted the limitation on the franchise.”
Harlem-based filmmaker Stanley Nelson, who directed the documentary, also attended the screening.
Hill, whose interest in the subject of Garvey provided him with an analytical framework for his quest to redress what he identified as the “lack of a substantive sense of national loyalty in Jamaica” during the country’s pre-independence period, said he enjoyed working with Nelson on the project, saying it was a very chastening learning experience for him.
“The way a historian constructs a narrative and fits the pieces together, you don’t have that luxury in a film in which you are dealing with seconds,” he said. “I take my hat off to Stanley because he was able to give glimpses of newspaper columns and to re-enact certain scenes that in a sense captured the same thing that a historian would take a book to tell that narrative. I benefited from that because I realized that we could say things far more economically for our readers partly in the way that a filmmaker thinks. We think in terms of paper while a filmmaker is thinking visually all the time and for me that was not easy to understand and grasp.”
Hill revealed that Nelson had to spend his own money to complete the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) project.
“They gave him and his wife (Marcia Smith wrote the documentary) a fixed sum of money to produce a 60-minute film and when he went back to them and said he couldn’t do it in the allotted time, they refused to listen to him,” said Hill, the editor-in-chief of The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers project . “I think it was very racist on the part of PBS to say we will not give you any more money. He had to put his hand in his pocket to finance the production of the extra 30 minutes and even with that addition, you can’t cover everything.”
Archival film, photographs and documents along with interviews with Garvey Movement supporters that communicate the appeal of Garvey’s revolutionary ideas support the documentary.
Nelson’s 1989 debut film, Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madam C.J. Walker, which he wrote and produced, was named Best Production of the Decade by the Black Filmmakers Foundation.
His latest film – Freedom Riders – was screened in Canada for the first time last Thursday at the U of T. The film recounts the 1961 crusade by daring young activists intent on ending segregated travel on interstate buses in the Deep South.
It will be broadcast on PBS as part of the “American Experience” series in May which is the 50th anniversary of the freedom rides.