If it’s true that the less costly straight-to-DVD journey of any historically rooted drama is potentially bolder and more truthful, by more effectively bypassing the profit-driven political censorship of Hollywood, then Black August is certainly a striking example of this promising trend. The searing drama is an earnest and reverential biopic delving into the tragic, short life of the late George Jackson, sixties US political prisoner, LA Black Panther spiritual and intellectual guiding force, and fierce leader within the Black prison movement at San Quentin.
Filmmaker and screenwriter TCinque Sampson (co-directing with Samm Styles), himself spent 22 years behind bars, including part of his sentence spent in a cell next to the one Jackson had occupied at Quentin years earlier. And the vigor and intensity of Sampson’s narrative casts an uncompromising gaze on the oppressiveness and brutality of life behind bars. George Jackson was imprisoned at the age of eighteen for the rest of his life, for a 75 dollar gas station robbery, until he was gunned down during a prison riot and attempted escape. And it was his eloquent indignation against injustice and racism, a soaring intellect and profound understanding of class warfare, the human urge to revolutionary struggle, and his subversive political charisma that all contributed to sealing his fate.
Embracing the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Che in prison, Jackson’s gift as a lightening rod for inmate rage made him a target for institutional brutality and long gestating execution by the authorities. The film Black August touches on his final days and unwavering political defiance to the end. And his evolving relationship with and impact on David Drye, played by Darren Bridgett, the editor of Soledad Brother, Jackson’s historic bestselling collection of letters from prison.
Gary Dourdan of the TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, ignites the screen with a magnificent performance as the imploding, mesermizing, and paradoxically streetwise and gifted intellectual Jackson, and he gets it just right. Though a number of key aspects defining that politically incendiary time are barely touched upon, including the potent Panther teachings and ideological roots that inspired and transformed Jackson early on, as well as his complex relationship with professor and revolutionary Angela Davis. And the COINTELPRO elaborate domestic espionage FBI operation of informants and orchestrated illegal infiltration and sabotage that ultimately contributed to destruction the left in this country, makes a significant appearance in the film, though in a much too offhanded and minimalist way. Black August is nevertheless a devastating portrait of the life and times of one of America’s most courageous anti-racist people’s soldiers in the ongoing battle for political justice and economic equality.
Director TCinque Sampson said he wanted to bring the story of the tremendously influential life of George Jackson to the screen upon his own release from prison. “People have heard about George Jackson and Angela Davis, but they don’t know much about them or their work,” Sampson said. “George Jackson was a man who believed that human life is meaningless if it is not accompanied by the power to determine its quality. And he knew those in control never concede anything, unless it is demanded of them.”
Sampson met to talk with me about Black August, in conjunction with its direct-to-DVD release on Warner Home Video for Black History Month
How did such a remarkable film not get a run in theaters, and go straight to DVD?
TCINQUE SAMPSON: Well, I have not given up hope. But the important thing, is that this story is out there.
What is it about George Jackson and that turbulent historical period, that inspired this film?
TS: The first and foremost thing that moved me, is that George Jackson has been a mentor for me. And it is the dichotomy in this country of Black America, that caused me to juxtapose George Jackson’s struggle, with the underclass struggle today.
And I had written down a lot things in prison, never thinking that it would turn into a film. And then I thought that those looking at this piece about George Jackson, and those yet to be born, would find inspiration in his journey. And the circumstances of his death, are moving people even today.
So making this film was very easy for me, my own situation and being in captivity. George Jackson’s writing was like the bible for me. Soledad Brother, and eventually Blood In My Eye. And I think it’s the same experience and inspiration that gave me to take my education to a higher level. And we wanted to capture how George’s struggle and his life, touched others.
How did you go about condensing and approaching all the material at hand?
TS: I wrote from sitting in circles that George Jackson himself had sat in, and with some of the same people that had survived the onslaught of COINTELPRO activities. There was that plethora of information, but it was made easy just by juxtaposing my own walk.
And myself, doing time in the same beast’s belly, I knew reading and testing George’s theories, that there was a lot of correctness in the directions he had taken. So with that, I had to basically put myself in George’s shoes – if I so dare.
But believe me, everyone in captivity is George Jackson. They just don’t know it yet. And what I focused on, was the last twenty months of his life. Because like many others who went in there, his first revolutionary act was probably criminal. But this aggression turned into something constructive.
So I pick up on his life when he opened himself up to others, and in like circumstances. And when he brought their attention to people’s suffering. And we take it from there to the time of him writing his books, and expressing himself to the world.
How did you end up in prison?
TS: I was a drug dealer. I was a predator. I was a product of an environment from which I sprung. And George and myself, we came up in like circumstances. We both came out of Chicago, and Catholicism was in our lives. Altar boy, catechism, I did the whole thing.
And my father was a Chicago police officer. And somewhere along the way, I think it was because I was a Vietnam veteran, my first encounter with racism was when I was in the military. And that left a permanent impression on me.
I eventually served 22 years in prison. I could have gotten out a lot sooner. But once I embraced the teachings and the mentorships of individuals like George Jackson, and Black liberation struggles, the Black Panther Party, anyone who stepped out of the range of omnipotent administrative behavior, I was put in security housing and given an indeterminant amount of time to serve there.
And today, there are so many that I’ve left behind. And that’s what makes this film so beautiful, because this was not made for profit, this was made for pride. Because we continue to let people frame us in the light they want us seen, and we have had no voice.
George Jackson only needed to deny his ideological precepts, and he would have been freed from his one year to life sentence. And that’s the beauty, what he did was for the people’s struggle.
What do you feel is George Jackson’s legacy, and what do you hope your film conveys to the younger generations of color?
TS: I think George will always be known as the greatest prison organizer in this country. And a human rights activist for all prisoners, black and white.
And he was a great inspirator for those prisoners who made it back into the free world, to turn their criminal passion into responsibility towards their communities. And as the real maintainers, providers and protectors.
And the younger generation must come to understand that new truths disturb the old power relationships, and power defends itself. There’s the power of the police who terrorize their communities, and the mental kind, the propaganda.
So the underclass youth in this country, need to know that they must stand up for their lives. And life is next to useless, if it is not accompanied by the tools that determine its quality. And in our grand designs, we must achieve something other than new forms of the old miseries.
One remarkable aspect of Black August, is that you speak your mind without worrying about controversy, and that’s a rare truthfulness whether we’re talking about filmmakers or politicians more concerned about their careers. What led you to take that risk with your film?
TS: Well imagine, someone like me labeled a subversive in this society, I went to a basketball player who saw some of his own life in this story, and he gave me the money to put this film together.
But you’re right, it was very difficult with this story, as it’s been told, nobody else wanted to touch it. They would give me their cordial dialogue, but it never came into fruition. And I do applaud Warner Home Video, for taking that chance.
Now that’s a big studio. Were they ever nervous, or not willing to let you go as far as you wanted to go with this story?
TS: No. They invited me in. But it was like going into Fort Knox, there was so much security. There were fifteen of them from Warner Brothers on one side of the table, and I was on the other.
And they said, what are your intentions for Black August. And they allowed us to speak. But this is actually the eleventh year that the hip-hop generation, and Mos Def, are commemorating Black August. So there was already a music movement behind this. And now this is going to be the first visual commemoration.
And I am so proud to bring George Jackson into a greater manifestation. He was a real person, and it could have been any one of us taking that step, and put on the path that George Jackson ended up on.
What about those problems you had with the local authorities, who ran interference against your filming in some of the original locations?
TS: Well, it was a matter of the establishment versus everyday people, not a color line. Many, black and white, wanted to see this film made. And even after thirty years at San Quentin where these situations took place, the wounds were still fresh.
And people there were actually angry that we were claiming history. We weren’t creating a story, we just wanted to tell the story. So we had to bring complaints to the state for differential treatment from other filmmakers that had come in before us.
And when San Quentin finally agreed, they made it a catch 22 situation. We would have to unload and reload our trucks every day. And anyone who knows about film, knows they were trying to blow us out of the water with our budget. They could kill our budget in one week, just with having to load and unload our trucks every day.
So we passed on that. And then we were invited out to Nevada, to a state prison there. And we were treated really well. Some of those guards appear in the film, and all the inmates you see are real inmates. They’re not actors, except for Gary Dourdan. And myself, I make a brief appearance.
However, when it came to filming at the site of the Marin Courthous Courthouse shootout on August 7th, 1970, they pulled our permit. And we had to take them to federal court to get a cease and desist. And then we were allowed to shoot out shots there, except for inside the courtroom.
But speaking of what we went through, there was this off-duty police officer who came on the set with a weapon. He had been at the Marin County Courthouse on the day of the shootout. And he had to be removed, restrained and arrested by the Marin County sheriff’s department.
What was he doing on the set?
TS: He was trying to impede our filming. And when he heard that we prevailed in federal court to shoot there, he decided that he was not going to let that happen.
What was your approach to depicting COINTELPRO, and questioning that official record of events?
TS: I relied on my own research of COINTELPRO activities. Of course, you could wait for years for release of documents, if you were to just ask for them. And our real message with all the spying and wiretapping we depict – and it was all true and proven at the trials of the remaining Soledad Brothers – was that a lot of the deaths didn’t have to happen.
We suggest and we stand behind this in the film, that everything that happened was preventable. And that these people will allow deadly events to take place, to propagate them for their own ends. So that’s the story, the way we tell it. And we don’t back off from it.
Now, what led you to become a filmmaker after 22 years in prison?
TS: I see myself less a filmmaker, than someone who has internalized the stories of great men in captivity who inspired me to pick up books. Forgotten men, in like circumstances.
And all those years, my writing style came from reading western novels. And I did that to get away now and then from the academic surge in my body. And those novels helped me look at something, and see a little more. Like the point of view of a wagon crossing the prairies, that sees from there everything around it.
And that was only because I had the desire to see, and to understand. And I’ve been blessed with the ability to convey other people’s thoughts. So that was so important to me. Because my time in prison was spent as well, as a prison organizer and activist. And part of that involvement was keeping the prison struggle going. Because that struggle is meteoric.
What do you feel you brought to Black August, that someone who had never been in prison couldn’t capture or comprehend?
TS: As soon as I walked on the set and saw how everything was being set up, I said no, this is not real life. It’s not the story I’m telling. And I started throwing things off the tier and telling them, no. We will not cover up the conditions under which George Jackson lived.
And that means the way he lived, how he lived. And how he was treated every day. And it was more important than anything, that this story be people-rich. And if I did this correctly, and those who are yet to be born and follow can understand it, then that makes it all worth it.
Gary Dourdan is amazing as George Jackson in the movie. What led you to choose him for the part?
TS: I needed someone who could show me that radicalism, and that militancy. And he showed the depth of George Jackson.
How do you feel prison politicized you, and changed you as a person?
TS: Let me put it like this. Prison has made me a better person to struggle on, and help those in struggle like myself. And not be afraid to stand up for my convictions that I believe in.
And I think the best thing for me to do, is be a filmmaker. Because I cannot be silenced or censored. My first job when I got out of prison, I got my paralegal license and I was working for a firm, they gave me a chance.
I even got a chance to lecture at Hastings School of Law in San Francisco, talking to attorneys and federal judges about the prison snitch programs that the federal government maintains in its sentencing process. And it’s ironic, because I was speaking to these people who are supposed to protect lives.
And me being an ex-prisoner, an ex-slave, what have you, it was like I was telling them something that they had no idea about. But when you know the truth, you have to act on it.
And it’s not only Al Qaeda and the Taliban that they torture. They do it right here, in these prisons. Those stories have yet to be told, and must be told.
Black August is available from Netflix and Amazon.com.
PRAIRIE MILLER is a WBAI film critic, and host and executive producer of The WBAI Arts Magazine. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.