The Reverend himself was supposed to be at the Wythe Hotel for Wednesday’s screening of Big Al: a Week in the Life of the Reverend Al Sharpton, but he ended up ditching out for a special civil rights summit convened by President Obama yesterday. Which, I guess is understandable. Instead, a big-screen version of Sharpton in his heyday filled the room.
Those attending No Filter‘s presentation of the 1991 made-for-BBC documentary met the young fire-tongued activist who became a media darling thanks in part to his flamboyant features: billowy lions-mane locks, ample waistline often squeezed into velvet track suits, and booming preacher’s diction honed since childhood. “If you were raised by James Brown and Jesse Jackson, you would look like I look,” Sharpton declares in the film. But it was also Sharpton’s mastery of the soundbite and whip-smart quips that made him the tastiest of fodder for TV news, as well as a natural leader capable of rallying huge crowds to demonstrate impassioned outcry.
As magnetic as Sharpton is in Big Al, the documentary painted a stark contrast between the civil rights movement of the late ’80s and today’s leading movement for equality in the U.S., Black Lives Matter.
Sitting in for the Reverend during the Q+A was Michael A. Hardy of the National Action Network. No Filter’s founder Steve Loff introduced Hardy as Sharpton’s “right-hand man,” an attorney who’s worked with the Reverend closely for 30 years. While Hardy acknowledged that “the world has changed a lot” in the last 25 years, he was reluctant to allow that Sharpton had undergone a fundamental (not just an outward) change. “When you have lived your life in front of the camera, people begin to know who you are and to understand you better,” Hardy argued. “I think the world knows Reverend Sharpton in a way that they did not know him 25 years ago. I mean, you’re looking at someone who, for a good part of those 25 years, the powers that be were trying to take him down.”
Nevertheless, the distance between the jelly-bellied Big Al and the lollipop-shaped Sharpton we see today on MSNBC is huge.
The doc follows Sharpton for what turns out to be a pivotal week in the activist’s life. In 1989, 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins was murdered by an “angry mob” of young white men in Bensonhurst. According to Hawkins’s father, who appears in the film with Sharpton at his family’s side throughout the ordeal, his teenage son had simply gotten off at “the wrong subway stop” and was murdered solely because of “the color of his skin.”
In the aftermath, and as we see in Big Al, Sharpton fills in as the family’s spokesperson and representative. He and his team of lawyers, activists, and community leaders begin organizing protests, courting the press, and speaking out at every seemingly unjust turn in the case. While the defendants claimed the murder was a case of mistaken identity, Sharpton and a good chunk of the city of course believed otherwise. (As New York magazine concluded in the Nov. 6, 1989 cover story “What Really Happened in Bensonhurst exactly how things played out, and the entire picture of the murderers’ true motivations were a little less than clear, but “Regardless of exactly what happened, racism is clearly a part of the case.”)
The filmmakers were careful to interview both supporters and critics of Sharpton, including a disgruntled former member of his staff and a TV news reporter. Throughout the film, the staff member argues that Sharpton “doesn’t exist” without a camera pointed at him, while the journalist claims he’s a divisive figure who stirs up racial tensions and hatred instead of working for peace and harmony. While the film shows a deeply charming and effective activist, it also raises issues about Sharpton’s motivations, citing his unbridled ego and penchant for sensationalism as obstacles to improving race relations. The doc makes a big deal about one incident in which Sharpton rips up a subpoena for the cameras. A TV crew arrives late to the press conference and Sharpton offers to rip up another copy of the subpoena again, no problem.
Hardy dismissed the implication that media manipulation was a bad thing, arguing instead it was an essential part of activism. “If you want to deal with the roaches, you have to turn the lights on, that’s when they run,” he said. “It’s like anything, if you want to deal with a situation, you have to shine a light on it.”
Later, Hardy responded to one audience member’s assertion that Sharpton “only shows up when the cameras are there”: “You’re coming to [Sharpton] because you want the cameras there. The cameras come because he calls them. How else are you going to be the voice and make an issue [into] an issue unless you are using the media to be the microphone for that issue?”
But the film also demonstrates that Sharpton really was putting himself on the line, and doing a job that no one else could do. “Who would want to be Al Sharpton?” Hardy asked the audience. “You have to be willing to give your life to this.” In the doc, Sharpton always appears at the side of the Hawkins family, vehemently denouncing an acquittal, swatting away stupid questions from reporters, and setting the record straight. And as we’re reminded, the job of an activist can be a dangerous one. The filmmakers even caught an assassination attempt on the Reverend, when he was stabbed in the chest at another Bensonhurst protest.
Hardy too makes an appearance in the film, as the attorney offering legal advice to Sharpton and a room full of his fellow activists. He warns them that arranging for a protestor to throw chicken blood or red paint on the house belonging to one of the accused in the murder of Yusef Hawkins, would leave the protestor vulnerable to arrest. “We have to protect that person,” he tells Sharpton.
After the film, Alan Feuer of the New York Times posed the Qs for Hardy’s As. “Has he lost the fire?” Feuer asked.
Hardy repeated the question, and paused before giving an unconvincing answer. “No, not at all. In a moment, when something happens, he’s right there. He’s dependable, he’s reliable. Do you lose the fire? No, you don’t lose the fire. Times change, and [when] you’re in a position of building a movement, you’re in a position to make things happen now.”
For many children of the ’90s, Al Sharpton was simply the guy on TV who was adept at pissing people off or, as one audience member pointed out, a charismatic activist who was rumored to be benefiting (whether monetarily or through fame and notoriety) from tragedies befallen on members of the black community including police brutality, rape, and outright murder. (Hardy vehemently denied that Sharpton ever “takes money from families.”) Still, whenever something went down, Sharpton and the National Action Network (NAN) always seemed to be there.
Lately, of course, it’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) that has captured the national attention as the heir apparent of the civil rights movement and now commands vastly more media coverage than NAN does. As the banner for many massive demonstrations across the country, BLM has also inspired more focused activist groups on college campuses, for example. It’s clearly the movement for the next generation of black Americans and their allies. And while Hardy praised BLM, he and Feuer both expressed their doubt about its strength.
Back in the day, Sharpton was the guy “bringing a whole new set of tactics to this movement– he’s not the NAACP, he’s not wearing a suit, he’s a big, loud guy,” Feuer explained before implying that BLM, unlike NAN, was solely relegated to the realms of social media. “Tactics have changed now, Black Lives Matter doesn’t do this. How do you see what you guys do at NAN as both different tactically and strategically from what we see happening now on Twitter?”
Hardy was split. “On some level, I don’t think there’s a different between what we’re doing and what young kids are doing now. But we’ve come 25 years and technology has come even further, and using social media to generate situations and gatherings to express and support social movements is important. It’s a new tool that we have, but what you’re trying to do ultimately is to build a movement that’s sustainable.” (He later pressed, “you can’t let tools get in the way of a movement.”) Hardy went on to argue, “If it’s just a hashtag, people can’t necessarily call that in an emergency. You can pick up the phone and call the National Action Network and somebody’s going to be there.”
Feuer was clearly pleased. “‘You can’t call a hashtag’– I kind of like that,” he said, before asking Hardy how important he thought it was for a movement like Black Lives Matter to have a “figurehead […] even if it’s only a symbolic vision for people to attach their feelings to.”
“I think it’s really important. If you have a leaderless movement, it doesn’t build at some point. Look at the Occupy movement, it did a tremendous thing, but there wasn’t a leader,” Hardy said, arguing that Occupy started a conversation, but didn’t make much progress as a sustainable movement. “You can’t be leaderless, you have to be able to operate. Our human nature is that, in order to move forward, you’re always going to have people who are out front and who will take the lead, who will take the weight.”
Later on, Feuer laughed: “Name me a movement on the right that’s ever been leaderless? It’s only the left that’s dumb enough to have a leaderless movement.”
At the end of the discussion, an audience member wondered if Hardy thought that, almost 30 years after the death of Yusef Hawkins, we’d made any real progress toward equality, or if we’d managed to exceed Hardy’s expectations for change.
He acknowledged that the first black Presidency of Barack Obama was a major achievement. “I never really saw it happening in my lifetime and then it happened.”
“On some other levels, we’re advancing as a society. Do we still have a long way to go? Absolutely. There are still inequities, there are still big gaps in wealth– that’s one of the things that Bernie is touching on–we need to do better,” Hardy said, before adding an afterthought. “But I think we’re moving forward because of Reverend Sharpton and maybe some of you sitting out there.”
A young woman sitting behind me guffawed, “Maybe some of you…”