“You have no idea how bad it really was–you’re just seeing a film.” As she spoke, the blonde filmgoer stood and motioned to the projection screen, her wide eyes flitting over the black and white faces surrounding her.Â A post-screening question and answer session at the Pullman Clock Tower last Saturday had turned into collective catharsis; most of the audience members had either witnessed or participated in marches and riots like the ones documented in the films, and each viewer had a story to share.
The blonde woman had grown up in an all-white neighborhood near Marquette Park, and attempted to explain that the film everyone had just watched–filmmaker Tom Palazzolo’s footage of local Nazi party members preparing to combat a civil rights march on the park in 1976–did not give a full picture of the terrifying violence blacks faced if they dared to enter the neighborhood. Many in the audience, however, knew exactly how bad it was–they lived through it. And the documentaries were no talking-head montages; the powerful cinema veritÃ©-style footage brought viewers brutally close to the events and people that otherwise would fade into the community’s fuzzy collective memory or be loosely approximated by history books.
Etta James’ “At Last” played as projectionists from the Chicago Film Archives set up, and an American flag hung on the wall. Michael Phillips, director of South Side Projections (no relation to the Tribune critic), prefaced the first film–footage of a 1966 Cicero March led by Robert Lucas, who was in attendance–with a warning: “You feel like you’re going to get hit by a rock when you’re watching it.” The cameraman filmed from within the mob of black men and women protesting restrictive covenants. The camera jerked sideways as angry neighborhood residents jostled the filmmaker, then slowly receded from a police officer shaking a club at the lens.
The second film’s portrayal of the party members delivered a shock, not with violence, but with the banality of their hateful campaigning. With an intensity that bordered on the absurd, leader Frank Collin stood on a soapbox, swastika-emblazoned flag waving in the background, announcing a party member’s bid for Congress and proclaiming, “this territory will remain white and not fall to the black invasion.” Phillips put it best when he said, “just seeing them go about their business is more terrifying than almost anything,” even while Collin’s followers were making Monty Python jokes and accepting donations in a glass jar.
The last film–a chat from 2000 between Lucas and Bronzeville Historical Society president Sherry Williams, who was also in attendance–wasn’t as immediately striking, but it was the beginning of a conversation about the movement’s legacy. Eleven years later, the conversation continued, on the screen and in the seats.