DVD Review: New York Noir: The History of Black New York (2008)

Arriving On DVD


A Poem by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

As one of the most prominent African-American poetic voices of the Harlem Renaissance-- "the center of black culture in America for three decades" beginning in the '20s-- Langston Hughes wrote a simple but powerful piece that seemed to epitomize the struggle of his people since they'd initially arrived in America in the 1600s.

Incidentally, the first poem I ever memorized as I stared at it day after day in my high school creative writing classroom-- it's one that still resonates with the plight of anyone who's ever felt down on their luck or pushed down by overwhelming forces and one that seemed to echo mightily as I watched this succinct but fascinating fifty minute award-winning documentary from Little Dizzy Home Video.

A must-own for school libraries and releasing next week in time for America's annual Black History Month in February, this full screen (4:3 aspect ratio) production which draws from historical photographs, footage (both black and white and in color) along with candid interviews with historians and scholars, chronicles nearly four hundred years of African-American history with an emphasis on New York City.

Having arrived in our country forcibly as the oldest of all immigrants ("long before the arrival of the British, Irish... Italians or anyone Jewish or Catholic," as the press release notes), the film opens with some heartbreaking recollections of the slave trade. Yet it also manages to offer an interesting and little known side to the experience as scholars discuss the dichotomy of a small group of Dutch-released "free blacks" who lived in Chinatown, Little Italy and Greenwich Village in what was dubbed the "Negro Frontier."

Emphasizing the African-American role in military history as they helped build the forts that would help win the American Revolutionary War (albeit with "slave labor") and attempted to volunteer by the thousands to fight the civil war-- it was especially interesting to discover the events that were put in motion by the government, first to exclude and then include the willing and brave soldiers. Charting the change which began when the July 1862 bill was passed which gave African-Americans the opportunity to answer the Union Army's call up through being credited for "turning the tide" by Teddy Roosevelt and his rough riders in the Spanish American War, the film also cites the Harlem Hell Fighters who earned a whopping 171 bravery decorations in 191 unrelenting days of combat in World War I.

However, despite their triumphs overseas and in aiding their country, sadly prejudice continued in full force as one of the oldest immigrant groups in the U.S. became the last to earn full rights in the 1970s and while the film does indeed chart some of the hypocrisies and events of the civil rights movement, it also goes out of its way to try and offer history with which we may not be quite as familiar. To this end, it analyzes the impact of the Harlem Renaissance in the realm of art, literature, music, dance and more along with focusing on some of the triumphs of individuals including Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Madam C.J. Walker, Colin Powell, the great Jackie Robinson and more.

Although in fifty hurried minutes, there is a lot that's shoved to the side-- despite this, it works as a great overview for individual topics, inspiring viewers to learn more about some of the figures and events being discussed (and making again an ideal school curriculum companion). An ode to the landmark triumphs and many struggles faced by African-Americans which couldn't be more timely given the recent historic election of our next United States President Barack Obama, the critically lauded New York Noir: The History of Black New York will be making its way onto DVD shelves and via Amazon (see link above) just a few weeks before another African-American man who who held "fast to dreams" will be sworn in as Commander-in-Chief.