Case Number 15917: Small Claims Court


Docurama // 1989 // 54 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // March 14th, 2009

The Charge

Keep the faith, baby.

The Case

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was a civil rights leader who, like Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a clergyman. Powell was the minister for the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. From his pulpit, Powell worked for racial equality, organizing a bus boycott in 1941, the same year he became New York City's first black city councilman.

In 1944, Powell was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and was the first black congressman from New York. While in Congress, Powell fought racism both within the Capitol and without. In 1961, Powell was appointed chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, where he wielded a considerable amount of power and was involved in the passage of many pieces of progressive legislation.

But Powell was a flawed individual. He came under fire for taking extravagant trips at public expense, and was also criticized for his absenteeism. He also had no love for King and made no secret of it, even resorting to blackmail against the civil rights leader, according to the film. Powell's own flamboyant ways were at odds with the more clean-cut and serious image put forth by King and the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1960s. Ultimately, Powell's constituents grew tired of his behavior and voted him out in 1970, and he died two years later.

I had never heard of Adam Clayton Powell until a DVD of the same name arrived in the mail. What I found with Adam Clayton Powell was a sharply made documentary about a compelling and complicated man.

The film, directed by Richard Kilberg, concisely covers Powell's life from birth to death, utilizing archival footage, photographs and talking heads interviews to tell Powell's story. The footage and photographs are well chosen and indicative of the subject's dynamic personality. (His catchphrase serves as the Charge for this review.) Kilberg has included a large number of interviews, all of which contribute greatly to the film. Among the interviewees included are Hattie Dodson, Powell's secretary; Shirley Chisholm, former New York congresswoman; Isabel Washington Powell, Powell's first wife; and James L. Farmer, Jr. of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Farmer tells an amusing story of a time when Powell gave a fund-raising speech for CORE and exaggerated figures about the organization and, at one point during the talk, held up a check he had written for $100. The check bounced, according to Farmer. While the interviews included don't seem quite as objective as the archival footage and narration included, on the whole, the film is reasonably well rounded in its presentation of the subject.

At 52 minutes sans credits, there isn't any wasted runtime in Adam Clayton Powell; in fact, I wish Kilberg had gone into more detail at times, especially when it comes to Powell's later troubles and how he became separated from his constituency. Overall, Kilberg's approach doesn't break any new ground for the documentary format, but the interest generated by the material he presents makes such a quibble irrelevant.

Adam Clayton Powell comes to DVD 20 years after its release. Video quality varies given the nature of the film; the archival footage is decent, although the talking heads interviews show their age. Sound is similarly good, if unspectacular. There are no subtitles included, but everyone who speaks in the film comes through clearly. As for extras, Docurama has included a 20-minute interview with Kilberg and a text-only bio of the director. For the interview, Kilberg shares his motivation for making the film and how he sees Powell as a person and within the context of the time that he lived, among other related topics.

Well-made and always intriguing, Adam Clayton Powell is worth watching whether you're a documentary fan, history buff, or both. While the man himself inspired split opinions (and no doubt continues to), this court has no qualms about pronouncing this DVD not guilty.

Review content copyright © 2009 Ben Saylor; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile
Studio: Docurama
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 54 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Interview
* Bio

* IMDb