Appellate Judge Tom Becker watched Black August in gray February.
Never let anyone think they own you.
George Jackson (1941-1971) was the founder of the Black Guerilla Family, a political revolutionary group of prisoners that exists to this day. Jackson was incarcerated in Soledad at age 18, receiving a one-year-to-life sentence for robbing a gas station of $71. Later, he and two other inmates were accused of murdering a guard.
Jackson became famous when letters he wrote from prison were compiled into a book, Soledad Brother. The letters, sent to family members and friends, including radical Angela Davis, were an indictment of the prison system and a call-to-arms for blacks to unite against the white establishment.
Black August follows the events that led to the publication of Soledad Brother, focusing on the interactions between Jackson (Gary Dourdan, CSI) and his editor, David Dryer (Darren Bridgett), who is white.
There's a great story here, and Jackson's writings are as powerful today as they were 40 years ago, but Black August is a film of diluted impact. We get lots of expository information from characters talking, usually to David: David talks to George in prison, David talks to George's lawyer, David talks to George's mother, David talks to George's brother, David talks to Angela Davis. From these conversations, we learn about Jackson and about the politics of the times, but the dialogue is largely didactic, and we are informed rather than enlightened. It's put together kind of like a history lesson in the form of a FAQ, and the people providing the information are pretty interchangeable.
While there's certainly a need to lay out the back story, it's a shame the filmmakers didn't find a more creative approach. As it is, Black August is the story of a passionate man at a volatile time told with a prosaic detachment that makes the film seem like a less-than engaging episode of Oz. It even has bits of incidental music that echo the former HBO series.
Here and there, Dourdan will recite excerpts from Jackson's writing, and while the words are potent, the images are a bit hackneyed: lots of shots of Dourdan executing kung fu moves or looking agonized, an occasional stylized shot (Jackson holding the bloody corpse of his brother), or archival footage of protests (which also opens the film, underscored with what sounds like Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock-version of "The Star Spangled Banner").
About two-thirds of the way through, we get a re-enactment of an escape attempt orchestrated by Jackson's teenage brother, Jonathan. The attempt goes horribly wrong and ends up with several people dying, including Jonathan and a judge. The film blames this tragedy on a duplicitous member of the Black Panthers who's in cahoots with the FBI, and there's a fairly long section detailing this collaboration that gets a bit confusing.
Strangely, while there are still questions surrounding some of the events in Jackson's life—his involvement, if any, in the killing of the guard and his brother's escape plan, and whether or not he was armed the day he was killed (during a riot at San Quentin, where he was awaiting trial for the killing of the guard)—the filmmakers present their version as facts. According to Black August, Jackson did participate in the killing of the guard; the escape plan and his brother's involvement were his ideas; and he was most definitely armed, leading a prison revolt, and ordering the execution of other prisoners when he was shot.
Black August is a direct-to-DVD feature, and it's too bad that the format wasn't better used here. The filmmakers could have provided the history as a supplement on the disc and had more freedom to tell the story of George Jackson from the heart and from the gut. A less linear approach might have more successfully conveyed both the politics and the emotions of the time. Instead, the only supplements we get are a handful of deleted scenes that, like most deleted scenes, don't add a lot to the presentation. Technically, the disc is adequate, though its low budget roots are evident. The image is clear, though unspectacular, and the audio serviceable.
Black August opens and closes with quotes, though neither is from the writings of George Jackson. The first—"When the prison gates open, the dragon will fly out"—is from Ho Chi Minh. The quote that closes the film—"While there is a lower class, we are in it; while there is a criminal element, we are of it; while there is still a soul in prison, we are not free"—is from TCinque Sampson, executive producer of Black August. Sampson is a former convict and now a prison-reform activist, and while he certainly has a lot of insights on the subject, there's something a bit off-putting when a film about a writer ends with a quote from the executive producer.
Black August is by no means a bad film. It features a solid performance by Dourdan and a straightforward look at a key figure in the 1960s revolutionary movement. If only the filmmaking had been as bold as its subject.
Guilty of taking an ordinary approach to an extraordinary story.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Deleted scenes
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