Review: ‘A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde’

"A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde" celebrates a visionary woman, who in her life and literary work embodied the intersection of three social protest movements: civil, women's and gay-lesbian rights. Lorde's charismatic personality and her importance as a dynamic force and role model for younger generations make for an informative and enlightening docu that should be broadcast on public TV and other venues.

“A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde” celebrates a visionary woman, who in her life and literary work embodied the intersection of three social protest movements: civil, women’s and gay-lesbian rights. Lorde’s charismatic personality and her importance as a dynamic force and role model for younger generations make for an informative and enlightening docu that should be broadcast on public TV and other venues.

The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Lorde was born and raised in Harlem, though she was always told by her parents that “home is somewhere else.” Indeed, after attending Catholic schools — and some “messy” years, by her own admission — she left Harlem because it was “too provincial” for her.

Lorde began writing poetry in high school; her first published work made more money than what she earned in the next 10 years. Her early lesbian love poems were audacious because, as she says, “there was no space or need for them.”

Lorde’s lesbian friends were stunned when she got married — docu doesn’t provide much info about her interracial marriage. But as expected, her children got an unconventional education. Says her son:”My mother provided us a list of things that were repugnant in society, but she also left us to our own devices.” Lorde’s lifelong challenge was to establish a “working mind” that “learns the lessons of intense contradictions and makes reality a pursuit of visions irresistible.”

Her political consciousness was formed in the 1950s, during the time of the McCarthy hearings and the Rosenberg trial, but the event that changed her life was an invitation to teach at a Southern black college.

Docu’s greatest achievement is in illustrating the formation of a complex modern identity — from a mainstream perspective, Lorde was a deviant par excellence, combining the contradictory roles of wife/mother, accomplished black poet, militant warrior of racism, outspoken lesbian and, later, feisty cancer survivor.

In 1989, Lorde won the American Book Award for “A Burst of Light,” a collection of essays on race, gender and sexuality, and two years later became New York State’s designated poet.

Docu interweaves interesting archival footage, evocative music and revealing conversations with her family, companions and friends. Extensive interviews with Lorde, conducted over the last years of her life, provide the core of the narrative, which is punctuated by recitations of her poetry.

In its last sequences, the film drags a bit, rehashing issues that havealready been discussed. Nonetheless, “A Litany for Survival” exhibits the enchanting personality of an unusual woman, considered in some circles a counterpart to Malcolm X.

A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde

(DOCU)

Production

A Third World Newsreel production. Produced by Ada Gay Griffin. Directed by Griffin, Michelle Parkerson.

Crew

Camera (color), Larry Banks, John Bentham, Michael Chin, Christine Choy, Crystal Arnette Griffith, Arthur Jafa, Herman Lew, Al Santana; editor, Holly Fisher; sound, Orinne J.T. Takagi. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Park City, Jan. 20, 1995. Running time: 90 MIN.
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