John Henrik Clarke: A Freat and Mighty Walk

Narrator: Wesley Snipes.

Narrator: Wesley Snipes.

Quite a wide gap prevails between the exciting ideas and their conventional visual presentation in “John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk,” a documentary about the visionary black scholar and activist who was one of the first to propagate the idea of “Afrocentricity,” or “Pan-Africanism.” Conceived, exec produced and narrated by actor Wesley Snipes, this intriguing feature is a likely candidate for PBS, various educational institutions and other nonprofit venues.

The first of Black Dot Media’s “African Scholars” series, “John Henrik Clarke” chronicles the rich life and controversial philosophy of one of American’s most respected scholars. Informative and challenging, docu presents rare archival footage of noted African historian Cheikh Anta Diop, and fresh assessments of black colonial history, the assassination of Malcolm X, the politics of Minister Louis Farakhan and the recent Million Man March, all views that are bound to stir controversy among white and black audiences alike.

Docu is structured as one lengthy interview with the ailing 80-year-old Clarke, interspersed with footage of major historical figures and events crucial to his life.

Beginning with Clarke’s childhood in pre-Depression Alabama and Georgia, docu records his struggling years as a young writer in Harlem of the l930s. After four years in the U.S. Air Force, earning the rank of sergeant major, he attended NYU, majoring in history and world literature.

As an activist, Clarke daringly collaborated with Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and with the young Malcolm X during the early years of the Civil Rights movement.

Holding that “the relationship of history to people is the same as a mother’s to her child,” Clarke has devoted his life to a revisionist exploration of African history. In a prolific half-century career, Clarke, who’s now professor emeritus of African World History at Hunter College in New York, has published close to 30 books and over 50 short stories, the best known of which, “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black,” was made into an HBO short with Snipes.

Among Clarke’s most fascinating beliefs are his ahead-of-its-time feminism (“Leaving women out means leaving half of the spirituality out”), and his dismissal of the Million Man March as a fake media event that wasted a lot of gas (“There’s more to revolution than throwing your fists in the air”).

If the material is always soaring in novelty and provocation, the pedestrian visual style drags St. Claire Bourne’s docu down to an archaic, expository format.

Tech credits are as modest as its humble hero, who, despite international stature, would like to be remembered as “a creative schoolroom teacher.”

John Henrik Clarke: A Freat and Mighty Walk

Production: A Black Dot Media production. Produced by Kimiko Jackson. Executive producer, Wesley Snipes. Directed by St. Clair Bourne. Screenplay, Lou Potter.

Crew: Camera (B&W/color), Larry L. Banks; editor, Chris Flore; music, Kipper Jones. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 10, 1996. (Also in Sundance Film Festival - competing.) Running time: 90 MIN.

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