What promises to offer a missing link in the chain between the 1950s’ non-violent civil rights movement and the 1960s’ militant black liberation movement isn’t quite delivered in “Negroes With Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power.” Too straight and stuffy for its own good, docu offers insight into an authentic rebel like Williams, who advocated violent self-defense against white Southern racists, while rushing through several interesting episodes that could have made for a much fuller history. Pic is already marching down the fest road, but is too brief for theatrical play, yet too long in present form for public TV.
If, as more and more scientists argue, geniuses are made and not born, then Williams’ story indicates it’s also true for revolutionaries. Merely growing up in Monroe, N.C. during the Jim Crow era meant Williams would see black women being dragged down the street by cops, and that his grandmother would give him a musket, as a family member recalls, “as a token of his family’s resistance to oppression.”
The many talking heads brought together by filmmakers Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts (including kin like brother John and wife Mabel) are never able to pinpoint what made Williams the No. 1 thorn in the side of the local Klan and powerful whites. He presses for desegregated public pools and organizes “The Black Guard” — a well-armed unit meant to match force with force. The white response — “What is this country coming to with Negroes with guns?” — was later turned by Williams into the title of a book.
Indeed, an interesting dimension to Williams’ efforts was his media savvy, including a fiery newsletter called the Crusader, which allowed him to take local outrages — such as the arrest and conviction of black boys for kissing white girls — to the international press.
Biographer Tim Tyson is the best of pic’s talking heads, offering some analysis behind Williams’ methods, including a hesitant willingness to go along with his more non-violent allies to see how far protest would be tolerated. Incidents with Freedom Riders in 1961 eventually forced Williams and his wife to flee the U.S.
Living in Cuba and China in the ’60s, the couple broadcast their show, “Radio Free Dixie,” over shortwave around the world. Despite fascinating archival footage of Williams in Havana and with Mao, this incredible twist is described almost as a postscript.
And although Williams obviously inspired the Black Panthers, and may rightly be seen as their founding father, “Negroes With Guns” doesn’t begin to make the connections.
Format is very much mainstream public television in tone and structure, lending a proper and fairly dull face to what is after all the tale of a rebel. Archived material is impressively immense and wide-ranging, and Terence Blanchard’s score is less insistent and wall-to-wall than his work for Spike Lee.