Bright Lights Film Journal

Recovering <em>The New-Ark:</em> Amiri Baraka’s Lost Chronicle of Black Power in Newark, 1968

Baraka would renounce his “slave name” of LeRoi Jones shortly after completing The New-Ark.

In 1968, famed Black Power poet, playwright, and filmmaker Amiri Baraka, who died on January 9, 2014 at the age of 79, made a documentary in and around Spirit House, a center of 1960s Black Nationalism in Newark, New Jersey. Long believed lost, a copy of The New-Ark donated by the film’s cinematographer, James Hinton, was discovered in the Harvard Film Archive. Whitney Strub discusses the film, its historical context, and its importance.

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The Black Power movement has been defined cinematically by the iconography of black-and-white grain of groups like Newsreel, and in national memory through the lens of a white-dominated media awash in reductive and violent imagery. The city of Newark, meanwhile, is held prisoner to the memory of 1967, when the riots devastated the city and also its African American citizens, who suffered the overwhelming majority of the (state-inflicted) violence during the upheaval. For providing a valuable corrective to all of these frameworks, Amiri Baraka’s The New-Ark (1968) deserves attention — yet it’s been largely unseen and unseeable for the past three decades. Only one known print exists, at Harvard Film Archive, whose new restoration will premiere, fittingly enough, in Baraka’s hometown, at Rutgers-Newark on April 22.

The style of cultural nationalism, 1968

In The New-Ark, Baraka depicts Black Power activism and organizing in a city devastated not just by media-sensationalized riots, but by decades of chronic racial injustice, sutured into the very textures and structures of everyday life, from casual police violence to community-destroying redevelopment policies to the white flight and disinvestment that were already well underway by 1967. Born in Newark in 1934, and recently returned after achieving fame as a Greenwich Village playwright followed by a tumultuous stint in Harlem, Baraka himself had been personally affected by the riots, having been severely beaten by Newark police and then arrested and convicted on gun charges during them. Yet with the same clarity of vision he had earlier shown in his plays and poetry, he recognized the opportunities for regrouping and asserting, at last, Black political power in a city whose recent demographic conversion to African American majority had been but barely reflected in city governance, still dominated by corrupt, racist white ethnic machine politics.

Radical triple-feature: The New-Ark screens with Dutchman(adapted from Baraka’s play) and The Battle of Algiers at Baraka’s Spirit House, early 1969 (from Black News, Newark’s black newspaper).

The New-Ark was thus an unabashed Black Power propaganda piece, albeit one made at the behest of the system itself. Baraka had made one earlier film, Black Spring, while briefly teaching in California in 1967; lost today, it documented the Black Arts scene in and around San Francisco. The New-Ark seemingly fell into his lap. He was commissioned to make a short documentary by the adventurous Public Broadcast Laboratory of National Public Television, which was also pursuing avant-garde filmmakers like Jonas Mekas at the same time. Baraka had recently written a long essay, “Newark Before Black Men Conquered” (collected in Raise, Race, Rays, Raze, a book of his essays), which began with the proposition, “Black People in Newark are strong. They only need to KNOW IT. And ACT on it!” Here was a chance to embody this thesis on film.

With cinematographer James Hinton providing the technical know-how, Baraka set out to document Black Power in Newark. New political groups like Committee for a Unified Newark and United Brothers loomed large, as did the community base of Baraka’s own Spirit House, with its famous “ORGANIZE” banner visible in the film. By 1968, Baraka had become enthralled by Maulana Karenga’s Afrocentric cultural politics (which would inspire his name-change from LeRoi Jones shortly after the film), and it shows: “All of us, together,” his script reads, “the middleclass brother, the streetbrother, dashikis, bubas, miniskirts, naturals and straightened hair sisters there together” on the Newark streets. This is “Black life,” Baraka’s narration explains, “not Negro life,” which is unequipped for the “white death context” of late-60s America.

Beginning as a lovely Black Arts city-symphony of Newark streets, buildings, and people, set to wordless chanting, The New-Ark quickly arrives at its political imperative: Black Power must be accomplished through nationalism, and “a nation is organization.” So we see canvassing, the passing of leaflets, shaking of hands, political sound-trucks — all the stuff of traditional politics, yet done here by and among proud Black Newarkers. As well, agitprop theater on an open stage in downtown Newark, radical Black pedagogy to Newark youth at Spirit House, and studious kempo self-defense lessons convey the heady sense of cultural nationalism.

Maulana Karenga of US speaks; Amiri Baraka canvasses for the Committee for a Unified Newark ticket.

This departs, in style and substance, from much of contemporaneous Black Panther rhetoric and praxis; Baraka’s vision of revolutionary change here is to be enacted through electoral democratic means. In place of Panther Marxism (which he rejected at the time), Baraka offers poetry for narration; in place of titles like Off the Pig and Mayday, he offers his New Ark for the New Black Man; and in place of Newsreel’s starchy mise-en-scene, he suffuses The New-Ark with warm, vibrant color. Part of this distinction stemmed from internecine Black Power conflict — even the FBI’s jackbooted COINTELPRO goons had to conclude there wasn’t much Panther presence in Newark, due in part to Karenga, whose US organization was in tension with them — but much of it is Baraka’s aesthetic politics, emphasizing rebirth in his hard-hit but resilient city. James Baldwin had warned of The Fire Next Time, but that moment had come, burned through in 1967, and Black Newark was still here.

In contrast to many self-fashioned messianic leaders of the era, Baraka resists making The New-Ark an auto-hagiography, instead emphasizing the collective labor of community activism; it’s not as sexy as, say, occupying Columbia, but it reflects a tangible awareness of how urban politics works.

It took a few tries, though. The Committee for a Unified Newark slate lost in 1968. Baraka doesn’t belabor the point, appearing onscreen to insist without regret this was just a test run — and, as Komozi Woodard chronicles in the book A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) & Black Power Politics, he was right: Black Power in Newark regrouped; stronger Black and Puerto Rican alliances were forged; Baraka tactically faded into the background to avoid media sensationalism and smears, and in 1970 Newark elected Kenneth Gibson, its first Black mayor (and first Black mayor of a major east-coast city). The New-Ark, having served its galvanizing purpose, disappeared. It played on television in late 1968, a film festival in Italy the next year, and remained available for rental into the 1970s, but no one seems to have bothered to preserve a copy (Harvard’s is in the archival collection of cinematographer Hinton).

Agitprop street theater in downtown Newark

The new Black urban politics did not bring salvation, as witnessed in Gary, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Newark, and elsewhere. It did generate some impressive and important film work, from William Greaves’ Nationtime, Gary (documenting the First National Black Political Convention in 1972 and featuring Baraka, a central organizer) to the L.A. Rebellion school spearheaded by Charles Burnett and associates at UCLA. For decades, none of this work has been easy to see, stranded in the shadows of blaxploitation in the memory of Black film of the 1970s (though UCLA has been doing astonishing work bringing local Los Angeles Black filmmaking back into circulation these past few years).1

Is The New-Ark equal to Killer of Sheep? By no means. It’s a ragged, unpolished film, which ends abruptly with an unfinished feeling. Yet nobody else was documenting this critical moment in Newark, and American, history on film. The dominant national narrative of Newark is best encapsulated in the novels of Philip Roth, a story of decay and decline in which white people occupy the center, until they leave, at which point there is no center. Amiri Baraka points his camera at the people Roth — and the United States — largely ignored, and captures the excitement and opportunity of Newark’s bold but pragmatic Black Power politics.

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The New-Ark screens at Rutgers University-Newark, Tuesday, April 22, at 6pm in the Paul Robeson Center, free and open to the public. For more information, go here. Filmstrips used to illustrate this article are courtesy of James Hinton Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University.

  1. Associate director of The New-Ark Larry Neal, another major figure in the Black Arts Movement, also directed several now-unavailable films in Harlem, as recently recounted by Lars Lierow in “The ‘Black Man’s Vision of the World”: Rediscovering Black Arts Filmmaking and the Struggle for a Black Cinematic Aesthetic,” Black Camera, 2013. []