The documentary Why Is We Americans? bursts with ambition, much like the dynamic New Jersey family at its core.
Taking its title from one of its patriarch’s poems, the film introduces a younger generation to 1960s Black Arts poet, playwright, and civil rights activist Amiri Baraka, who spent much of his life in Newark, New Jersey. It also loosely connects the influence of the late Baraka and his wife, poet and writer Amina Baraka, on their children, particularly son Ras J. Baraka, who has been Newark’s mayor since 2014.
Co-directed by Udi Aloni (Junction 48) and Ayana Stafford-Morris, who previously helmed Ras Baraka’s 2020 spoken word video Ras Baraka: What We Want, Why Is We Americans? blends archive footage with present-day spoken word performances and interviews about the Barakas and the City of Newark. Amiri Baraka “embodied this self-love” that extended to the black community at large, notes Grammy-winning artist Lauryn Hill, an executive producer of the film and native of nearby South Orange, New Jersey.
Hip-hop pioneer Roxanne Shanté (“Roxanne’s Revenge”), who campaigned for Ras Baraka, recalls how the Barakas fed anyone who knocked on their door and have a deep love for the city, much like she does. “We want to leave home but we also want to come back and fix it,” she says.
The film skims over Amiri Baraka’s childhood, his many accolades (including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters), and controversies around his writings. It also doesn’t dive into the mayoral achievements of Ras Baraka, who launched Newark’s first police civilian complaint review board and unified the city’s police and fire departments.
Instead, it focuses on Amiri Baraka’s activism and grass-roots political campaigning, the family’s loss of daughter Shani Baraka to domestic violence, and the anecdotes of Amina Baraka. A firebrand in archive footage, Amina Baraka sprinkles recollections throughout the film that are amusing (such as buying a piano for houseguest and singer Nina Simone from the Village Voice classifieds) and poignant. She also sings and recites her own poetry.
“I grew up in a web of colored people … who created Gospel and the blues,” she says. Her family, including granddaughter Amandla Baraka, Ras Baraka’s daughter, clearly adores her, and the film does too.
The film links Amiri Baraka’s local organizing to the city’s racial uprisings of 1967 and 1968. Larry Hamm, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, notes, “We don’t call them riots; we call them rebellion.” The racial clashes made the cover of Life magazine and resulted in martial law, with army trucks and a tank in the streets.
The film relates how, unable to reach her husband, whom the police had arrested and beaten, Amina Baraka called their friend, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, for help. Ginsberg phoned French philosopher and activist Jean-Paul Sartre, who called the Newark police on Baraka’s behalf from France.
With a bandage on his forehead in archive footage, Amiri Baraka blasted the city government for its inability to feel the people’s plight. He helped mobilize voters, leading to more black political leadership in Newark, including Kenneth Gibson being elected the city’s first black mayor in 1970.
Newark today is not the city it was back then, Ras Baraka notes, but nobody of color in City Hall would be here without the struggles of those years. “Whether they understand that or not is something totally different.”
An official selection of the 2021 American Black Film Festival, Why Is We Americans? packs a lot into 102 minutes, feeling both overstuffed and rushed given its taste of the Baraka family’s rich and wide-ranging history. Yet it also brims with black pride and passion for driving social change through the arts.