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Saturday, January 22, 2022

“Why are we Americans?” Overview: The family that has become synonymous with Newark

Historical accounts of revolutionary icons are often rife with hero myths that exalt individuals at the expense of the community that shaped them. In the documentary “Why are we Americans?” about the influence of poet and radical Amiri Barak and his descendants on the city of Newark, directors Udi Aloni and Ayana Stafford-Morris take a different approach. In this concise account of the several generations of artists and activists that make up the Baraka clan, the patriarch, who died in 2014, is the only (albeit central) node. It’s a story that spans past and present, art and politics, family and country – and the film, with its haphazard montage, struggles to fit it all in.

In the first minutes of the film, archival footage of Amiri Baraki’s rousing speech at the 1972 Black National Political Convention in Gary, Indiana: “What time is it? It’s time for the nation!” — gives way to scenes of his son Rus’ campaign for mayor of Newark, the position he currently holds. From Ras, we move on to other children, including Amiri Jr., a political strategist who was active in student protests at Howard University, and Shani, the daughter whose murder led to the creation of a women’s resource center in her name. Amiri’s wife, Amina, becomes the film’s most captivating figure, sharing touching anecdotes and sharp feminist critiques of the Black Power movement.

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But the film’s unfocused editing often raises more questions than the film can answer. Amiri Baraka’s first wife, the poet Hetty Jones, is mentioned only in passing, and some other important topics, such as Baraka’s attitude towards the sexual orientation of his sister and lesbian daughter, are touched too superficially. These caveats seem even more vexing given that Lauryn Hill, the film’s executive producer, devotes a fair amount of time to offering broad, mostly groundless cultural commentary throughout the film.

Why are we Americans?
Not rated. Duration: 1 hour 41 minutes. In theaters.

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