The selling of George Jackson

by Kate Ellis

from Jump Cut, no. 17, April 1978, pp. 1, 8-9
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

George Jackson might have been just another victim of institutional racism had not one of the largest paperback publishers in the country brought out his letters in 1970, at the height of the anti-war movement. His own account of the transformation of a gun-happy adolescent into a committed revolutionary made Jackson a culture hero for many blacks and much of the white left. BROTHERS, which purports to bring this hero onto the larger-than-life screen, raises important questions about the viability of using the vast resources of the bourgeois film industry for transmitting ideas that are specifically subversive to the class that controls that industry. Angela Davis, whose relationship to Jackson constitutes the "romantic interest" in the film, has defended it as "a mass cultural phenomenon, about how to sensitize people about the need to get involved with a movement." [1]

Presumably Edward and Mildred Lewis, who wrote and produced this film, share this assessment with her. But given the built-in pressures created by the enormous production costs of Hollywood films, the likelihood of cooptation is clearly much greater in the film industry than in the publishing business. BROTHERS serves as a good illustration of this point inasmuch as the Lewises, in making their film, have chosen to sacrifice most of Jackson's politics in order to sell the part they felt to have the widest appeal, which may in fact be the part with which they themselves felt able. How this dilution is realized on the screen is the subject of this review

The Lewises have used the conventions of two different kinds of films in order to attract two very different audiences. First, there is the blaxploitation film, one of the legacies of a militant movement for which Jackson spoke. Insofar as these films portray black men and women confronting the white power structure and winning, they project positive images of black people. At the same time, by reducing racism to a simple black/good-white/bad dichotomy, these positive images work to mask the nature of racism under capitalism. The Lewises seem also to have pitched their film at white liberals, whose sense of outrage did much to fuel the Civil Rights and antiwar movements. But though outrage can lead to an understanding of the necessity for class struggle, it can also lead to a politics that seeks social change by making those presently in power feel guilty. Neither black pride nor moral outrage is inherently pro-capitalist, but when put together in the way the Lewises have done it, that is the message that comes across.

To achieve this end, Jackson's life before he went to prison had to be completely eliminated from the screen. David Thomas, the George Jackson character, is an adult in the film, whereas in actuality Jackson was eighteen when he received his one-year-to-life sentence. Thus the pastoral opening shots, in which an adult David is shooting rabbits with his younger brother and a friend, serve to dissociate the film's hero from any taint of juvenile delinquency. In Soledad Brother Jackson mentions that he spent summers during his grade school years with his grandparents in rural Illinois, and did enjoy shooting rabbits then. But he makes it quite clear that these innocent pursuits were a thing of the past by the time he began serving time in jail. Since the blaxploitation hero is generally a conscious product of the inner city, this alteration of biographical fact would seem to be aimed at heightening the outrage of the liberal audience while letting it keep its comfortable distance from a law-and-order stand on crime in the streets.

The scenes that follow, depicting the circumstances that lead up to the hero's incarceration, continue this whitewashing of Jackson's past. In actuality there was no question about his having robbed a gas station. In the film David and his friend pull into a gas station and we watch the friend rob the attendant behind a distant plate glass window, followed by David's dismayed response to the stolen money. In the next shot the friend has disappeared and David is in a courtroom with his entire family, who insist that he has never run afoul of the law. An aging white hack lawyer persuades all of them that David should cop a plea, that is, accept a light sentence instead of going to trial, and off he goes to jail. We never see the friend again.

Given white feelings around the subject of juvenile delinquency, a penal system that dealt in this way with an adolescent with the kind of record Jackson had amassed by the time of his final arrest would be too ambiguous to generate the level of outrage the Lewises must have felt they needed to make their point. So instead they show us the incarceration of a man who was an innocent bystander at a robbery, a man who has reached his late twenties without being touched by the strong arm of the law. His only "fault," then, would seem to be that he is black. Such racism is so blatant that it can arouse rage without pointing beyond itself to the rest of society. To intensify this racism the Lewises keep the rest of society out of the movie. Thus there is no mention in the script of those aspects of life outside the prison by which "Blackmen born in the U.S. and fortunate enough to live past the age of eighteen are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison." [2] Liberal benevolence will not change these conditions, whereas it can (and does by the end of the movie) end an isolated case of racism that is divorced from its context and presented to us in this film.

The prison itself and the portrayal of the prisoners in it are examples of how the Lewises distort reality in order to appeal to a black audience. Rather than using a California jail, where prisoners would be overwhelmingly black and chicano, the Lewises chose the North Dakota State Penitentiary, where there are normally very few black prisoners. This also explains why the white prisoners all look like refugees from DELIVERANCE. The blacks, outnumbered by the white prisoners two to one, are mostly actors, whereas the white majority are mostly actual prisoners, and they have clearly not been selected for their charm in front of a camera. Thus when David decides to sit in the front section of the prison auditorium, and thus do for jails what Rosa Parks did for busses, the ensuing melee is clearly a matter of a small band of "good guys" overwhelmed by a bunch of neanderthals.

By setting up this clear dichotomy, the film does engage, for different reasons, the sympathies of both audiences. But in the process of doing so, it suggests that white prisoners are antisocial bastards who deserve the dehumanization, lack of privacy, and inedible food that prison life entails, and that only the black prisoners are victims of social injustice and racism. THE LONGEST YARD, a less politically ambitious film made for a mass audience, gives a much clearer sense of who the real enemy is as the black and white prisoners overcome their antagonisms in order to go after the guards, who are in turn being used by a sadistic warden.

A further source of social ambiguity is removed in BROTHERS by having no black guards. This falls in with the blaxplotation formula of ascribing all evil to white people. The one exception to this is an official high up in the California prison bureaucracy, perhaps the same man who is absent because he is attending a penology conference in Atlanta when a black senator shows up with Professor Paula Jones (the Angela Davis character) to check out the prison. In any case, we later see an official criticizing the warden McGee for trying to frame David Thomas and two other black prisoners in connection with the murder of a guard. We know that McGee is angry at the black prisoners for humiliating him during the black senator's visit, and that whether or not he set up the fight in the recreation area (integrated as a result of the senator's visit), he was the one who shot the black prisoner whose death caused the far more serious riot in which the guard in question was killed. The fact that Thomas was posthumously cleared of all charges stemming from that incident (this information is given at the end of the movie) seems to suggest that Warden McGee was wrong, and will be "taken care of" by some enlightened liberals higher up on the penalogical totem pole. Thus the politics that distinguishes BROTHERS from its blaxploitation predecessors has little to do with "the need to get involved with a movement" that will bring about fundamental changes in our class-stratified social order. Rather it is enlightened paternalism, liberal or revisionist, that will end the ills of the good-hearted black man.

I suspect that the ideology of the filmmakers is in part behind this. At the same time, the Lewises did have certain facts to deal with. George Jackson was cleared of the charges against him, and Angela Davis, too, won her case in court. Moreover BROTHERS does come down very hard on the abuses of the American prison system. A strong case is made against the policy of indeterminate sentencing that can put a person away for one year to life. We see guards brutally pulling prisoners out of their cells, making them strip, and then throwing them against the wall to be searched. We see two prisoners besides Thomas needlessly and sadistically killed. We can pick up, too, the fear of these guards, the sense that they are paunchier and dumber than the prisoners at whom they regularly scream and occasionally shoot. We see warden McGee telling his superior that he, McGee, has again failed the exam that would allow him to move up to the next rung of the prison bureaucracy. And we see him taking his frustration out on the guards who are his hatchetmen, reminding them with pleasure that they are not very bright (if they were as bright as he, they would be where he is) and threatening to fire them if they don't bring him the men who are circulating a one-page underground paper among the inmates.

The trouble is that McGee himself is nobody's hatchetman, just one sadistic guy who should not have risen as high as he did. The black prisoners expose him as a rotten father by staging a demonstration when the important senator comes to look at his prison. Furthermore the extent to which the racial antagonism in the prison is his creation is purposely left unclear. But how is this antagonism resolved at the end of the movie? Not by the discovery of a common enemy, as in THE LONGEST YARD, but rather by a sudden conversion on the part of the white prisoners following David Thomas's death, a realization that this member of the race they despised had indeed died for their sins. Therefore, in the second to last scene, the black prisoners are marching into the dining room, usually an occasion for the whites to trip them or comment on their animality. But this time they fall in alternately with the black prisoners and thus end the segregation in the dining room, born again through a messianic sacrifice.

The presentation of David's death prepares the way for this messianic, "born again" conclusion. The warden sets David up. Davis is taken by guards to the laundry room where several other prisoners have been brought. One white prisoner has a gun. That prisoner says he's going to escape and wants the others to join him. Guards watch all this on monitors. David realizes what is happening, grabs the gun, and goes out into the yard to face the warden alone. In classical Western style the two men face off in the yard. David kills the warden and is in turn killed by tower guards. In slow motion he spins around several times and falls.

Man against man; self sacrifice for buddies; heroic death — these things have all been part of revolutionary struggle, but experiencing them vicariously doesn't explain why we need to join a movement, or what we need to struggle against. This sequence only perpetuates the idea of the lone (male) hero making the world safe for the rest of us with his gun.

It is the final shot, however, toward which this whole series of co-optations has been working. Over shots of the now dead David is superimposed an image of Paula Jones lying in her cell, where she has been since the courtroom shootout, two tears rolling down her cheeks and the romantic theme we have heard whenever she and David came together surging in the background. The music, incidentally, is not a Muzak version of "There's a Place For Us" but something more amorphously syrupy by Tai Mahal, a musician I usually admire. Nevertheless the here the relationship between George Jackson and Angela Davis has been so emptied of political content that scenes from WEST SIDE STORY look strong by comparison. This representation is particularly distressing if one goes back to Soledad Brother. For instance, in one of his letters to Davis, Jackson says this about women:

"In our last communication I made a statement about women, and their part in revolutionary culture (people's war). It wasn't a clear statement. I meant to return to it but I was diverted. I understand exactly what the woman's role should be. The very same as the man's. Intellectually there is very little difference between male and female. The differences we see in bourgeois society are all conditioned and artificial." [3]

Since many male leaders of the revolutionary black movement went on record as saying something very different about the role of women in revolutionary culture, it is doubly unfortunate that the relationship between these two people should have been made into the lowest common denominator upon which the film's two audiences are meant to converge. For not only is the relationship falsified, it is used to obscure the politics which, in real life, created its center.

Some time after David Thomas meets Paula Jones he starts wearing gold-rimmed glasses, an indication that he is now an intellectual. But no such claim is made for her, or at least no substance is given to it. Davis herself has noted that, while the film mentions her firing, it does not mention the fact that she was fired for being a communist. We see her at a rally urging students to support the three Mendocino (Soledad) Brothers, but she doesn't really say anything that a woman who loved her man would not say, either there or in her apartment or in the cell where she and David meet.

All the letters in Soledad Brother are love letters, though not in the way the movie interprets those words. What makes them revolutionary letters, for me, is that I can't imagine anyone reading them without coming to the conclusions that we could all be like this and are not: loving to parents, brothers, sisters, lovers, co-workers; sharing with them a struggle against the forces that profit from our isolation from one another, and therefore have a vested interest in keeping us hoping for salvation and fulfillment through the miracle of a "great love."

The problem of conveying this sort of content is one that political artists in every medium come up against. For only to the extent that an audience is itself engaged in such struggles will the struggles' depiction on the screen have wide popular appeal. This was Mao's point in his lectures at the Yenan Forum, and no left theorist has come up, in my view, with a more accurate formulation of the relationship between culture and mass consciousness. What is disappointing about BROTHERS is the extent to which the relationship between Jackson and Davis was made into the apotheosis of individualist heterosexuality in order to sell the film.

I am not suggesting, though, that any attempt to use Warner Brothers, NBC, or any other branch of the bourgeois media, is automatically doomed to fail. As I have said, I found more progressive politics in THE LONGEST YARD than in BROTHERS. Much of this is due, I think, to the heavy dose of liberal guilt that the Lewises were trying to arouse, in comparison with its almost complete absence in THE LONGEST YARD. We were asked to believe by the Lewises that David Thomas was the embodiment of virtue, a truly Christ-like figure. The Burt Reynolds character, on the other hand, was just a regular old quarterback who fixed one too many games.

If the Lewises did not entirely succeed in using the vast resources of Warner Brothers "to sensitize people about the need to get involved with a movement," I think its shortcomings should be understood in terms of what it attempted to do: to appeal to two very different audiences, two groups which might possibly be open to an awareness of the need to be part of a movement. Yet the real interests of these two projected audiences are not as close as liberal rhetoric would like us to believe. Thus one can only unite these two groups by ignoring large segments of social reality that neither group is willing, at this point, to discuss in the presence of the other. In particular, it means leaving out the realm of the street, where blacks and whites are both victims and no one is really a hero. Commercial success in the film industry these days seems to involve exploiting white people's fears of street violence in one set of films, while black people's assaults on the white world are made super-cool in another set of films. The next step beyond BROTHERS would be to recognize the valid aspirations of both these groups, to record the role of racism in the lives of people who are neither demonic nor super-cool.


1. Angela Davis, quoted in Seven Days, 1:8 (May 23, 1977), p.35.

2. George Jackson, Soledad Brother, revised edition (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), p. 9.

3. Soledad Brother, p. 226.