My longtime friend and colleague Rene Lichtman has asked me to comment
on Finally Got the News, and I do so with great pleasure.
Writing in Cineaste (probably volume V, no 4), Dan Georgakas noted
that "Finally Got the News has become a classic before its time."
Subsequent years have only confirmed his point. The film is a classic
in at least three ways.
First, it is a classic because of its subject matter, the League
of Revolutionary Black Workers, which, like the Black Panthers, exemplified
the heyday of African American revolutionary activism in the late-1960s.
Because the League largely confined its political activity to Detroit,
it never received the attention that the Panthers did. But its effect
on Detroit, indeed the entire auto industry, was immense. I can testify
to these effects from my own experience. One of the League's main
aims was to address the racism of the union that represented autoworkers,
the U.A.W., which officially stood for United Autoworkers, but which
the League, with characteristic incisiveness, said stood for U. Aint
White. At the time the League arose in numerous Detroit auto plants
in the late 1960s, the vast majority of UAW officials were white even
though blacks constituted an increasingly large number of the plants'
assembly line workers. By the time I was a union steward in a large
Detroit assembly plant in 1972, the situation had changed dramatically.
Of the ten stewards who represented assembly line workers, I was the
only one who was white. So rapid an opening up of the union hierarchy
as well as of the ranks of management to African Americans would simply
not have happened in the absence of the League.
But the League was concerned with more than eliminating the racism
that permeated so many aspects of Detroit's industrial and civic life.
Like the Panthers, the League viewed itself as a revolutionary organization
and contributed to a late-1960s political climate in which, to paraphrase
Bob Dylan, revolution was in the air. However, unlike the Panthers
who frequently stressed the revolutionary potential of the "brothers
on the block," the League emphasized the potential power of the working
class. Among the smorgasbord of revolutionary, would-be revolutionary,
and/or self-proclaimed revolutionary organizations that dotted the
political landscape in the late-1960s, none, as far as I can tell,
had the kind of roots among blue-collar workers that the League had.
That the League failed to achieve its revolutionary goals is no more
reason for minimizing its experience than than there is reason to
minimize the experience of the Panthers, who, of course, also failed
to achieve their goals.
The film is also a classic because of what it says about the filmmakers
themselves. As well as any film made during that time, the film reflects
the world view--warts and all-- of those who aspired to be revolutionaries:
how they thought about capitalism, racism, and imperialism; and the
way they tried to weave that world view into the choice of people
who they interviewed, the issues they covered, and the footage they
shot. I say "warts and all" because some of the downsides of this
world view are also evident from the film. Most notable, perhaps,
is the footage dealing with black women that appears virtually as
an afterthought, an indication of the tardiness (to put it mildly)
of much of the late-1960s (male-dominated) revolutionary left in understanding
how the struggle against patriarchy and sexism was an integral part
of the struggle against all that plagued, and continues to plague,
Finally, the film is a classic cinematographically. Perhaps, I should
be a bit cautious and say it's probably a classic cinematographically
because unlike politics and history about which I can claim some professional
expertise, I am an amateur when it comes to matters of art, film,
and cinematography. But I can tell you this. As someone who has been
inside dozens of factories either as employee or visitor and who has
watched many films dealing with working class life, I know of no movie
that even comes close to portraying work on an assembly line as effectively
as Finally Got the News does. The roll of the assembly line in the
body-in-white department (where pieces of sheet metal get welded together
to make the car's body), the ubiquitous sparks from the welding guns,
and the economy of movement of one of the men maneuvering his gun
are simultaneously realistic, poetic, and lyrical. I frequently show
Finally Got the News to my students. The film typically triggers a
wide-ranging and fruitful discussion. Needless to say, reactions to
the film's and League's politics vary greatly. But I can't ever remember
a student saying that s/he didn't learn a lot from the movie about
work--both its dignified and exploitive aspects-- in a 1960s automobile
I will stop here. A copy of Georgakas's review is attached as a
.pdf file. You can read more about the League in Georgakas and Surkin's
book Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, which was reprinted by South End Press
in 1998. The cover of the book features a photo taken from Finally
Got the News.
Please feel free to contact me if I can be of any additional assistance.
With best wishes,
Stephen Samuel Smith
Professor, Department of Political Science
Co-chair, African American Studies Committee
Rock Hill, SC 29733