Southern Exposure | Robert Machover

In the fall of 1969 New York Newsreel received a desperate plea for help from the fledgling Atlanta Newsreel. Atlanta was seriously understaffed, with just four members. They wanted New York to send them as many people as we could spare. I found out about this call for help during the first Newsreel meeting I attended following my return from an ill-fated four month filming project in Cuba (described in Revolution 2). Finding someone who could be sent to Atlanta was a major item on the agenda. My name was mentioned and I began to panic. “Of course,” people said, “he’s a perfect fit.” They talked about how good I was at leading discussions with audiences. Better yet, I was one of the few people in Newsreel who had much in the way of filmmaking skills. Above all, since I had just returned from Cuba and wasn’t involved in any specific project and had nothing better to do with my time, I was “available for assignment”.

New York Newsreel was not a group that operated under any sort of command structure. There was no central committee to issue orders to the peasants and workers. We were part of the new left and we prided ourselves on our non-sectarian credentials. All participation was voluntary. No one could ever be forced to do anything. So I didn’t have to go to Atlanta if I didn’t want to. I could just say no. No? Well, not quite. First off, despite all the babble about free will, I’d have to deal with the inevitable social pressure, no matter how subtly expressed. Then there was the small matter of my own conscience and the concept of revolutionary duty. Wouldn’t it feel good to do something heroic for the cause? And wouldn’t it be especially righteous if I were to do something I wasn’t naturally drawn to. What’s a revolution without sacrifice? Finally, there were other more practical reasons. Ever since Babeuf taunted me by inviting my crazy painter-landlord to observe one of Newsreel’s marathon meetings in my loft, I had been under pressure to leave. The landlord had even used the word “eviction”, something he could get away with easily, since I had no lease or contract. The sooner I left the better, as far as he was concerned. Anyway, it was true, I was at loose ends, looking for something to do. I felt my life in general was at a standstill. So why not go to Atlanta? If things didn’t work out, I could always blame it on Newsreel’s (non-existent) Central Committee for giving me the assignment!

I would be traveling lightly – one large duffle bag stuffed into the trunk of my bright red convertible Triumph. I’d inherited the car from my father, who had a penchant for convertibles, the showier the better. I kind of liked convertibles, too, but I would have been happy to have traded this one for a dull sedan that worked. Like many British cars, the Triumph was a mechanical disaster. In addition to suffering endless electrical problems, some leaves had gotten into the gas tank shortly before I left for Atlanta. Said leaves, or pieces of leaves, had migrated through the system and ended up in the carburetor, where, despite numerous attempts to deal with it, a tiny leaf remnant or remnants remained to torment me. The car ran perfectly up to forty-two miles-per-hour. Anything faster than that would cause it to cough, sputter and stall. Try driving on major Interstate highways at forty-two miles per hour or less and be passed by the whole world. I didn’t enjoy being endlessly humiliated. True, I’ve always liked driving on back roads. Going past farms and through the multitude of small towns and cities and seeing all the different houses gives me a window into people’s lives – or at least I can imagine it does. I would have had a great time on the trip if it wasn’t for the stupid car and if I wasn’t so worried that I might have made a big mistake leaving New York in the first place. It took me a full two and a half days to get to Atlanta.

By the time I arrived, the four Newsreel members had become two. I have no idea what happened to the others. They may have been real once or they could have been total inventions, useful for making Atlanta seem more like a going concern and therefore more attractive to New York. As it was, Atlanta Newsreel consisted of Jack and Susan, a young couple, native southerners, just out of college, who had gotten into politics via the Socialist Workers Party.1 They said they left the SWP because they wanted to broaden their horizons and learn about making films. It didn’t seem to me that Atlanta Newsreel would ever get the opportunity to make a movie. But I thought it could be an improvement on the SWP. Jack wasn’t very bright. His thinking lacked depth, his political understanding stuck within the limited range of SWP catechisms. He was an unlikely leftist, more into cracking bad jokes and playful horsing around than discussing politics. He liked to go through the house shooting jump shots with an imaginary basketball. I don’t think he ever wore underwear. I know this because his jeans were always slipping down, exposing the crack in his ass. Susan was smarter, thoughtful, always eager to learn. She took life seriously. 1969 was the year when feminism’s influence on the movement took off and Susan became an avid supporter. She felt especially put out by the fact that she was the only woman in Atlanta Newsreel. It didn’t help that both Jack and I had loud voices and authoritative-sounding styles. Making matters worse, Jack and Susan frequently fought. When it got really bad they’d stop talking to each other, sometimes for days at a time. I always thought their relationship couldn’t survive but it did – at least for the nine months I knew them. They were like squabbling siblings rather than lovers. Perhaps they had known each other for many years, even back to grade school. They displayed that sort of long-term intimacy. That may have been why they lasted as long as they did.

The three of us lived together in a nondescript house in a nondescript, mostly white working class neighborhood on the north side of Atlanta. When I arrived, I was given a choice of bedrooms. I could either take the small, standard-issue room across the hall from Jack and Susan with a real bed or I could set up shop with a mattress on the floor in the attic. I didn’t hesitate. Even though the low ceiling made it impossible to stand up, I chose the latter. Not merely for the greater privacy. It was the one room in the house that didn’t remind me of a moldy old hotel room and I found the bare, wooden, rustic feel of the attic suitable, if not attractive.

I arrived in the city during a period of major transformations. Following the “successes” of the civil rights movement, Atlanta was re-defining itself as the center of “The New South”. Downtown was the scene of massive construction projects, with new high-rise office buildings going up at a remarkable rate.2 It was to be a totally modern south, no longer defined by backwoods provincialism and Jim Crow laws. Economic opportunities were to be equally available to both blacks and whites. Base for Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and boasting several major African-American institutions of higher learning such as Clark, Morehouse and Spelman, Atlanta was an attractive home for the nations’ expanding black middle-class. This was just fine with the powers that be. A prosperous African-American community was not only a boon to the city’s economy, it also improved its national image. Here was a place that had successfully emerged from its racist past – a truly New South.

It wasn’t only the African-American middle class that came to Atlanta during the late sixties. In the summer of 1968, the summer of love, there were lots of young people who had no easy way to travel all the way across the country to the center of the action in San Francisco. Atlanta, as the home of The New South, with all that implied about liberal social attitudes, was a logical substitute. The city acquired a reputation as a second Haight-Ashbury. It even had its own first-class, home-grown rock band, The Allman Brothers. Proud to be part of the nationwide movement of hippies, kids came from all over the south. They were all kinds of kids, from all classes, all eager to escape their parents and schools, let their hair grow, burn bras and draft cards and tune in, turn on and drop out. It was relatively benign at first. Peace, love and flowers, fueled by grass and psychedelics. It wasn’t to last. By the time of my arrival, in the fall of 1969, slightly over a year after the summer of love, the scene was well on its way to turning sour. An epidemic of hard drugs, predominantly heroin and speed, was spreading in the hippie community. Inevitably, the hard drugs brought violence and crime. Rapes, muggings, rip-offs, turf wars, murders. Hell’s Angels and other motorcycle gangs came out of the woodwork – presumably to keep the peace but more likely to take control of drug distribution. It was no longer safe to walk through certain neighborhoods, even during the day. The dream of “flower-power” was becoming a quaint relic.

Most of time, Atlanta Newsreel didn’t do much. Every now and then we would have a screening of some Newsreel films at a nearby college or for one the local political groups. And we would have meetings with each other to discuss the state of the world, our political beliefs and how we could make better use of our time. But that still left lots of free time. Much of which I spent wandering through various neighborhoods, like a tourist, watching the life of the city. Along with my fellow tourists, a favorite activity was ogling the hippies – from those innocent-seeming ones who hadn’t yet succumbed, to those whose minds and bodies had been ravaged by alcohol, speed and heroin. I had once felt a naïve pang of jealousy for the flower children – if only I could let loose, stop thinking too much, not care about tomorrow and have a go at free love. But then there was too much hard reality around for the envy to last. The despair haunting that community left me with just sadness and pity.

Even more than gaping at hippies, I loved to watch the weekly women’s softball games in Piedmont Park. The quality of play was exceptional. Lacking the strength and power of the men’s game, they made up for it with style and panache. They made use of the full panoply of baseball’s gestures and idiosyncrasies, from tapping cleats before stepping up to the plate to tugging caps to blowing bubbles and spitting. And who said girls couldn’t throw well? No major leaguer ever threw the ball as elegantly and fluidly as the shortstop on the local team. Baseball as ballet. I was also fascinated by the social life surrounding the games. It was clear that these people had nothing in common with the sophisticated urban Atlantans who welcomed the changes (and business opportunities) brought by the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t an accident that there were no blacks on the team. Yet I’d never seen a working-class community in which lesbians mingled so warmly and easily with straight people. Players and players’ families, men and women, gay and straight, everyone knew each other. It was like one big family. Who would have imagined?

Atlanta Newsreel had one persistent problem: We were too small to do very much and our meager efforts to recruit new members locally never came to anything. The only solution we could think of was to ask New York for help. Again. Only this time, we specifically requested a woman, preferably someone able to withstand the reigning masculine argumentative style. A short time later, word came that Lynn P. would be arriving soon. How ironic. A month or so earlier, in New York, Lynn had been the one who had spoken most forcefully about my qualifications for the Atlanta assignment. We were all happy to have Lynn join us. I was especially happy. Within a week she had joined me in my attic hidey-hole and life for me in Atlanta improved immeasurably (our relationship was to last another four years – but of course that’s another subject).

Lynn’s brilliant mind and fresh energy transformed our little group. She had no interest in going to women’s softball games or staring at dissolute hippies. And she wasn’t about to sit around the house doing nothing. So rather than limit our activities to Atlanta alone, we decided to organize trips to areas of the South where people had never seen anything like Newsreel films.

For our first trip, we decided to head North to a couple of schools in Virginia. Organizing the screenings was a simple matter of contacting SDS chapters at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University. It was interesting to visit two such different places. The University of Virginia was privileged and lily white and Virginia Commonwealth was like a community college, working class and mostly black. Those differences had no effect on the success of the screenings. There were large audiences and animated discussions at both.

Going to the universities in Virginia was a safe choice. There were SDS people with us, thrilled as always to have us and our films come and spread the word. We were comfortable and familiar with showing newsreels at both elite schools and community colleges in the north. This was hardly different. But it was a start. We got out the door and on the road. The next trip would be more adventurous. There wouldn’t be any SDS chapters to smooth the way. We were heading into the “Deep South” – Alabama and Mississippi.

All four of us went. We were traveling in Jack’s beat-up oversized Oldsmobile 88, the trunk filled with our 16mm projector and a stash of Newsreel films – about everything from the Columbia University student rebellion to the Black Panthers to fighting the cops on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury to People’s Park in Berkeley and People’s War in Vietnam. Our first stop was in Alabama, at Tuskegee University, an all-Black institution (at least it was then). The response was fantastic again. People were starved for anything that offered an alternative to mainstream views and we were happy to be of service. We left Tuskegee in high spirits. The trip was turning out to be a snap.

Our next stop was Jackson, Mississippi. Alabama was the Deep South but Mississippi was deeper. The relaxed, confident mood that we left Tuskegee with began to dissolve as soon as we crossed the border between the two states. Paranoia crept in and we were convinced every cop car we saw was going to pull us over, open the trunk and discover our collection of subversive films and literature. Naturally, we took our time and drove several miles per hour under the speed limit.

We had an appointment with the editors of Jackson’s underground weekly newspaper, “The Kudzu” – named for the exotic vine that grows everywhere, covering pretty much anything with which it comes in contact. If Kudzu gets started in an area, there is no known way to get rid of it. Once the seeds have been planted, the opportunities to spread are presumably limitless. A good name for a radical newspaper. The Kudzu had two editors, Bob Rusk and Dean McNamara, inspired by the infamous Secretaries of State and Defense. Everyone called them Bob and Dean and we never found out what their real names were. I even kept forgetting which one was which.

Bob (or was it Dean?) announced that it would be a great idea to have an evening of music and movies. Jackson’s own fuzzy-haired rock band would perform and we would show our films. It would have been a bad idea to have the event in the Kudzu office, since the place was under frequent police surveillance. After some discussion, they came up with a bizarre solution. Gathering a small generator, our projector and a portable screen from someone’s garage, we set off in a caravan of eight or nine cars for the shores of Ross Barnett Reservoir, a few miles north of Jackson. I had never thought it would be possible to power a movie projector with a small portable generator, let alone an electrified rock-and-roll band. And on the shores of the Ross Barnett Reservoir, no less. Barnett was, of course, the former governor who made a name for himself as a founding member of the Mississippi White Citizen’s Council and an implacable foe of the Civil Rights Movement. Live and learn.

It was a mild, almost sultry, early-spring night. The peepers were out in force. The atmosphere was exhilarating. The audience for the films consisted of Bob, Dean, the five rock musicians and a fair sampling of Jackson’s hippie/radical community. The first film we showed was “People’s Park”, a blow-by-blow account of how people turned an empty lot in Berkeley, California into a community space and public garden; followed by their losing struggle to prevent the city from bulldozing the place and turning it into a parking lot. Less than ten minutes into the movie, we saw the headlights of a car coming in our direction along the long winding dirt entrance road. Were they headed towards us? Not likely. They’d probably turn off long before they even saw us. But it would be prudent anyway to stop the projector, shut off the generator and lay low, so to speak. Through the sudden quiet, we could hear raucous shouting and the banging of beer cans coming from the car. Great! Here we were in the heart of Mississippi, on the shores of the Ross Barnett Reservoir, being invaded by aggressive local beer-drinking redneck crackers who were almost certainly looking for trouble. I didn’t remember the entrance road being all that long but it seemed to take forever for them to arrive. There wasn’t much any of us could do except wait and hope they weren’t armed.

It started badly. Four or five loud, short-haired white guys, Budweiser cans in hand, came spilling out of their car.

“Hey what’s going on here? Whatcha doing?”

Dean (or was it Bob?) came to the rescue, though even he seemed unsure of himself.

“Well we were watching movies.”

“Dirty movies?”

“Uh, er, no. Sort of like documentaries. You know, about the world, politics, that sort of stuff.”

“Can we watch, too?”

“I suppose so. Why not?”

And so we passed around beers from their oversized cooler, started up the projector and proceeded to watch “People’s Park”, “Haight Ashbury” (featuring “Street-fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones) and finally, “People’s War”, a powerful portrait of Vietnam during the war, made from inside North Vietnam by Newsreel members. It was then that our much-feared locals really surprised us. When the film was over, they were eager to hear everything we had to say about the war. It certainly wasn’t the kind of account they were used to but for some reason, they were receptive to what we had to say. I’m not sure why they were so open. Perhaps it was because we were alone, out in the middle of nowhere and there was no threat to their reputation. No one need ever hear about their willingly submitting themselves to a barrage of communist propaganda. And perhaps they had already begun to question America’s role in the world. Maybe they or their friends had been to ‘Nam and had first-hand experience of the disaster. It was the spring of 1970 and by then, opposition to the war had spread and penetrated deeply into public consciousness. At any rate, by the time we’d spent a scintillating half hour talking about the follies of the war, the rock band had plugged in their instruments and began to play. If only the music was as exciting as the discussion had been. However our new-found friends dug it and I suppose that’s what counted.

It would be hard to imagine a more bizarre Newsreel screening than the one on the shores of the Ross Barnett Reservoir. But there was more to come. As if they hadn’t already provided us with more than the expected dollop of Southern hospitality, the Rusk and McNamara team called ahead to some friends and talked them into having us show our films in Greenville, Mississippi, “Heart and Soul of the Delta”. Despite the fact that Greenville’s population at the time was only 40,000 or so, less than a quarter the size of Jackson, it was a far more sophisticated place. Unlike the rest of the deep South, which was dominated by conservative Dixiecrats, Greenville had a long history of liberalism. That tradition was nourished by the local newspaper, The Delta Times-Democrat, edited by Hodding Carter III, who later became Assistant Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter. Greenville was also home to a group of nationally known writers, like Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, who added to the liberal reputation of the city. Like Hodding Carter, Percy came from an aristocratic family of politicians and intellectuals that had been in active opposition to segregation since the early days of the Ku Klux Klan. While hardly radicals, these folks were eager to maintain Greenville’s reputation as an exception to the rest of the State with its explicit racism and reactionary politics.

The Newsreel screening was to take place in a bar/café in the middle of the city’s black neighborhood, situated quite literally on the other side of the railroad tracks. It took us a while to find the place, so we had a chance to drive around and see some of the neighborhood. The unpainted wooden houses, many of them barely more than shacks, and the people “picturesquely” hanging out on their porches, evoked an image of a deep south that I thought was long past. James Agee and Walker Evans come to life again. What is it about witnessing poverty that moves people? It can’t just be middle-class guilt. It was hard not to look, though my eyes would turn away anytime my stares were returned.

The café was unusual, to say the least. It was managed and owned by a white painter and sculptor, fiftyish, obviously gay. You could see he had devoted much love and time to creating the café’s décor. The furniture consisted of plush sofas and chairs with idyllic images of semi-naked Greek body-building types painted on the upholstery. They were all posing and flexing their muscles or romping around in lush gardens, Parthenons and puffy clouds in the background. Sitting down required placing one’s behind on top of one of these characters and the slightest movement was likely to cause a sensuous ripple to flow through Charles Atlas’ impressive musculature. To complete the scene, the whole room was bathed in black light, which caused the painted figures on the furniture to emit an eerie glow. Not to mention the actual people. It wasn’t an easy environment to relax in.

Then there was the audience. How in the world were we to conduct a coherent discussion with such a diverse group? First, there were the longhairs. Rusk and McNamara had invited members of the small Greenville radical/hippie community, as well as the members of the same rock band who performed at the reservoir. They had accompanied us on the drive to Greenville and would be performing after the movies and discussions were over. Second, the intellectuals. Somehow, word of the screening spread through the community of writers, poets, novelists and journalists, the people responsible for giving Greenville its ultra-liberal reputation. An impressive number from this group showed up. Third, someone had put up homemade posters around the neighborhood announcing the evening’s movies and rock and roll show. Perhaps surprisingly, more than a few local African-American residents had come. Finally, there were the less-welcome visitors, several crew cut men in suits and ties. We were informed that they were agents from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, the local version of the FBI. It seems that they were frequent attendees at public events held at the café. The titles of the films we were showing were guaranteed to attract their attention: “The Haight Street Riots”, “People’s Park”, “The Black Panther Film”, and above all, “People’s War”. With that kind of subversive-sounding material, you’d think they’d have forced us to cancel. But they didn’t, and so we had no choice but to continue as if they weren’t there.

The screening went extremely well. During the discussions following the films, there were heated arguments within and between the different groups. And there were strong agreements. The atmosphere was electric. It was everything we could have asked for. In any normal, everyday context, I doubt if Greenville’s blacks, hippies and liberals would have had much to say to each other, let alone carry on extensive discussions about major political issues of the day. For one thing, the opportunity would never arise. But that night at the café, members of all those groups spoke up (except, of course, the cops). Was it something special about the movies that stimulated such impassioned discussion? Or was it simply the phenomenon of bringing people together (in this case a very diverse group of people), turning off the lights and collectively subjecting them to images and sounds on topics that obviously concerned them, even if they only rarely paid attention to them. In other words, the mere context of a Newsreel screening encouraged people to focus seriously on what was happening in the world around them.

There were a few Newsreel films that I thought were excellent. “Columbia Revolt” and “People’s War” come to mind. But most of the films weren’t great. Many suffered from rough photography and worse sound…limitations which some audiences complained about but usually didn’t bother me all that much. I was more often upset about political issues. I felt many of the films were too simplistic and rhetorical. Chanting about “offing the pig” didn’t strike me as the best way to confront the oppressive, brutal role of the police. And I never shared in the pleasure some people found in street battles with the cops that several films reveled in. But none of that seemed to make much difference when it came to sparking discussion. It was as if the topics themselves were enough to get the ball rolling, to get people to open up in public and give voice to their thoughts. We used to joke that one could go out and show five minutes of black leader with no sound and it would work to generate the kind of discussion we all found so invigorating. All it took was a context and a topic.3

For me, the post-film discussions were the best thing about Newsreel. Even though I was one of the organization’s few experienced filmmakers and worked on several of the films (mostly in the editing room), it was the opportunity to stimulate good discussions that I liked most about being in Newsreel. I always volunteered to “do screenings”, which meant everything from running the projector to leading the discussions. Sometimes audiences were raring to go and the discussions were exciting and energetic. At other times it took more work to elicit responses. Often that could be equally rewarding and lead to remarkable surprises coming from the most unlikely sources. At the very least, doing screenings gave me the opportunity to pontificate, something I no doubt did my fair share of.

Probably well more than half of Newsreel’s screenings were on college campuses, often sponsored by the local SDS chapter. This usually meant a friendly and receptive atmosphere. There was everyone’s favorite story of a screening at a small college somewhere in the Midwest of “Columbia Revolt”, Newsreel’s film about the student occupation of buildings on the campus of Columbia University in New York. When the film was over, the whole audience presumably stood up, raised their fists in the air and chanted “Strike! Strike! Strike!”. After which, they left to occupy some campus buildings. Moments like that were rare, of course. More often, the best we could hope for was a stimulating discussion before people went off on their various ways. However gratifying those events were, it didn’t stop us from worrying that we were preaching to the already converted. That concern was (and is) a constant concern of alternative media.

The Mississippi screenings stood out in more ways then one. Not only were the physical settings highly unusual, but the audiences were hardly typical. Talking about Vietnam and the anti-war movement with a group of working-class white southerners on the banks of the Ross Barnett Reservoir was a rare instance of crossing the typical class and cultural boundaries. And exploring the relationship between the Civil Rights Movement of the early sixties and the Black Power and Black Panther Movements of the later sixties with a group of mostly poor African-Americans, hippies and well-to-do white liberal intellectuals in Greenwood, Mississippi was an even more unusual experience. Neither was a typical case of preaching to the converted.

The films and discussions were over and the rock band from Jackson was setting up their amps. We were facing a long drive back to Atlanta, so we gathered our projector and films and said good bye to everyone. We’d already heard the band play at the reservoir and were quite happy to take advantage of the excuse to leave. When we walked into the parking lot, we were greeted by a most unnerving sight: the MBI cops were there, busy peering through car windows and writing down all the license plates. We hesitated. Could we just get in the car and leave? It would have been impractical, let alone embarrassing to stay longer in Greenville. We figured if they were going to arrest us, they would have already done it. Or they would do it once we left and then we would be merely delaying the inevitable by hanging around. So we swallowed our fears, tip-toed our way around the cops, loaded up the projector and films and drove off, MBI be damned. For a while, we thought we were being followed, but the headlights behind us turned around about a mile outside of Greenville. But it wasn’t until we left the State of Mississippi that we began to relax. We made it back to Atlanta without incident.

For me, personally, our trip through the deep South was the best Newsreel had to offer. It marked a kind of climax. Shortly afterwards, Atlanta Newsreel’s brief existence was over. There wasn’t enough of whatever had been holding us together to keep us going any longer. We weren’t alone. The sixties were ending. Groups were splintering and repression was wearing people down. People were exhausted and burnt-out. It was evident that the “Revolution” that many thought was immanent wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. It was time to move on. Summer was coming and a group of us ex-New York Newsreel folks had been talking about traveling together across country. We needed new experiences, big skies and western scenery, a break from the intensity and tension of the of the recent period. We’d had enough. We hatched a plan to find a house and move in with each other in the fall, somewhere away from the east and west coasts, in a less pressured environment. A place like St. Louis. But that’s another story.