The Revolution Is Televised
By Nichole Richards
Spoiler Alert: I will be discussing the movie Roman J. Israel, Esq., starring Denzel Washington, and will cite one scene of importance.
The night Donald Trump became president of the United States is destined to become one of many historical and social turning points in American history. Although not as jarring as the fall of the Twin Towers or the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., or John F. Kennedy, one cannot deny the shock of it all. Years from now we will be asking: Where were you when Trump became president?
But there is a positive side to Trump’s triumph as it ignited a renewed sense of activism somewhat similar to the 1960s where every citizen was devoted to a human rights cause, whether racial, gendered, or economic. However, the difference between now and then is the sincerity and depth of the devotion. Yesterday’s revolutionaries built their causes on philosophical underpinnings concerning justice, freedom, liberty, and love. Today’s revolution is built on likes, retweets, and graphic t-shirts. Not only is the revolution televised, it is packaged, sold, and edited with Photoshop (see: Kendall Jenner Pepsi Commercial)
In the movie Roman J. Israel, Esq., Denzel Washington plays an underpaid, overworked civil rights attorney, toiling behind the curtains of an indebted two person firm in gentrified downtown Los Angeles. Paid only $500 a week, Israel has expert knowledge in law, but lacks the social and public speaking skills necessary to argue in court. Instead he clings desperately to the atmosphere of the radical 1960s, sporting an afro, listening to Gil Scott Heron, and adorning the walls of his crumbling apartment with photos of Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis, and Che. When his partner, the firm’s charismatic mouthpiece, is suddenly in a vegetative state due to a heart attack, Israel finds himself unemployed and catapulted into a changed world where effective lawyering is measured by expensive European suits and cars.
There is a poignant scene where Israel, invited to speak to young revolutionaries about the legality of nonviolent protests, pushes his fears of public speaking aside and, for a moment, relishes in the nostalgic memories of purposeful activism. One of the most important statements he made in this short-lived scene (which is shattered by a generational clash of disrespect on the part of the “open-minded” millennial revolutionary –another conversation) was the emphasis of the sacrificial nature of revolutionary work, the emotional and mental toll it takes to overthrow centuries old systems of oppression, and the danger one can be found in when he or she challenges those who have benefited and killed to maintain these systems.
Last week’s revelation of the FBI’s August report on “black identity extremist” groups is simply a reminder of how dangerous fighting for real change can be. Reminiscent of COINTELPRO, groups are being targeted based on race ignited by white fears of black and brown collective power. Our history shows us that when Black people start to dialogue and organize mountains move and this country ripples with uprisings, like how the Civil Rights Movement ignited various movements in the late 60s and the 70s. The discovery of the FBI’s report (or the suspicious leaking of it) will truly separate the committed revolutionaries from the armchair revolutionaries and their carefully curated Instagram and Facebook profiles. The FBI report would make a real revolutionary even more determined and an armchair revolutionary terrified. It would cause a real revolutionary to organize a community town hall meeting and an armchair revolutionary to bow to the American dream. Liberation is fought for and sacrificed for. Change is uncomfortable and true change requires a supernatural amount of courage and bravery. There’s nothing sexy about revolution.
Assata Shakur lives in exile. Angela Davis was imprisoned. The Move 9 house was bombed. Mumia Abu Jamal languishes in jail. Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep. Countless individuals were forced to live underground in a constant state of paranoia and harassment, but were willing to do so because the drum of revolution was hard to shake and it intertwined with their souls so much that they lived, breathed, and dream about liberation for themselves and their people. These are just a few examples of the cost of fighting for justice in an unjust, destructive society.
I don’t think most of my generation, the Black millennials, are capable of thinking outside of themselves to really organize around intense revolutionary work because it isn’t pretty. One cannot place a filter over the ugly work of revolution on Instagram. Our addiction to social media and obsessive concerns with individual success, accomplishments, prestige, and titles rather than transformation for our people is tragic. We treat activism as something trendy to do in our free time. Activism is not something to simply dabble in. If one were to really desire to evoke change, activism should be adopted as a lifestyle. Choose your manner of protest, whether community organizing, writing, or singing, and stay committed to it always not just when it is popular on Twitter. Read about the ideas and philosophies behind liberation and justice and study the words of those individuals who came before us. Take ownership over your own liberation in order to liberate your people.
Revolutionary work goes beyond holding signs at televised rallies with hopes of being spotted and selected as the next Black liberation Thought Leader. If this is your passion, treat it as your life, and be fully and genuinely committed. Lord knows, we have enough skinfolk posing as leaders concerned more with personal gain than community uplift. Do not be one of those people.
“The revolution WILL put you in the driver’s seat
The revolution will not be televised
WILL not be televised, WILL NOT BE TELEVISED
The revolution will be no re-run brothers
The revolution will be live”
-Gil Scott Heron
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”