TV One has been really stepping up lately, distinguishing itself with some really strong projects. (Ahem, BET)
Sunday at 9 comes another great effort, "Stand," a documentary, directed and co-written by Tavis Smiley, the activist/commentator/PBS TV host. It features Smiley and 10 friends traveling on a bus from Nashville to Memphis, talking about race, politics and history during the summer before Sen. Barack Obama became President Obama.
It's no ordinary group of friends; among them is Princeton professor Cornel West and his brother Cliff West; Georgetown (and former UNC-CH professor) Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, gospel artist BeBe Winans, and comedian Dick Gregory.
It's hard to get a word in with Dyson around -- I'm not a hater, even Tavis says as much in an introduction -- so Dyson and West do most of the talking, and interacting with Smiley (who is quite the talker himself).
Along the way, the men cut up and speak frankly, though respectfully. They debate the Biblical meaning of salvation and take on Beyonce versus Aretha. (Dyson loves him some Beyonce.) Music history also gets highlighted in two visits, one with Sam Moore, of the group Sam and Dave, who talks about the night Ike and Tina Turner opened for them at Madison Square Garden; the other features a visit with Isaac Hayes, mostly silenced by a stroke, shortly before he died.
In a way the film is revolutionary: It's a rarity to see men, not to mention black men, on film having an intellectual exchange or weeping at the beauty of a hymn (these are some emotionally available brothers!) or holding hands in prayer.
Some of the issues Smiley has been putting forward in his Covenant with Black America books come up. Smiley was practically chased off the air as a commentator on the syndicated radio program The Tom Joyner Morning Show for saying that African-Americans should not wholeheartedly embrace Obama without assurances that he would address issues important to black folk. He brings up the accountability issue again, and shows his idol Martin Luther King Jr. saying nearly the same thing when asked about Carl Stokes, the Cleveland mayor, who was the first black mayor of a major city.
Indeed, King looms large over this film since it was shot durig the 40th anniversary of the activist's assassination. There's a powerful moment when the group sits in the Mason temple in Memphis where King gave his 'Mountaintop' speech. Gregory gets so moved by the moment, he talks about the value and strength of the black church. It's a particularly moving segment because the visit is sparking memory; Gregory can't remember the last time he attended church.
There will probably be a lot more art created that explores the same time period, the time before Obama historic election. "Stand" is a lovely beginning to the canon.