by Michael Brito Basics Issue #10 (Aug/Sep 2008)
Recently released straight-to-DVD film Black August tells the story of former Black Panther Party Field Marshall George Jackson, portrayed by CSI’s Gary Dourdan. You definitely won’t find a copy of this film in blockbuster, but you can check it online or through your local DVD or mixtape hustler.
Not many people know what indeterminate sentencing was, but not so long ago in many states in the US a person convicted could be sentenced to any amount of years to life. What that means is that after you serve your mandatory minimum, then its up to the parole board to decide when you can actually get out. In the case of George Jackson, he was arrested for stealing $70 from a gas station in his late teens and was sentenced for one year to life. He was never released after serving his minimum and spent the next eleven years of his life locked up in California’s concentration camps. While in prison he studied and organized, developing to become an important revolutionary theorist for the Black Liberation Struggles of the 1960’s and 70’s. While locked down, often for years in solitary confinement, he published two books: Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye. He was implicated in the death of a prison guard in 1970, and through a highly publicized defense campaign became a radical celebrity. He was murdered by guards in San Quentin on August 21, 1971.
The recently released movie Black August will provide many people in our generation with an introduction to George Jackson. Young people in particular will benefit from learning of this man who was able to maintain himself through 11 years of imprisonment, keeping his dignity while organizing prisoners to rebel against the system from within its dungeons.
However, while the film may touch those unfamiliar to George Jackson, those who know his history, fought alongside him, or have simply read his works will find the film to be a shallow depiction at best, if not an outright malicious attack on the man.
In a critique of the film, Shaka At-Thinnin of the Black August Coordinating Committee has written that “the many brothers left in isolation behind the walls who still live half lives due to their commitment to collective revolutionary ideals have no connection to or input in any aspect of this concoction… The people who put together this collection of indictments against true revolutionaries both gone and surviving have no knowledge or understanding of the times or characters of the individuals portrayed.”
According to At-Thinnin, George Jackson never had emotional temper tantrums nor was he paranoid, as the movie depicts. “There were no one sided ass whippings given to comrade George the entire time he was in prison”, though the film depicts the contrary. And George Jackson never had a love affair with Angela Davis, as the film suggests. More important to challenge, At-Thinnin continues, are the malicious suggestions that George instructed his younger brother Jonathan to carry out the armed action at Marin county courthouse on August 7, 1970. The film also suggests that George Jackson was the culprit of the murder of a prison guard who was thrown from an upper tier of the prison.
The biggest piece of fiction, At-Thinnin continues, “is that piece of fiction put out by the state and glamorized by the movie” that a gun was snuck into the jail for George Jackson the day he was assassinated. At-Thinnin points out that the level of security that George was regularly subjected to would have made this absolutely impossible.
But should we be surprised? As is always the case when Hollywood makes a film about a historical or revolutionary figure, one needs to keep an open and critical mind. If the media lies to us about everything else, why wouldn’t they lie to us about our heroes?
If you come across this film and decide to watch it, don’t stop there. Get a copy of George Jackson’s books to get a sense of what this brother was really all about, such as Soledad Brother or his more theoretical work in Blood In My Eye.
People need to hear Comrade George’s message today more than ever, given the growing prison populations both in Canada and the US, increased state repression and surveillance, racist police violence, imperialist wars abroad and all these greedy capitalist pigs trying to ruin the whole planet.