Historical accounts of revolutionary icons are often plagued by hero myths that exalt individuals at the expense of the community that formed them. With “Why Is We Americans?,” a documentary about the impact the poet and radical Amiri Baraka and his descendants have had on the city of Newark, the directors Udi Aloni and Ayana Stafford-Morris attempt a different approach. In this compressed account of the multiple generations of artists and activists that make up the Baraka clan, the patriarch, who died in 2014, is a single (if central) node. It’s a story that spans past and present, arts and politics, and kin and country — and the movie, with its haphazard editing, struggles to contain it all.
In the film’s opening minutes, archival footage of Amiri Baraka’s rousing address at the National Black Political Convention in 1972 in Gary, Ind. — “What time is it? It’s nation time!” — gives way to scenes of his son Ras’s campaign to become mayor of Newark, a position he currently holds. From Ras, we go on to the other children, including Amiri Jr., a political strategist who was active in student protests at Howard University, and Shani, a daughter whose murder led to the establishment of a women’s resource center in her name. Amiri’s wife, Amina, emerges as the film’s most arresting figure, sharing moving anecdotes and sharp, feminist critiques of the Black Power movement.
But the film’s unfocused, grab-bag montages often raise more questions than the movie can answer. Amiri Baraka’s first wife, the poet Hettie Jones, is mentioned only in passing, and some other important themes, such as Baraka’s feelings about the sexual orientation of a lesbian sister and daughter, are touched upon too cursorily. These elisions feel even more jarring given the ample time devoted to Lauryn Hill, an executive producer of the film, who appears throughout to offer broad, mostly gratuitous cultural commentary.
Why Is We Americans?
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. In theaters.