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Taking a 'Stand': Tavis Smiley Explores the Black Male Experience

By Tracie Lewis

Standing on the shoulders of those who came before us is the heart of STAND, a new documentary from political commentator, author and talk show/radio host Tavis Smiley. Smiley invited ten of his closest friends to join a Get on the Bus-style road trip across Tennessee to talk about being Black and male in America during the civil rights movement and in the Obama era. Joining him in what he calls his "soul patrol" were Princeton University professors Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr., Cliff West, Georgetown University professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, actor/producer Wren Brown, Smiley's special assistant Raymond Ross, gospel singer Bebe Winans, comedian/activist Dick Gregory, and two young activists, Daron Boyce and Robert Smith.

The journey begins with a visit with soul music artist Sam Moore of the singing group Sam and Dave. The candid conversation turns from comedic to controversial when Moore tells a story of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warns Jesse Jackson that his use of the "N" word will land him in trouble someday. Smiley follows up with Fox News footage of Jackson apologizing for making a comment about Barack Obama and using the "N" word in an event that occurred 45 years later.

During a visit to Staxx Records, Smiley and company talk to Isaac Hayes, in what would be his last filmed appearance, along with writing partner David Porter, about the songs they created that will forever be a part of our culture. Gregory recalls getting crucial points across in the 1960s through humor in stand-up routines, and the comfort, support and legacy of the black church. After a visit to Fisk University for an impromptu concert from the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, the group concludes its tour on the balcony of Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated. Documentary talked to Smiley about this journey and about his first foray into filmmaking.

What inspired you to make the documentary STAND?

Tavis Smiley: It's really just a matter of trying to find new and innovative ways to empower people. My life is wrapped around what I call the three Es: enlightening, encouraging and empowering. I am always interested in meeting a new opportunity that will give me a chance to accomplish those three Es by helping people to expand their inventory of ideas, by challenging people to re-examine the assumptions that they hold, by trying to profile individuals who I think ought to be profiled, by raising questions that I think need to be addressed, by addressing topics that I think are too often ignored. Any media platform that allows me to do all of that under the umbrella of empowering and enlightening and encouraging people is always intriguing to me.


Did you always want to be a filmmaker?

I've never had any interest in wanting to be a filmmaker. It's really just another opportunity for me to try to spread the message. The message in this movie is really about understanding, appreciating and embracing the humanity that resides in all of us, including African-American men. We live in an era now where everybody seems to understand, appreciate, embrace, and indeed, celebrate the humanity of Barack Obama, and that's a beautiful thing. But the question for me is whether or not we can use this moment to wrestle with this notion of embracing the humanity in all people, including African-American men, who happen not to be president of the United States.

I think this is a propitious time to have that conversation, and at the center of this movie is a celebration of the humanity, the intellect, the humor, the spirit, the love, the contribution, the possibilities of all African-American men against the backdrop, of course, of Obama running for president, as a black man, 40 years after the assassination of the person whom I regard as the greatest American we've ever produced, color notwithstanding: Dr. King. So you have King and Obama and 10 black men and all that was going on in the country a year ago, that opportunity was something I couldn't pass up.


Why weren't any women invited?

Because the movie was specifically about African-American men. My life is run by about seven or eight crucial women; everything I do has to go through them, so I recognize the fact that we wouldn't be where we are without the strong contributions of African-American women. But this movie was really about what happens when me and my boys get together.

The movie starts out by talking about all that was going on in this country, and indeed the world, during the summer of 2008. Because most of us in the movie are present somewhere on the public stage, we're already trying to take all this in, but we had not had a chance to get together for one of our pow-wow sessions, if you will. I decided that we'd all get together, and we'd meet in Memphis on this particular trip. I did what I'd been threatening to do, which was to get a camera crew to follow us around everywhere we went and capture everything that we did.


You said you aren't a filmmaker; however, you are the executive producer, writer and director of STAND. What surprises did you encounter as a filmmaker?

As a filmmaker, I guess a few things. Number one, this is really, really, really hard work. I shot this last year. I'm such a right-now guy, so doing something in June of one year that doesn't premiere until almost June of the next year is a long time for me.

I can't tell you how many times my heart was broken by scenes I couldn't put in the film because the camera shot was wrong or the angle was wrong, or the song we wanted was so expensive that we couldn't afford it. The point is, every filmmaker has to make choices. If you're the executive producer, the director and the narrator and one of the persons in the movie as I am, now you gotta go out and sell this thing. The work is never done. I did not know I was in for the level of emotional, physical, spiritual, psychological output that this requires. But when I got involved in the distribution part, I realized it is not easy trying to tell a story or trying to sell a story--if the story is about the humanity of black people, the humanity of black men, the humanity of people of color.


What is your relationship like with Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama?

Jesse and Barack, I've known both of them for years. I love them both. I have, I think, great relationships with both of them. Barack Obama--there was, of course, this big, huge media story last year about the perceived tension between the two of us, and my only response to that is that when all the beef that was being talked about in the blogosphere, the two of us were on the phone. The bottom line is, He was running for president and he had a job to do. And I am a member of the media who has always spent his career talking about accountability, specifically to African-American people. So I didn't see my role with Barack Obama any differently than the role I played with anybody else running for President, which is talking about accountability issues. There were some who didn't see it that way and so we got some pushback from certain people. 

Interestingly, a year later, everybody is now talking about what I was talking about then and had been for a dozen years: accountability. That's the word that President Obama uses every time he talks. He wants to be held accountable and knows that he has to be. So it just took people a while to catch up with where I was already, quite frankly.

I have an annual symposium that I do called The State of the Black Union. It's carried live on C-SPAN every year. He could not join us for that conversation this year in February, but he did a live satellite hit with us from the White House. So I think that for those who thought there was some drama, after he appeared on the symposium from the White House, that pretty much squashed that nonsense. But it did not impact or affect my relationship with him. I want him to be a great president. I believe he can be a great president, but only if we help make him be a great president. Great presidents aren't born. Great presidents are made. And they have to be pushed into their greatness. And they're pushed, essentially, by us holding them accountable to the best interests of all of us. The ground is fertile for Obama to be a great president, and he's talked about extensively in the film, because he was running at the time that we were filming this documentary.

Jesse Jackson was just here in February for that symposium. He was on the panel a number of times before. He just asked me to accept an award and to be the keynote speaker at his annual Rainbow PUSH Conference that he does in Chicago every year. My relationship with both, as far as I'm concerned, is fine.


What does this mean for you to release your film at this time when we have our first African-American president in office?

I had no idea when we shot this film last June that, in fact, Obama would be elected in November. At the time, he and Hilary Clinton were still locked into a dead heat. I didn't know he was going to win, so whether he won or didn't win, this film was going to come out-talking about where we were as black men. So it's a time capsule to look back and see where we were during this critical time in the country's history. But the fact that he is the president, and that he did win, I think makes the piece more compelling.


Following screenings in Memphis, Los Angeles and New York, Stand premieres May 24 on TV One, and will be available on DVD the following day.

Tracie J. Lewis is a writer and producer, and a programmer at Film Independent.