By Charles Hallman
In 2008, broadcaster Tavis Smiley assembled a cross-generational core group — Dick Gregory, Michael Eric Dyson, brothers Cornel and Cliff West, Eddie Glaude, Jr., two college-age young men and others — for “an old-fashioned road trip” across Tennessee that started in Nashville and ended on the balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
America also watched a Black man win his party’s presidential nomination during the same time as Smiley’s trip.
“Here you have this young Black man [then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama] making his move toward the White House at the same time we are commemorating the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination; that crossroads was intriguing and interesting to me,” Smiley recalls in a recent phone interview with the MSR about Stand, a documentary he directed. It first premiered on TV One in May 2009, and also has been shown multiple times on the Documentary Channel, a channel primarily available on satellite, during March and April of this year.
The historic summer of 2008 prompted him “to bring my boys together, to spend some time together, trying to figure out what we make out of this moment,” continues Smiley. “What you get [is] a movie called Stand.”
The documentary also featured a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, built on the historic site of Stax Records in Memphis, where the group talked with the late Isaac Hayes and his songwriting partner David Porter. They also visited churches and Fisk University in Nashville, where they attended an impromptu concert from the school’s Jubilee Singers and gospel singer Bebe Winans.
In what would have been Hayes’ last filmed appearance, Hayes and Porter talked about the songs they wrote, including “Soul Man,” famously sung by Sam and Dave. Sam Moore of Sam and Dave also appeared in the film.
Smiley points out, “When you talk about the civil rights era and you’re making a soundtrack of that struggle, Sam and Dave are on that soundtrack. Isaac Hayes is on that soundtrack. Stax [Records] is on that soundtrack. There are so many great Black artists on that soundtrack of the defining struggle, the defining movement of our lives. There’s no way we could do justice to the time we spent together without including [the artists].
“When we weren’t talking, which was very seldom,” he notes, “everybody had their headphones on, listening to music. The music is our soul — it’s in our bones.”
The two young men — Robert Smith and Daron Boyce — were intentionally included on the trip and in the film, says Smiley. “I rarely do anything that does not involve or engage young people. They were already politically involved, active and aware, and familiar with them …I wanted to make sure that they had the chance to experience this with us. It was a delight for them to be on the trip, but it was a delight for us to have their energy, insights, questions, and their contributions to the conversations as well.
“What you see in the film is pretty much in the moment we were doing it — on the bus or with Isaac Hayes at [the] Stax [Museum] — wherever we were, the film showcases us in the moment we were doing it,” he notes.
“There were some scenes that didn’t make it [however]. Every night…we would retire as a group to the lounge or somewhere, we would recap the day and what we thought about it. Those reflections would go on sometimes for two hours, two and a half hours, or depending how long we’d stay up. But we were up late every night, just informally as friends, engaged in a lot of reflections about the experiences we’ve seen that day.”
Smiley was asked, now that it’s four years later — is there a Stand II in the offering?
“I suspect there probably will be a Stand II,” says Smiley, “looking back…at the moment he [President Obama] was making his run, and now that we look back at his first term, or maybe his second term — how do we feel about what was or what’s not accomplished?”
As for Stand, “I will forever cherish and be humbled by the fact that my first documentary film was this one,” concludes Smiley. “I am proud that that was my first one.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokes man-recorder.com.
Photo courtesy of Sivat Productions