"An artist has social responsibility to the community to not only entertain, but educate," says donnie l. betts, echoing the words of his late friend and mentor, Oscar Brown Jr.
Betts has honored Brown's motto as well as his memory with Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress. A documentary celebrating the legendary singer, speaker, writer and composer, Music prods the brain even as it coaxes the heart; centered around Brown's vibrant and scathingly honest recollections of his own life, the film is a portrait of an artist who saw no walls between aesthetics and activism.
Born in Chicago in 1926, Brown discovered early on the power of combining performance with social awareness. While still a teenager, he appeared in the revolutionary radio show Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days, one of the mainstream media's first positive portrayals of African-American culture. Throughout the '50s and '60s, he became active in politics, running for state office and briefly joining the Communist Party.
But Brown became best known for his songs. Besides collaborating with jazz giants Max Roach and Miles Davis, he issued a string of searing, soulful albums that inspired the radical sounds of the Lost Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. A young betts eagerly picked up on Brown's message of empowerment and social justice. "I met Oscar in the '80s at a theater workshop," he recalls. "What he had to say really stuck with me. That's why I wanted to be an artist -- not to entertain for fame or for dollars, but to say something."
Betts, a prolific playwright, producer and filmmaker, had made documentaries before. But when Brown agreed in 1999 to be the subject of his next feature, it proved to be a fresh challenge. "I approached many organizations and individuals about funding this project," betts explains. "A lot of them said, ŒGreat proposal, great trailer. We love Oscar Brown Jr.'s music. We don't like his politics.' Mike Wallace once called him a profound truth-teller, and most people don't like truth-tellers. And he was so complicated. He did so many things. I had to figure out how to integrate that all into the film."
With Music, betts more than succeeds. Set to an original score by Ron Miles, the movie is punctuated by interviews with peers and admirers like Studs Terkel, Amiri Baraka, Nichelle Nichols and Al Jarreau. And while the lion's share of camera time is given to Brown, the lens can barely contain him. Flush with energy and gushing with ideas, he speaks, sings and dances across the screen with a vitality astounding for a man well into his seventies. In one scene, he reacts hilariously to finding himself listed as a traitor on a right-wing website; in another, he points out the Chicago street where FBI agents approached him and asked him to rejoin the Communist Party -- as a spy. One of the movie's most sublime moments is also one of its funniest. Upon seeing two young girls and their mother jumping rope in their yard, Brown joins them. Before long, he's expounding an intricate theory that equates double-dutching with multi-dimensional physics.
"He was a thinker, a pure thinker," says betts of Brown, who passed away in May, just after the rough cut of Music was completed. "But he had a way of delivering his work that made it accessible to people. And I'm hoping I can expose him more to the world."
Betts is hosting two sold-out screenings this week at Starz FilmCenter; they'll be followed by two receptions intended to raise funds for the Oscar Brown Jr. Scholarship Fund, which was awarded this year to East High School student Ian Williams. Both will feature outtakes of Music, and the Saturday reception will include a jazz performance by Brown's daughter, Maggie.
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