When I first heard about the film Black August, my initial reaction was an odd mix of excitement and trepidation. I was excited because someone had actually made a film inspired by the life of black militant George Jackson, a prisoner who became famous for the letters he wrote while incarcerated, which were eventually published as the book Soledad Brother. At the same time, I was concerned that the film would not be good. It was, after all, a low budget film that had played some festivals, but was not making much of a buzz. I had found out about it by accident, stumbling across the trailer on YouTube, and the fact that no one I knew had ever even heard of the film was not a good sign. So, while I was excited that there was a film about George Jackson, I was hoping that if nothing else it simply did not suck too bad.
The film starts with George Jackson (Gary Dourdan) already in prison, serving a term of one year to life for a gas station robbery that netted him a total of $71. Having spent much of his time in solitary confinement, Jackson educated himself by reading books and founded the Black Guerilla Family, a militant political group that recruited from within the prison system. It is during this time that Jackson also began writing powerful letters to people like his mother, Georgia (Vonetta McGee), and political activist Angela Davis (Tina Marie Murray). When Jackson's letters come to the attention of book editor David Dryer (Darren Bridgett), the white Harvard man sees the potential for a book. Jackson's attorney arranges a meeting between the convict and the editor that starts off on a bad foot, but soon leads to a strong working relationship. Dryer is committed to sharing Jackson's thoughts with the world, despite the efforts of the FBI and other law enforcement organizations to silence the militant philosopher. Tragedy strikes when Jackson's younger brother Jonathan (Ezra Stanley) is killed after taking a judge hostage in an ill-fated attempt to liberate George from prison. Jonathan's death leads to national exposure, as does the publication of Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, but neither helps to make life in the oppressive penal system any easier, as Jackson continues his struggle to start a revolution.
George Jackson's life and times served as the inspiration for the 1977 film Brothers, a thinly veiled recounting of Jackson's time in prison and his relationship with Angela Davis. In Brothers, Jackson was re-imagined as David Thomas (Bernie Casey), and Angela Davis became Paula Jones (Vonetta McGee, who co-stars in Black August), and that film was as much an examination of politics as it was an unconventional love story. For what it was, Brothers was a very good film, but it is very different from Black August.
If there is any one relationship that drives Black August, it would be the one between George Jackson and David Dryer. While I generally hate films that use central white characters to tell the story of black people--films like Cry Freedom and Glory are perfect examples--Dryer's character serves as a good counter balance to Jackson, and helps to effectively create a portrait of the contrasts that exist in America. Jackson comes from a world of poverty, and achieves greatness through much adversity, whereas Dryer is born into greatness, but leads an unexceptional life. Dryer, in essence, serves as a tour guide that is used to introduce George Jackson to an audience that is likely to not know who he is. And the fact that the film does it as well as it does, excuses the use of Dryer in such a pivotal role.
The power of Black August is built on the work of Gary Dourdan, who delivers a performance so powerful that he carries the entire film. Indeed, Black August could have been a one-man show, with Dourdan, alone in a cell, reading Jackson's letters and talking about his life, and the film would still work. But as it stands, Black August is a solid film that manages to overcome the pitfalls that often hinder low budget independent productions, and even manages to not get caught up in the trappings of many bio-pics. If the film has a major weakness, it is the fact that it assumes the audience knows much of the history surrounding the story. The story gets a bit confusing as it portrays the duplicity going on between members of the Black Guerilla Family and the Black Panther Party, and how the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) helped to subvert the work done by these organizations. But the confusion is never enough to make the film unintelligible, nor does it overshadow Dourdan's performance or the overall writing of TCinque Sampson.
Directed by TCinque Sampson and Samm Styles, Black August is a film that delivers an emotionally moving, politically poignant story that is unfortunately as relevant today as it was when the event depicted in the film really happened. Given the lack of production experience of both Sampson and Styles--this is their first feature film--and the limited budget of this ambitious project, the achievement and accomplishment of Black August is all the more commendable.
Black August is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is very good, and the image transfer is clean.
Black August is presented 5.1 Dolby Surround. The audio levels are good, and the sound is mixed well with consistent levels throughout.
Bonus materials are limited to a handful of deleted scenes that were clearly deleted because they did little to propel the story. It would have been nice to have something to shed more light on the history of this production, be it an audio commentary or some sort of featurette. It would also have been really great if the distributor of Black August, Warner Brothers, had thought to also release Brothers at the same time, as they own the rights to that film. But I'm willing to bet that no one at Warner Brothers even knows about Brothers, let alone cares about the fact that it is not on DVD.
Black August is a solid film that deserves to be seen. It offers an important historical lesson, and a powerful performance by Gary Dourdan. If anyone reading this knows anyone at Warner Brothers, tell them it is time to release Brothers on DVD, and that they could package it with Black August, as the two films would make a great double feature.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]