26 years since it was first released, Robert Mugge's film of Gil Scott-Heron's 1982 concert at the Black Wax in Washington D.C. still carries some topical bite, with many of the poet/singer/composer's sharp criticisms against the Reagan administration quite appropriate towards the present-day Bush regime, as Dubyah and his cronies prepare to step aside and leave their mess for the next President.
It's impossible to separate Scott-Heron from politics because his words deal with strong social issues, but while his style is direct, no-nonsense, and peppered with some vicious (and very funny) witticisms and pokes at governmental absurdities, he knows how to write and perform a groovin' tune with his substantial band. Some may find the songs preachy, but his lengthy ruminations (with intros, nascent rapping, and bridge narration) are meant to provoke positive thoughts and actions, and bond with the common experiences of listeners in accessible language that makes the message or the statement clear and unambiguous.
Whether it's inner-city malaise, poverty, or cultural arrogance, Mugge's film balances good music with political activism through some amusing and often clever on-the-street vignettes. Most songs are presented unedited, although occasionally they're intercut with vignettes that have Scott-Heron walking through the city's monument core while singing to his ode to D.C. as it plays from a boombox; or talking to the camera as he takes us on an inner-city tour with its dour street-fronts.
Mugge also has Scott-Heron explain the roots of a few poems in a wax museum, which then relate to (or are intercut with) the next song or poem; examples include a piece on Philadelphia's late mayor, Frank “rest in pieces” Rizzo, and the related song “Gun,”; a hysterical poem “Whitey on the Moon”; and jabs at previous Presidents Richard Nixon, Oatmeal (aka Gerald Ford), and Skippy (aka Jimmy Carter). There's also a barbed poetic assault on Ronald “the Ray-Gun” Reagan, and border control between Mexico and the U.S.
Scott-Heron's songs are clever in that he and his amazing musicians perform very upbeat, lively, groovy songs whose tone and buoyancy are often completely at odds with grim statistics or hard hits on social ills. “Gun” is an excellent example of amiable instrumentation supporting strong words: besides a snare drum, the major instruments include a discrete bass groove, silky woodwinds (flutes, soprano sax, and muted trumpet), and some meaty solos.
Probably the strongest song, “Winter in America,” is also the most laidback, although the slow tempo and cyclical chorus again mask a long poem about a state of emotional chill, governmental irresponsibility, and apathy towards those in need.
Black Wax was made when Reagan's critics began to realize the administration's key players included some disturbing personalities whose policies towards the economy, nuclear war, and deregulation were going to get even creepier, yet a shot where Scott-Heron strolls past the White House's iron fence and passes many hand-written, hand-painted protest signs leaning against the metal rungs seems like a moment from a bygone era, when protestors weren't restricted to far off corners, and that same view of the White House wasn't bisected from citizens by huge concrete barriers and thickened roving security.
Black Wax is also part documentary, and there's some excellent monologues where Scott-Heron provides some of his own history as a ‘bluesologist' who performs with bluesicians, and maintains a soothing ‘vibemosphere' for audiences. His voice is stern and paternal, and Mugge makes sure to balance the social and political criticisms with a few humorous sections, like Scott-Heron's piece on the nature of contemporary poetry, and the helpful, face-saving phrase “This must be deep” which can rescue anyone from having to comment on bad art.
A stark, entertaining and provocative film that will continue to age well in the coming years. Robert Mugge's more recent work is the superb film New Orleans Music in Exile (2006). Gil Scott-Heron's more recent concert film is Gil Scott-Heron and Amnesia Express: The New Morning Paris Concert (2001).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan