Looking Back: Nikky Finney Guest Curated Series

Apr 21, 2016 by Kristin Morris on The Nickelodeon Blog

“I can tell you what freedom means to me: no fear!” – Nina Simone

This is perhaps the most appropriate response to the questions set forth by National Book Award winning poet Nikky Finney’s remarkable guest-curated series at the Nickelodeon Theatre. This quartet of singular, ebullient, haunting, heartrending films—4 Little Girls, For the Bible Tells Me So, Wattstax, and Wolf—wrestled with the legacies of violence and prejudice that have bled into our American consciousness and obscured what Professor Finney calls “the quest of freedom,” our shared journey toward a life and a democracy unbound by the tethers of fear. After each screening, Professor Finney and her rapt audience unpacked the contents of these films and discussed, with an uncommon level of attention and sincerity, how and why they spoke to the unique yearning in each of us for liberation and redemption.

Spike Lee’s brutally kind, searingly intimate documentary portrait began the series by resurrecting 4 Little Girls buried beneath the rubble of American racism. Flickering newsreel footage, yellowed family photographs, and tender personal interviews combined to form a patchwork of overwhelming feeling that redeemed, in a small but significant way, the lives lost to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. After the screening, numerous audience members who participated in the protests, marches, and sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement stood up to recount tales of their harassment, persecution, and unlawful incarceration at the hands of racist whites.

The following Monday, director Daniel Karslake’s rigorous, unflinching documentary study For the Bible Tells Me So addressed the pernicious slandering of queer people by extremist Christians, setting testimonials from inclusive priests, preachers, and theologians of all denominations alongside the personal narratives of gay and lesbian individuals impacted by discriminatory interpretations of scripture. Professor Finney’s partner, Dr. Tonia Poteat—who appears in the film with her family—attended the screening with her mother and father, preachers from a rural, deeply conservative pocket of North Carolina. Dr. Poteat’s parents discussed their journey from intolerance to acceptance, and queer-identifying audience members moved to share their own coming out stories proceeded in like fashion.

Next week, director Mel Stuart took us to 1970s Los Angeles for Wattstax, a musical documentary about a historically Black neighborhood still collecting itself after the rebellions of the previous decade. At a benefit concert put on by the noted R&B record label Stax, Isaac Hayes shook with soul sounds onstage in his pink tights and gold chains. Reverend Jesse Jackson, the concert’s master of ceremonies, led a crowd of over one-hundred thousand people in the recitation of the poem “I Am—Somebody” while, elsewhere, Richard Pryor held court with a bar full of patrons hungry for his wild wit. This tapestry of talent and accomplishment edified audience members and deepened our collective appreciation of the riches of African-American culture.

Ya’Ke Smith’s Wolf, a deeply unsettling, expressionistic account of one young man’s abuse at the hands of a trusted older preacher, concluded our March screenings. The lone narrative film in Professor Finney’s series, Wolf confronted our deep-seated cultural tendency toward silence and secret keeping, habits of being that corrode our collective consciousness and threaten the spiritual and emotional health of communities at large. The ensuing audience discussions arced back toward “the quest of freedom,” and how that quest is hindered by fear—by the lingering threat of emotional and physical violence. The subjects in all of Professor Finney’s films refused fear, refused silence, refused to have their stories and experiences relegated to the dark cellar where secrets are hidden. “No more secrets,” Professor Finney urged the audience. She may as well have said No more fear—no more fear of ourselves and one another.

-Luke Hodges