After three decades, the notorious figures of the 1960s from Malcolm X to Charles Manson have been thoroughly picked over by writers and filmmakers. But that precedent hasn't helped an Oakland-based film company working on the story of black prison revolutionary George Jackson. Although the film's subject has been in the grave for more than thirty years, its producers have run into a wall of opposition from state and Bay Area officials who would rather the man's legacy not be "glorified" on the silver screen.
Black August -- both the title of the film and name of the production company -- has particularly fueled controversy in Marin County, where George Jackson went out in a bloodbath at San Quentin Prison, and his kid brother Jonathan died in similarly violent fashion at the Marin County Civic Center.
It requires a little history to understand why the state correctional establishment and Marin County officials -- who usually welcome filmmakers with open arms -- have bent over backwards to thwart Black August.
Even to his admirers, George Jackson was no angel. As a teen, he was repeatedly arrested for petty crimes. In 1960, at age nineteen, he was sent up on a one-year-to-life sentence for robbing a gas station of $71.
Over the next decade, Jackson was shuffled between Soledad, Folsom, and San Quentin prisons, where he was politicized by the writings of Mao and Marx, and the rise of the Black Panthers. He came to see the prisons as a tool for silencing political and social dissidents, and began to organize inmates around his theory that the growing prison population was a potential army of soldiers ripe for a "poor man's war" against a repressive government.
Jackson documented his philosophy in a series of letters published in 1970 as Soledad Brother. The book, which included an introduction by French dramatist Jean Genet, caught the attention of the radical left, white and black. With his poetic, revolutionary language and class-based ideology, Jackson was seen by many as an heir to Malcolm X.
But his life took a decidedly violent turn. Convinced his political activities and ties to the Panthers would forever prevent his parole, he took part in the revenge murder of Soledad prison guard John Mills, who was thrown to his death from a prison tier. Jackson later privately confessed the crime to his editor, David Dryer.
On August 21, 1971, days before his trial in the guard's killing, the 29-year-old Jackson launched an uprising at San Quentin with a 9mm pistol he'd acquired. Gun in hand, he released an entire floor of prisoners from the maximum-security wing, crying, "This is it, gentlemen, the Dragon has come!" In the ensuing melee, three guards were slaughtered, as were two prisoners suspected of being snitches, before the instigator was taken out by a guard's bullet. It was the bloodiest day in San Quentin's 151-year history.
Jackson's death made him an instant martyr among prisoners, and contributed to a September 1971 Attica Prison uprising in which more than forty employees and inmates were killed. The rebellions were a nasty shock for Americans. George Jackson, more than any other man, had forced the country to consider the troubling proposition that the rage previously contained behind tall concrete walls could reach beyond and bite lives on the outside.
The makers of Black August figured that stuff was all in the past. The film -- financed by Isaiah "JR" Rider, a former NBA star from Oakland whose career has been stalled by his own run-ins with authorities -- stars Gary Dourdan of CBS' CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as George Jackson, and San Francisco actor Darren Bridgett as David Dryer. It focuses on Jackson's final fourteen months and includes his involvement with Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party, as well as his relationship with editor Dryer, who is dogged by FBI agents as he tries to get Jackson's letters into print.
Black August producer Andy Hill says the company started out in July confident they'd be allowed to film in at least some of Jackson's old haunts, since prison policy and state law dictate that film companies can't be denied permits based on content. A spokeswoman for the state corrections department even highlighted the accessibility of California prisons, noting that, of approximately sixty requests a year from documentary and feature filmmakers, "more than 85 percent get permission to film where they want."
But Black August was promptly denied access to Folsom, Soledad, and San Quentin, which variously cited security and staffing concerns.
Lance Hoffman, the film's location manager, says prison officials' resistance to the project was immediately apparent in their refusal to negotiate terms for a permit -- a tactic the twenty-year film-industry veteran calls typical. "They said, 'There is no point in meeting, we're just not going to cooperate,'" he recalls.
San Quentin guard John Gladson, who has worked at the prison for two decades alongside employees who were present at the uprising, says nerves are still raw, even after so much time. He believes the circumstances surrounding Jackson's death invalidate any claim Jackson had of representing the oppressed. "If it was a political action, prison guards weren't the one to take action against," Gladson says. "It was working-class people who got killed."
San Quentin's public information officer, Vernell Crittendon, says the filmmakers were denied access because of the story's inflammatory nature. "This is not a historical event for us," he says. "We still have employees who were here on that day, we have children of staff who were there who are now employees, and we still have prisoners who were there."
The spokesman points out -- and a prison visit confirms -- that it would be impossible to film in the locations requested by Black August without the knowledge of prisoners. Fake gunplay in those areas, he says, would likely raise tensions between racially divided prison gangs.
But security fears aren't much of a factor in the area just outside the prison's east gate, located more than one hundred yards from the main facility and out of view of prisoners. Black August was denied a permit to reenact what Crittendon calls a "racially motivated" protest at that location, although Hoffman says he easily received permission to film "an identical scene in the exact same spot" for True Crime, a 1999 film directed by Clint Eastwood. "[San Quentin officials] rolled out the red carpet for us," he says. "Of course, that wasn't a movie about George Jackson."
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