Saturday, 10 February 2018

On demand: "The House on Coco Road"

The documentary The House on Coco Road opens with a brow-furrowing pile-up of archive footage, juxtaposing images of American and Grenadan life from 1983, 1999 and 2015, laying the personal alongside the political. The filmmaker Damani Baker apparently discovered these images in a box while helping his mother, the civil rights activist Fannie Haughton, move house, and for some while here, we can sense him sorting and picking through this found footage, attempting to put each frame in order, and to make a greater sense of what they collectively represent. The film that has emerged from this process serves as both a small yet appreciably intimate chapter of black history - a worthy follow-up to Baker's cherishable Bill Withers study Still Bill - and a son's tribute to the mother who raised him right. 

Haughton, a beneficiary of the Great Migration, was raised in South Central in the 1950s, becoming first a student of, then an assistant to, Angela Davis during her time at UCLA; after Davis' arrest in 1970 and America's descent into internal chaos, she took off around the world, eventually - after giving birth to young Damani, and leaving his father - ending up in Grenada at a crucial moment in the island's push for self-determination. It was here that the lawyer Maurice Bishop, head of the revolutionary New Jewel Movement, was encouraging his compatriots to shake off the "Coca-Cola mentality" he felt America had imposed upon the world, and to work towards a more equal society: a dream crushed when President Reagan took Bishop's words and actions for a Soviet-Cuban plot, and sent in troops to quell the unrest in October 1983.

For Haughton, it was a case of out of the frying pan and into the line of fire; for Baker, it's an issue of getting his head around how his family went from sharecropping in the impoverished South via revolutions small and large, successful and unsuccessful, to having the freedoms and leisure time to make movies that get picked up by Netflix and shown around the world. That social mobility is reflected in Coco Road's snappy pacing, which allows it to cover an entire century of movement (and movements) in a little under eighty minutes. It helps that Baker has a ready-made villain in Reagan, the thin-lipped figure of white privilege who (as Governor of California) hounded Davis off-campus, even before (as President) he launched the military operation that sent this particular clan scurrying back to the mainland.

Baker's account of the Bishop uprising, and how it came to an end, is especially valuable, given how little these events have been covered in the movies - but crucially the bulk of the the film's commentary is shared between those women, like Fannie, her friends and neighbours, who spent this turbulent period attempting to make a home and raise a family. Here again, the personal intersects with the political. As suggested by the rediscovery of a "What I Did on My Holidays" essay penned by the young Baker - complete with schoolboy crossings-out and misspellings ("I hurd a lot of gunfire") - there was a formative moment buried somewhere within these reels of archive footage: the point where a wide-eyed imagemaker-to-be first spotted the ways of the Western world, and how those tend to be reported on the homefront.

The image the American news media painted of Reagan at that time was of a great liberator, an extension of his movie cowboy persona, leading the cavalry in to spare the palefaces. ("We got there just in time," he's heard to say during a TV address.) It's an image that perplexed Baker even back then: recalling watching news reports in the wake of his family's return to the US, he laments that "the Grenada I knew was nowhere to be seen". His film, an unusually, distinctively laidback history lesson, provides its own counterimages, not least in the pin-sharp final montage recapping those events this family has lived through, and the myriad other injustices white America has wrought on its black citizens. Yet even here Baker floats a kind of hope: we survived, he notes - now watch me take back the means of production.

The House on Coco Road is now streaming on Netflix. 

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