Despite some hokey moments with swelling, triumphal music, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (streaming on Netflix) successfully captures a fractured moment in American history and the growing frustration with representation in the Democratic Party. Similarly, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 follows in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention Chicago riots by documenting the fall of primary candidate Hubert Humphrey and the rise of presidential candidate George McGovern—and the ultimate defeat of both by incumbent Richard Nixon. Both Chicago 7 and Campaign Trail ’72 are populated with players familiar and forgotten. Both paint a picture of America approaching a crucial crossroad. And both inform the current political climate while resonating in uncomfortable ways. If America couldn’t make up its mind which way to turn all those years ago, it appears to still be weighing the options.
A third voice is needed in this discussion, one that rounds out the story and fills in crucial gaps. Enter William Greaves’ 1972 documentary of the National Black Political Convention, Nationtime.
Directed, filmed, and edited by Greaves—with help from son, David, and brother, Donald—Nationtime captures the convention held in Gary, Indiana, of 3,000 delegates and 7,000 attendees via direct cinema. The speakers include a who’s who of Black activist: Jesse Jackson, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Dick Gregory, Richard Hatcher, Coretta Scott King, Bobby Seale, Betty Shabazz, Harry Belafonte, to name several. Richard Roundtree stops by, and Isaac Hayes drops in for a song. The speeches are rousing, the jokes are pointed, and Sidney Poitier’s narration fills in the crucial details. Greaves stays out of the mix, capturing as much as he could on camera—including the moment where division rears its ugly head. If the Youth International Party and the Students for Democratic Society couldn’t get on the same page in 1968, if the Democratic Party couldn’t get behind the same candidate in 1972, then it’s no surprise that Jackson’s “Nation Time” also failed to upend the status quo.
Which only makes the long-awaited release of Greaves’ Nationtime all the more critical. Greaves never lived to see this long-lost piece of history released. He died on Aug. 25, 2014, at the age of 87. According to the press notes, a 16mm negative of Nationtime was discovered in a Pittsburgh warehouse in 2018 and digitally restored by IndieCollect. Now Kino Lorber is distributing the 48-year-old documentary via their virtual theater service, Kino Marquee.
Aesthetically speaking, there isn’t much in Nationtime to latch on to outside the feeling of being there and trying to take it all in. The footage is rough and raw, but that shouldn’t detract from what’s captured. Its discovery and release can only enrich the conversation about race in America, politics in America, and struggle in America. Some time capsules must remain open.
Directed and Produced by William Greaves
Written by William Greaves with additional material from Langston Hughes and Imamu Amiri Baraka
Starring: Imamu Amiri Baraka, Charles C. Diggs, Richard Gordon Hatcher, Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Bobby Seale, Betty Shabazz, Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Isaac Hayes, Richard Roundtree, Sidney Poitier
Kino Lorber, Not rated, Running time 80 minutes, Now playing in virtual theaters.