Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Adam Clayton Powell (1989)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Despite my deep interest in American political history, I likely never would have watched Adam Clayton Powell if not for the Every Oscar Ever project. With the development of the History Channel, A&E, PBS's American Experience, and the many other biography series on television, the bio-doc just isn't as compelling as it used to be. When watching old documentaries for the Every Oscar Ever project, I am often struck by just how much the documentary has changed; a film like Adam Clayton Powell would never be able to find feature film distribution in the modern era, since there are just too many films like it on television. Adam Clayton Powell presents the life of its subject in a linear, straightforward manner, cutting between clips and interviews with his peers, and though the film offers nothing unique that would separate it from the multitude of bio-docs available on television, the filmmaker does a credible job of presenting his subject.

Adam Clayton Powell was one of the most important public figures of mid-20th century African American life, and was the most prominent African-American political figure prior to the arrival of the civil rights movement. Elected New York's first African-American Congressman, Powell took Washington by storm, successfully challenging many of the informal segregationist policies in the Capitol. He was a living legend in his Congressional district in Harlem and amongst African-Americans nationwide, and would eventually become Chairman of the House Education & Labor Committee, where he would shepherd numerous revolutionary social programs through the committee, including Medicaid, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the original iteration of No Child Left Behind), equal pay for women, and many other initiatives.

As the film tells this part of Powell's life, not much differentiates it from your average bio-doc. The footage of a young Powell speaking is electrifying, and it's plainly obvious why he was such a compelling figure. He had the passion and power of a preacher, which he was, but also the easy nature and personal charm of a politician. Powell led a very interesting life, and the filmmakers tell it in a straightforward manner. The film gets more interesting when Powell's downfall begins. Powell struggled to adapt when his influence began to fall as a new generation of African-American leaders came to the scene, and word of his womanizing, the fallout of a legal case in New York, and his lifestyle in his adopted home of the Bahamas made him one of the country's most controversial political figures. This part of Powell's life is so colorful and unique that the film can't help but be interesting, and the filmmakers commendably present both Powell supporters and detractors, such that it's not clear whether Powell was indeed the victim of a protracted smear campaign by his enemies or the victim of his own excesses.

While I enjoyed learning more about Adam Clayton Powell, an individual I knew embarrassingly little about, the film succeeds mostly due to Powell himself and not to the work of the filmmakers. There is nothing wrong with the filmmaking, and the filmmakers successfully handle the controversies of Powell's life and present the film in a straightforward manner. Viewed through the lens of the modern day, Adam Clayton Powell and bio-docs of the past just do not stand the test of time.

Remaining: 3162 films, 880 Oscars, 5445 nominations

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