In these strange, turbulent times, a sense of historical perspective often seems impossible to muster. The schisms between left and right; remainers and Brexiteers; the haves and the have-nots, become ever deeper and more numerous. Under-resourced NHS hospitals announce yet another winter crisis and many of the UK’s overwhelmed food banks run empty. Two global nuclear powers continue to Twitter-swing their metaphorical members at each other while the rest of us quake. It’s all too easy to feel horribly powerless and to lose yourself in the present moment, forgetting that tough – or, as the Chinese proverb has it, “interesting” times – have hit before.
As cultural remedies go, it doesn’t get much more effective than ‘Civil Rites’ – Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s film installation and exhibition currently showing at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema. The piece was commissioned as part of Freedom City 2017 – a series of cultural events marking the 50-year anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s visit to receive his honorary doctorate at Newcastle University. This isn’t a work that’s straightforwardly about King and his legacy, though – it’s much more nuanced, intelligently wrought and ultimately powerful than that. Tyneside Cinema’s PR says Zimmerman used Martin Luther King as a “starting point” – which she clearly did – but he and his ideas are much more infused in this film’s ideological fabric than this might suggest. Dr King, after all, encouraged an incredibly broad range of protesters to keep fighting for their beliefs, to “keep moving forward”, even in the face of the most formidable opposition.
At its core, this is a film about the citizens of Newcastle and their indefatigable spirit of resistance, as it’s expressed itself over centuries. It takes us on a journey through a series of simply and beautifully composed shots of prosaic city spots that have also, at some historical moment, witnessed extraordinary acts of protest – an ordinary, grey front door was the site of a 1909 Suffragette hunger strike; in 1633, apprentices at the city’s lime kilns rioted at what is now an innocuous-looking section of a park; the green area next to the majestic Civic Centre building marks the centre of the 2013 protest against the bedroom tax.
Filmed early in the morning, these scenes are almost entirely devoid of action so you can really focus on the contemporary (mainly female) voices that recount personal stories, express articulate outrage or soberly reflect on how little has changed since 1967. There’s a Muslim woman calmly describing her experiences of racially motivated abuse; a man telling of his battle to prevent his benefits getting cut so extensively he couldn’t afford to travel into town to seek work; a Tyneside woman explaining the difficulties of reskilling after 50. Crucially, reflexivity on King and the complexity of his legacy is woven in too. “When are we going to go beyond this symbolism of Martin Luther King that makes everyone comfortable?” asks a particularly affronted voice. “That’s all it does. You have liberals and academics saying, ‘Oh, we’ve done our bit. There’s Martin Luther King, the black people will be happy.’ No! What has happened in these fifty years? How many black students, how many black professors are at Newcastle University?”
The reason this work avoids slipping into trite, tokenising territory – a fate that can all too easily befall artworks labelled socially engaged – is largely to do with Zimmerman’s ability to be genuinely and productively collaborative. She is an experienced activist herself, and her desire to put what she calls “allegiances” centre stage in her work – rather than anything resembling a heavy authorial presence – makes it utterly convincing and hugely impactful. As you leave the main installation, it’s worth taking a decent chunk of time to peruse the superb collection of demonstration posters from the ‘70s and ‘80s, installed in the foyer and lent by a local activist and original women’s libber. There’s also an extraordinary 1980s board game, a kind of politicised Snakes and Ladders, called ‘Roots and Bootstraps’, designed by an anti-racist and feminist activist to help show working class people that their issues are systemic rather than to do with personal failings. You may get pulled up by your bootstraps, says the game’s creator, but you can easily get pulled down by your roots.
You leave the exhibition with a gently renewed faith in the power of activism. “Cause and effect”, as writer and activist Rebecca Solnit famously put it, “assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways.” In interesting times, we need cultural products to remind us of this truth more than ever.