This Cuban Revolutionary Turned a Lena Horne Song into a Powerful Civil Rights Protest Film

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The struggle for civil rights in this country was and continues to be a long and difficult one, but few would deny that the sacrifices made by a brave generation of African-Americans in the 1950s and 60s — from bumps and bruises to lives lost for the cause — paved the way for a much more civilized process of national dialogue (despite the occasional back-turning or vindictive work slowdowns.) And while the bloody battle for legal equality in the 20th century was a distinctly American take on a global racial problem, it captivated the attention of the entire world, which often looked on horrified by the violence and hatred that reared its head from deep within the American psyche.

One of the nations for whom the civil rights movement hit particularly close to home was the U.S.’ neighbor and reluctant spiritual life-partner, Cuba. As a country with a substantial Afro-descended population that itself suffered from widespread institutional discrimination, Cuba was undergoing its own version of a civil rights movement at the time, though the cause of racial equality had been subsumed under the banner of the larger revolutionary process and embraced by Castro’s government as official policy. Of course, as filmmakers like Sara Gomez were quick to point out, this well-intentioned process was nevertheless fraught with its own shortcomings and to this day Cuba struggles with nagging biases inherited from generations past.

That, however, didn’t stop Cuban filmmakers impregnated with the socially-critical and formally experimental spirit of the revolution to make their own commentary on the shocking and shameful news coming out of the United States throughout the early sixties. Of these, by far the most resounding and stylistically innovative critique came from the mind of newsreel director Santiago Álvarez, who at the time was hailed by Jean-Luc Godard as the world’s greatest living film editor. The short clip, entitled Now (1965), is widely considered to be a precursor to the modern music video, although it would still be several decades until booty shaking was introduced as the genre’s gold-standard.

Featuring stock newsreel footage and a handful of still photographs brought to dynamic life by Álvarez’ signature editing style, Now‘s compelling vision of racial violence at the hands of American police officers and the hypocrisy inherent within the American system plays out with no synch sound or voiceover commentary. Instead, the piece seems to dance along to the tune of Lena Horne‘s incendiary “Now”– a song that was banned from U.S. airwaves for its unabashed call to open revolt — with jarring cuts and a powerful succession of images that build in crescendo along with the music.

After meditating for nearly a minute on an image of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders seated alongside president Lyndon B. Johnson, Álvarez juxtaposes the image of Abraham Lincoln with that of a black child before barraging us with photos of attack dogs, police batons, and helpless black protesters who affirm their dignity in the face of open aggression. Álvarez then closes out the five minute piece with an emblematic finale that is the stuff of undergraduate film studies courses worldwide: a machine gun blast appears to shoot holes into a white background, spelling out a not-so-subtle call to action: “NOW.”

As the working-class son of Spanish immigrants, Álvarez had no personal investment in the subject of worldwide civil rights, but his lifelong commitment to radical politics and the union cause made him particularly sympathetic to the plight of African Americans as well as the people of Vietnam, who at the time were suffering countless atrocities at the hands of invading American forces. Aside from Now, two of his other well-known experimental documentary newsreels, LBJ (1968) and 79 Primaveras (1969), tackle the subjects of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnamese resistance to colonial occupation, respectively. After a long and prolific career at the helm of the Cuban state film studio’s newsreel division, Álvarez died in 1998 at the age of 79.