Filmmaker James Spooner screened his celebrated movie about black presence in punk music at the Elliott School of International Affairs building to an enthusiastic 70-person audience Thursday night.
Featuring interviews and concert footage from black musicians and fans, Spooner’s documentary, “Afro-Punk,” focused on blacks being accepted into the modern punk music scene.
Inspired by his own teenage dilemma of enjoying the music and culture of punk rock while retaining his identity as a black man, Spooner wanted to see how students across the country were handling similar situations.
Spooner found black youths from Mobile, Ala., to Minneapolis who had immersed themselves in the punk scene. Citing the energy of the music and its rebellious and political messages, the fans and musicians opened up about living the punk rock lifestyle.
Spooner said he only used interviews from black fans and musicians because he wanted the people who were having trouble breaking into the punk scene to speak for themselves. “I edited this to tell my life story,” he said.
The interviewees repeatedly talked about their parents’ embarrassment and confusion toward their musical preference and the style it inspires. One girl told a story about her mother and sister throwing away all of her clothes while she was at school.
Through the interviews, Spooner made it a point to show that whites would react either by ignoring black punk enthusiasts or attempting to talk to them just because it seemed like the right thing to do. The rockers also faced criticism and violence from the black community because they were straying from the hip-hop lifestyle.
Spooner interspersed the interviews with four day-in-the-life profiles of black punk rock musicians.
One profile was on Matt Davis from Iowa City, Iowa. Davis was the lead singer of an otherwise all-white band.
It was clear that Davis faced the struggle of singing lyrics on issues such as black power and slavery to a primarily white audience. Seeing his all-white audiences passionately screaming along to his lyrics about horrific slave brutality initially perplexed Davis.
“They memorize my lyrics but do they really process what I’m saying?” he asked.
After seeing “Afro-Punk” at a film festival in Philadelphia, organizer Heather Ashby, a senior at GW, took it upon herself to collect the $800 needed to bring Spooner to campus. It took her two months and many requests to collect enough money, but she said it was worth the effort.
“I wanted to bring James’ message to GW,” she said. “I just want to open people’s minds. What some consider to be black is so closed.”
The Multicultural Student Services Center, American Studies Student Organization and the Africana Department co-sponsored the event.
Freshman Megan Magee, a self-identified punk rocker, said she was interested to learn about black punk rockers.
“The punk rock scene, especially here in D.C., is one of the friendliest communities I know. They don’t care who you are,” she said. “But on the other hand, it made me realize how hard it can be for people in some other areas.”
The only thing that disappointed Magee was Spooner’s occasional polarization of the scene. She said that during the question-and-answer session he occasionally responded in an accusatory tone toward white punk rockers.
“Sometimes he made it too much of an us-versus-them conflict,” she said. “I definitely got his point, but he occasionally came off as being a little too militant.”