African Redemption: The Life and Legacy of Marcus Garvey is a remarkable film that critically assesses Garvey’s biography. Directed by Roy T Anderson, African Redemption more than fulfills its goal of “telling a story of this oft-misunderstood man, in a way that was not only objective, and balanced, but insightful and engaging.” Using a blend of still photographs, archival documents, and interviews with Garvey scholars, the film delves into the controversies surrounding Garvey’s struggles with black elites and the attempts to clear Garvey’s name during the presidency of Barack Obama.
Opening with an excerpt from Garvey’s autobiographical essay, “The Negro’s Greatest Enemy,” African Redemption explores Garvey’s childhood and his first experience of “race distinction” with a white playmate. As the film unfolds, we learn about Garvey’s early childhood in St. Ann’s Bay and his relationship with his sister, Indiana Garvey. After revealing a rare photograph of Indiana, African Redemption charts Garvey’s journey from Jamaica through Europe and the Americas to his self-imposed exile and death in England.
African Redemption also probes Garvey’s founding of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and opposition from black elites throughout the Americas, most notably W.E.B Du Bois, a co-founder of the NAACP. When he wasn’t attacking Garvey directly, Du Bois worked behind the scenes with A. Philip Randolph, William Pickens, George Bagnall, and Chandler Owen to orchestrate the “Garvey Must Go” campaign, which effectively gave the US government free rein to harass Garvey. With this tacit go-ahead, J. Edgar Hoover and BOI (forerunner of the FBI) initiated a full-blown investigation into Garvey’s life, leading to Garvey’s trial and imprisonment on mail fraud charges. Using the expert testimony of law professor Justin Hansford and commentary from Steven Golding, African Redemption carefully deconstructs the vast conspiracy, which led to Garvey’s downfall.
In confronting one of the most contentious issues in Garvey’s career, African Redemption does not shy away from the conflict, which put the nail in the coffin for any further relationship between Garvey and the NAACP. On June 22, 1922, Marcus Garvey met with the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Edward Young Clarke. And although Carol Anderson and Greg Carr debated from opposite sides of a subject that has deviled Garvey scholarship for decades, I found both arguments equally compelling. It is perhaps the ongoing animus between Garveyites and the followers of Du Bois, who ironically spent his last years in Ghana, that played a part in President Obama’s refusal to grant a posthumous pardon to Garvey.
To his credit, Anderson is not content with leaving the question of Garvey’s pardon, which has created rifts among Garveyites, unanswered. On the one hand, David Brown argues against the pardon. Brown wants Garvey’s criminal record to remain a monument to the “stain of injustice” perpetrated by the US Department of Justice. On the other hand, Hilary Beckles, echoing Dr. Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” urges “citizens of the world” to fight injustice worldwide and especially in the case of Marcus Garvey.
But these aren’t the only topics that African Redemption examines. Expertly narrated by Keith David, the film analyzes Garvey’s use of propaganda and features a cameo appearance by Congressman Charles Rangel, who led the first hearing for Garvey’s pardon in the House of Representatives in 1987; Garvey’s rivalry with Emperor Haile Selassie, and the use of FBI spies in infiltrating the UNIA with a never-before-seen photograph of James Wormley Jones, the first black detective hired by J Edgar Hoover.
Filmed in Jamaica, Ghana, Canada, USA, UK, and Central America, African Redemption relies heavily on a wide range of Garvey scholars, Colin Grant, Rupert Lewis, and Wilson Moses. Yet, the absence of Robert Hill, even though he is responsible for the most comprehensive multivolume archive of Garvey’s work, The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers, is noticeable. Despite this omission, African Redemption’s acknowledgment of the role of Rastafari in keeping the memory of Marcus Garvey alive, and inclusion of female scholars and activists, Carolyn Cooper, Barbara Blake-Hannah, and Carol Anderson, who by their intellect and commitment have changed the once male-dominated conversations about Garvey, adds new dimensions to Garvey studies.
With an array of gifted scholars, pitch-perfect performance by Paul H. Williams, a soundtrack that blends the music of Steel Pulse and Rootz Impact with the UNIA’s National Anthem, African Redemption has become the definitive documentary about Garvey’s life. Whether you don’t know anything about Marcus Garvey or think you know everything anyone could ever possibly know about Marcus Garvey, African Redemption: The Life and Legacy of Marcus Garvey will surprise you. More than once.
Geoffrey Philp is the author of five books of poetry, two collections of short stories, three children’s books, and two novels, including Garvey’s Ghost. He is currently working on a collection of poems, “Letter from Marcus Garvey,” and a graphic novel for children, “My Name is Marcus.”