“Keep the faith, baby!” is the title of the 2002 documentary about the life of the first Black New York City Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. starring Harry Lennix and Vanessa Williams. “Keep the faith, baby!” was the favorite saying of the charismatic revolutionary leader of Harlem, and much of Black America, in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Surely it must have kept his son, Adam Clayton Powell IV, going as he doggedly strove for ten long years to get his father’s story told.The film is an absolute masterpiece! However, when I first sat down to watch it thinking, “Here we go again, another Hollywood flick purporting to tell our story, but with subtle little twists and digs to distort and demean us.” It was no such thing. It is as straight and pure a history of the man and his times as you wcould ever want to see.
There he is, standing tall and cool, and I do mean cool, fighting for his people against any and all, on the streets of New York, in the halls of Congress in the struggles of the civil rights era and above all in his pulpit at Abyssinia Baptist Church in Harlem.What Denzel Washington did for Malcolm X, Harry Lennix does for Adam Claytton Powell, and then some. Watch him majestically, sinuously face down slumlords, union bosses, mayors, senators and any and everyone who on the wrong side of justice. When the big New York City power brokers set up another Black leader to run for Congress, one whom they feel they can control, check out how Powell just steps up to the microphone, and instead of introducing the man as intended, boldly declares his own candidacy. And the crowd explodes. That scene alone, and there are many like it, makes the film. The fiery speech Lennix delivers, in the tone and the cadence and the fire, of Powell himself is an absolute tour de force.
No one can doubt the accomplishments of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but few realize that Powell actually was right up there with them. Like so many of our heroes, we have all but forgot him. Powell opened up thousands upon thousands of jobs for Blacks in the public and private sectors in New York. On the national scene he was, for many years, Chairman of Congress’s Housing, Education and Welfare (HEW) Committee, and in that capacity shepherded through the War on Poverty and Great Society legislation that forever changed the prospects of Black America. It was a that point that charges were manufactured against him which drove him out of Congress. However, just as Muhammad Ali was unfairly stripped of his title, only to fight his way back to the top, Adam Clayton Powell did likewise.
When he first came to Washington, Blacks were not allowed to eat in the Congressional Dining Hall. Powell promptly rounded up a dozen Black men and took them to dinner thereby ending that racist barrier once and for all. The man was a revolutionary in everything he did, including his personal life. Though an ordained minister, he loved the night life and even divorced his wife to marry a singer, Hazel Scott, brillainatly played by Vanessa Williams. The screen ignites when they are on the screen together.
By the way, in case you are wondering how Adam Clayton Powell, Junior’s son was Adam Clayton Powell the IV, that is because he had two sons. The first he named Adam Clayton Powell the third! Yes, that was Adam. He did his own thing, his own way, from beginning to end. And in so doing he paved the way for us all to follow in his wake. Keep the Faith, Baby! Watch it, and you will be amazed. Believe me.