I really didn’t let gender and race issues bother me. I knew I would have trouble with both. I was determined to do what I was going to do at any cost. I kept plugging away. Whatever I had to do, I did it.
–Madeline Anderson, from Reel Black Talk
In 1969, Madeline Anderson was commissioned by the Hospital Workers Union Local 1199 to record a strike at the Medical College Hospital of the University of South Carolina in Charleston. The striking employees, who aimed to receive union recognition and a fair wage, numbered over 400, all but 12 of them women and all of them black. The resulting documentary film, I Am Somebody (1969), has the distinction of being the first half-hour documentary film directed by an African-American, unionized, female director. It will be screened at the IU Cinema in Bloomington on Friday, January 18th at 4:00pm, with a lecture by Anderson, as part of the 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations at Indiana University.
Madeline Anderson (photo from Reel Black Talk)
Anderson had started her career by working with the British director Richard Leacock, one of the early figures of the Direct Cinema movement, but branched off into her own work fairly early on. Her first documentary short Integration Report I (1960) details some of the then-current events of the civil rights movement, focusing on Montgomery, New York, and DC. The short documentary shows her interest in the struggle for recognition, a theme she kept returning to throughout her work (the short can be watched online at the Internet Archive).
After working with the director Shirley Clarke on her film The Cool World (1963), Anderson made the move into public television, working with William Greaves on his groundbreaking series Black Journal. Anderson’s work on Black Journal during this time includes A Tribute to Malcolm X (1969). After making I Am Somebody, Anderson moved back into public television, mostly working on children’s shows such as The Electric Company. In 1978 she became executive producer of the children’s program The Infinity Factory, becoming the first female African-American to produce a nationally broadcast television series.
In I Am Somebody, Anderson placed the struggle of black female laborers at the forefront of the civil rights movement. It’s no surprise, then, that recent scholarship on the film places it within the feminist movement of the 1970s. Shilyh Warren’s essay “Recognition on the Surface of Madeline Anderson’s I Am Somebody” appears in the Winter 2013 issue of the journal Signs and does just that, while not ignoring the women’s role in the larger civil rights movement.
Anderson began making her films during the rise of Direct Cinema, which sought to document events as they occur with little or no input from the filmmakers. I Am Somebody does not fit the strict definition of Direct Cinema–Anderson was commissioned to make the film after the strike, and pulls from news broadcasts and archival footage–but there is a strong sense that Anderson wanted the film to be something that would speak to the workers depicted. “I didn’t want it to be just a compilation, that is, just an episodic record. I wanted some kind of personal touch that the women strikers could identify with,” Anderson said in a 1972 interview with Film Library Quarterly. For her, the most important aspect of the film was that the women felt that their personal struggle had been acknowledged.