In the mid-60’s, Cuban filmmaker, Santiago Alvarez, created a short but charged film entitled Now! In his very iconic style, it was very much a documentary and a mixed media piece. The only access to tools he had to create with were usually found- public images, music, and a bit of his own magical montage making. He created a very dense piece that drew many parallels between Cubans during the revolution and the plight of African Americans at that time. The score to the film, also titled Now and sung by the late Lena Horne, added various elements to the impact the film had on me. Usually, the images of lynchings, police brutality, and white supremacy lead me through a variation of deep sadness and anger. They become one feeling in the moment. After my first viewing of the film, I felt very incensed and ready to take action. You could almost call the feeling: rebellion. My mind raced through the different possibilities of how to “right” the injustices experienced by my ancestors and community.
“The message of this song’s not subtle/ No discussion, no rebuttal.”
-Lena Horne (Now!)
Alvarez used a few different techniques when trying to drive home this point to take action. There is a visceral reaction that elicits from the audience when the film ends, but how was Alvarez able to do it? If we start with the score, it is easier to unpack the power behind such a choice. The lyrics to the song, Now!, provide a great foundation for the images to play off of. It speaks about the constitution and the alleged freedom owed to everyone who is an American citizen. There is almost a subtle irony in the opening lines that reference our founding fathers and the emptiness in which Americans quote them when discussing freedoms or rights. The song is able to build both lyrically and sonically up to a distinct repetitive hook that insists that we have waited too long to address the inequalities and injustices that black people face daily. Sonically, the dynamic voice of Lena Horne allows you to be riled up with every octave she rises as she repeats the chant-like phrase, “Now is the time. Now is the time. The time is now!”
The music alone does not inspire or move the audience even in its audacity. When compiled with the arrangement and intentional close-ups & zooming techniques of the images, the lyrics are able to play out on the screen. Alvarez uses the particular order of these found photographs and footage to create a montage that matches the build-up of the song. The film first introduces you to the visuals of assault towards black people using batons followed by images of police dogs and then the use of guns aimed at unarmed black citizens. Towards the middle, we are shown certain images of peaceful protestors usually with linked arms that is quickly followed with live footage of black women being manhandled and carried away by police officers. Quickly, there are flashes of iconic white supremacist groups like the KKK and an image of the Nazis. At the heightened end point of the film, Lena Horne’s voice reaches another register and images of defiant black faces are shown before the ending credit bullets happen. Out of order these images may not have been as impactful, but this particular arrangement builds a crescendo that you follow visually.
Editing is not just limited to the order in which media is revealed to you. Alvarez was also a master of the zoom technique. These images were not just static, but they were almost life-like as Alvarez zooms in on certain parts of a larger image. There is an image of a pained black face that he zooms in on that suddenly reveals the head Abraham Lincoln emerging from the pupils. It is a breathless moment that is very telling. Alvarez is able to isolate pieces of the frame in order to invoke specific emotion. On close-ups of protest banners or signs, you are lead to feel charged while on close-ups of children’s faces or dead bodies you feel enraged. The use of the zoom along with the arrangement of images is a carefully orchestrated narrative that holds the viewer from beginning to end.
In the current age of Black Lives Matter and the many disturbing videos of black people being murdered by police, Now! remains socially and culturally relevant. It is easy to make the argument that I was Santiago Alvarez’s intended audience. Although it was made over 50 years ago, it almost felt like I was experiencing my own Facebook news feed in 2016. As a black woman over half a century later, I still felt sparked by my own silent suffering. How can I watch anymore militarized, destructive, and senseless acts against black people and do nothing? What are these images constructed to do? How is the murder of people who look like me still happening? As Lena sang, “we want more than just a promise”, I feel the need to do something right Now!