“Nothing lights a fire like a dream deferred.” -Bernice Johnson Reagon
“If you don’t have anything worth dying for, find something.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine is an illuminating and moving documentary by award-winning producer Connie Fields (Have You Heard from Johannesburg, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter). The film follows an African-American choir on their journey in the West Bank of the Occupied Palestinian Territories as they sing in a play that brings Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggle to a Palestinian audience. Beyond its excellent production quality, Al Helm—Arabic for “the dream”— has great crossover potential because it shows several (largely) apolitical, Black Americans meeting a people still locked in the nightmare of oppression. Their experiences at first seem just confusing to them, then political, and ultimately political and very personal.
The seven gospel singers were enlisted from around the country by Clayborne Carson, Stanford historian and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Project, for a production of Carson’s play, Passages of Martin Luther King. The singers were to perform in English as a kind of Greek chorus while the actors of the Palestinian National Theatre Company, under the direction of Kamel El Basha, would perform mostly in Arabic. Inspiring parallels between the Civil Rights era and other liberation struggles, Passages of Martin Luther King has also been produced in Beijing (as documented in the film, Bringing King to China). But when he gets to the West Bank, he learns that his play has been reduced to a play within a play in which the overarching story has become one about a troupe trying to figure out how best to present King’s words and life to a Palestinian audience. Such a significant reformulation would challenge any playwright.
Another point of contention between writer and director almost sinks the project opening night when Carson sees that, without discussion, El Basha has shifted the final line of his play to the very beginning. The tension is thick between the two men but is resolved after Carson invites the actors and singers into the discussion (think, Living Theater). Ultimately, singer P. Michael Williams, the youngest and least experienced person in the room, makes a suggestion that satisfies both parties.
Then, almost at the end of the two-week tour, a shocking tragedy brings into question the whole point of the endeavor but ultimately profoundly heightens its meaning. After the penultimate performance, on the 43rd anniversary of King’s own assassination, Juliano Mer-Khamis, the inspiring and dynamic founder of the Freedom Theater in the West Bank’s Jenin refugee camp, is gunned down. The Freedom Theatre is a creative bastion of dreams for a beleaguered people, The play’s company had just performed there the previous week. Everyone is dumbfounded. In the immediacy of their devastation and grief, wondering what they are doing and why, the heartrending parallels between the script and real life are inescapable. The film manages this horrific twist in the story sensitively and powerfully.
Fields’ film presents glimpses of much of the play, reprising a couple of especially poignant scenes, allowing the film audience to see their development. With the murder of Juliano just before closing night in Ramallah, the distinctions between performance and life are seriously blurred. In a heated exchange on stage, the Palestinian director character (Yasmin Hamar) yells at her American counterpart (Mik Kuhlman), “You Americans kill each other every day!” and receives the understandable retort, “You Palestinians kill each other every day!” Suddenly it isn’t a play anymore. When MLK is talking to Coretta (Georgina Asfour) about his own mortality at the time of the Kennedy assassination, JFK’s coffin is lifted and carried solemnly off stage. Suddenly it isn’t a play anymore. When they show a segment of King’s sadly prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech from the night before his own murder, it suddenly isn’t a play anymore. And when we see clips of Mer-Khamis’ widow and the funeral procession, we’re reminded that this isn’t just a film about a play at all.
Al helm—”the dream”—raises the question of what dreams are and who has them. Does oppression make it hard or even impossible to dream? Do the Palestinians still have a dream, and if so, is it a reflection of the nightmare they’re living now or is it different? Williams, who had recently been homeless, reflected on the Palestinian actors’ difficulty during a theater game involving dreams. He bemusedly commented, “I’m from the land of dreams: the American dream.” How would the dreams of his parents or his great-grandparents have compared to those of occupied Palestinians? And today, in the United States, how fully realized is the dream of freedom?
The emotional and political awakening of the U.S. group is important for American audiences to see if there is to be any shift in U.S. policy towards the conflict. Despite Carson’s advance work to educate the singers about the situation they are about to immerse themselves in, when they land in Tel Aviv, they seem fully absorbed by being in the Holy Land, getting to know each other, and in the case of Williams, his dream of riding a camel. There weren’t any revolutionaries in the group, and they also seemed untutored by any leftist relatives in their families. Not that they become activists after the trip, but the group arrives at Ben Gurion Airport so unaware of what they were stepping into and with whom, that their ignorance surprised me. After all, they didn’t sign up for a basic holy land tour.
They’re quickly jarred out of their holy-land-tour mindset though. In Bethlehem, the group is at once elated by their visit to the Church of the Nativity and aghast at the immense separation wall that comes between a man’s house and his land, cutting through his children’s front yard play area. Their awakening continues as they observe harsh segregation in Hebron and in the village of Nabi Saleh where every Friday, villagers (along with internationals and some supportive Israelis) attempt to visit a nearby spring. Always, settlers and the Israeli military force them back. The film also shows Ramzi Maqdisi, who plays MLK, and his brother taking sledgehammers to their family residence which has received a demolition order from the Israeli military. According to Ramzi, if they don’t do it themselves, Israel would bulldoze it and then bill the family some $30,000.
“I didn’t even realize that what MLK fought for then, they’re fighting for now,” muses choir member Chelsi Butler near the beginning of their trip. Singer September Penn adds, “For me, I was seeing the Palestinians differently. Seeing them as people. With many in the Christian community, we devoutly support the Israeli government. The word is you got to be behind Israel. You gotta support Israel. Gotta support God’s people. So I had to open myself up that God is going to show me something here, and I had to say, ‘I’m going to receive whatever it is.'”
During the epilogue, a few months after the performances concluded, Fadi Quran, a former Stanford student of Carson’s and a West Bank native who helps orient and shepherd the group around, leads an attempt to ride the settler-only buses in an act of civil resistance inspired explicitly by the freedom rides of the 1950s. The film crew captures this nonviolent effort, and over those images, Butler concludes the film saying, “I’m so ignorant coming here, and I’m still ignorant to a degree, and we only saw one side of the story, so I’m still ignorant to the other side, but there’s not much actually that could convince me that this is right. Here, it’s very, very clear to me how the story of the Palestinian people relates to Black Americans in the civil rights story. I think that connection is so clear, that you can’t ignore it.” There is hope for the dream of peace.
The special features are great too, showing even more elements of Palestinian life under occupation. Maqdisi, and Quran and his family, further describe the effect the Second Intifada has had on their lives. Intricacies of Palestinian life under occupation are explained by a young woman in Ramallah who is supporting a group of hunger-striking men who are living on the streets demanding that Hamas and Fatah stop their infighting. Quran also returns to Nabi Saleh where he is tear gassed and injured (not too badly, fortunately) by rubber bullets.
After working through the major creative conflicts between director and playwright, Clay Carson isn’t seen again. I would like to have had his thoughts on the assassination of Juliano and at the time of his former student’s Palestinian freedom ride. Both the kernel he wrote and El Basha’s revamping deserve accolades, as does Fields’ artful cinematography.
For change in American Israeli policy to occur, more Black churchgoers (and more Christians in general) will need to wake up as the singers in Al Helm did. The roles in the old spirituals are not as they once were, my “Israelite” ancestors no longer crying out for freedom from slavery in Egypt or Babylon. Even if many modern Jews are uncomfortable with the idea of being a “chosen people,” many conservative Christians extoll us as such (even if they’re praying for our conversion). I encourage everyone to watch and share this inspiring story, discussion-starter and organizing tool. I like it more every time I see it.
(Disclaimer: I supported the Kickstarter campaign that led to this great product.)