Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde

(Documentary)

Sundance Film Festival 1995 (World Premiere Documentary)–A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde celebrates a visionary woman, who in her life and literary work embodied the intersections among three social protest movements: the Civil Rights, the Women's, and the gay-lesbian. Lorde's charismatic personality and her importance as a dynamic force and role model for younger generations make for an informative and enlightening docu that should be broadcast on Public TV and other venues.

The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Lorde was born and raised in Harlem, though she was always told by her parents that “home is somewhere else.” Indeed, after attending Catholic schools–and some “messy” years by her own admission–she left Harlem because it was “too provincial” for her.

Motivated by a strong urge for self-expression, Lorde began writing poetry in high school; her first published work made more money than what she earned in the next ten years. Her early lesbian love poems were a novel audacity because, as she says, “there was no space or need for them.”

Lorde's lesbian friends were stunned when she got married–docu doesn't provide much info about her interracial marriage. But as expected, her children got an unconventional education. Says her son: “My mother provided us a list of things that were repugnant in society, but she also left us to our own devices.” Lorde's lifelong challenge was to establish a “working mind” that “learns the lessons of intense contradictions and makes reality pursuit of visions irresistible.”

Her political consciousness was formed in the l950s, during the McCarthy era and the Rosenbergs trial, but the event that changed her life was an invitation to teach at a Southern black college. Devoting her life to battling prejudice, she participated in many rallies and spoke on behalf of gay and lesbian rights at the twentieth anniversary commemoration of the l963 March on Washington.

Docu's greatest achievement is in illustrating the formation of a complex modern identity–from a mainstream perspective, Lorde was deviant par excellence, combining the contradictory roles of wife-mother, accomplished black poet, militant warrior of racism, outspoken lesbian and, at the end of her life, feisty cancer survivor.

Internationally recognized as a vital force in the women's movement, Lorde was also the first–and still one of the few–black writers to have published over a dozen volumes of poetry and essays. In l989, she won the American Book Award for “A Burst of Light,” a collection of essays on race, gender, and sexuality, and two years later became N.Y. State's designated poet.

Docu interweaves interesting archival footage, personal poetry, evocative music, and revealing conversations with her family, companions and friends. Extensive interviews with Lorde, conducted over the last years of her life, provide the core of the narrative, which is punctuated by recitations of her poetry.

In its last sequences, the film drags a bit, rehashing issues that have already been discussed. Nonetheless, A Litany for Survival exhibits the enchanting personality of an unusual woman, considered to be in some circles a counterpart to Malcolm X.

Credits

A Third World Newsreel production. Produced by Ada Gay Griffin. Directed by Griffin and Michelle Parkerson. Camera (color), Larry Banks, John Bentham, Michael Chin, Christine Choy, Crystal Arnette Griffith, Arthur Jafa, Herman Lew, Al Santana; editor, Holly Fisher; sound, Orinne J. T. Takagi. Reviewed at the Sundance Film festival, Jan. 20, l995. Running time: 90 min.