February 2018

U Street Contested: A New Film on Washington D.C.’s U Street

In 2017, U Street is as Dr. Derek Hyra explains “gentrification gone wild.” With this in mind, D.C. residents must ask, how can we honor the cultural, political, and artistic history of U-Street while simultaneously achieving economic growth?

by Julie Hawks and Michael T. Barry Jr.

In this piece, American University PhD student Julie Hawks interviews colleague Michael T. Barry Jr. about his upcoming film, U Street Contested, which releases in March of 2018.

U Street Image 1
U Street nightlife in the 1920s. Courtesy of Black Broadway on U.

Film Synopsis: Washington D.C.’s U Street is currently one of the most popular, exciting, and creative neighborhoods in the nation’s capital. Young people from around the world are flocking to U Street for its restaurants, live music, and nightlife. To many, it would appear as if the neighborhood is undergoing a modern revival, but the reality is much more complex and contested. As new residents have moved in, longstanding residents, businesses, and communities have been forced out. In 2017, U Street is as Dr. Derek Hyra explains “gentrification gone wild.” With this in mind, D.C. residents must ask, how can we honor the cultural, political, and artistic history of U Street while simultaneously achieving economic growth? How can we support longstanding communities and preserve historical landmarks while opening new bars, restaurants, and music venues? How can we ensure longstanding residents can remain on U Street while welcoming new residents? And overall, how can we create diverse, tolerant communities, which both embrace change, yet remember and respect the past and the voices of longstanding residents?

I hope to create films that provide voice to people and topics, which are often forgotten or marginalized.

Unfortunately, the history of U Street is often overlooked and forgotten, remaining in the shadow of the more famous Harlem Renaissance. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Washington D.C.’s U Street was home to many of the nation’s most prominent African American artists, musicians, intellectuals, and politicians. U Street was as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi states, “The Chocolatest part of Chocolate City.” To many new residents today, U Street is understood as a cool, modern place to live, but not always the heart of African American art, culture, and politics in Washington, D.C. Michael T. Barry Jr.’s new film U Street Contested hopes to illuminate this history and find ways of bridging the gaps between past and present. Through interviews with, National Book Award Winner and Antiracist Research and Policy Founding Director, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Founding Director of the Metropolitan Policy Center, Dr. Derek Hyra, owners of Twins Jazz Club Kelly and Maze Tesfaye and Love-Leigh Beasley, and Funk Parade Organizer Chris Naoum, U Street Contested explores the ways in which U Street has changed, its vibrant history, and how we can all work to create a better, more equitable community.

Julie Hawks: How does U Street Contested fit into the vision of the types of documentaries you want to make? What connects this film to histories you study and the previous films that you’ve made?

Michael T. Barry Jr.: I hope to create films that provide voice to people and topics, which are often forgotten or marginalized. I also hope to create films where my interviewees and collaborators are just as much a part of the project as myself. I want the films to be something they are proud of and something they want to share with their friends, families, and communities. I particularly enjoy when my films can be a tool for community engagement, discussion, and at times catharsis, as we discuss both shared and differing experiences and emotions. When U Street Contested screens in Washington, D.C. and across the country, I hope it can bring people together to discuss the changes occurring in their communities.

I also hope my films have an activist spirit. All of my work, whether academic or film based, is focused on enacting change. I don’t believe in history for history’s sake. I believe in history to bring about lasting and substantial changes in our nation and world, specifically in an effort to combat persistent injustices like racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc.

U Street 2
U Street after the 1968 protests following the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Courtesy of WAMU.org.

JH: Who are the historians and filmmakers that have influenced your work? Which books and films have most affected your scholarship and films?

MTB: My biggest influences have been Karen Turner, Michael R. West, and Ibram X. Kendi. Turner and West were my advisors at Holy Cross and originally got me interested in producing my own documentary films. I had been working in film for three years beforehand, but in sports, not history. Turner and West suggested I utilize the skills I had learned in sports filmmaking to create my own documentary films. Karen and I eventually produced a film together, “The Universal Soldier: Vietnam” in 2016. Most of all, I learned the importance of compassion, patience, and sincerity in filmmaking from both Turner and West.

More recently, I have been influenced by the work of my advisor Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (who is featured in U Street Contested) and his book Stamped From the Beginning. I hope his activist and humanist spirit shows through in my work and I hope my work, including U Street Contested, can help to create the antiracist future he envisions in Stamped. I also have a great respect for his embrace and support of young Americans as the future of our nation. Hopefully, a better, more equitable nation.

Michael T. Barry Jr. is a documentary filmmaker and doctoral student in history at American University. He studies modern Muslim and African American history, specifically intellectual history, Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, and popular culture. He earned his Bachelor’s in History and Africana Studies from the College of the Holy Cross in 2014 and his Master’s in American and Middle Eastern History from Providence College in 2016.

Barry has contributed written pieces to outlets like Truthout, Black Perspectives, The Gainesville Sun, The Blackprint, and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette. He has also contributed photos and commentary to USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vice, and Reuters.

Barry has directed and produced three of his own documentary films: Sincerity: From X to El-Shabazz (2014), The Universal Soldier: Vietnam (2016), and most recently U Street Contested (2018). His films have screened at festivals across the country and won numerous awards including the Carter G. Woodson Award (2014) and the Best Feature Award at the 2016 Nyack Film Festival. Follow him on Twitter @MTBarryJR.

Julie Hawks is a doctoral student in history at American University in Washington, D.C. She studies how Americans remember and commemorate traumatic events and American popular culture. Her research interests include the politics of memory, racism, gender, capitalism, and anticommunism/anti-New Deal campaigns. She earned a Bachelor’s in Mathematics from Eastern Connecticut State University; a Master’s in Library Science from Simmons College; a Master’s in Religious Studies and a Master’s in History (Public History) from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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1 comment on “U Street Contested: A New Film on Washington D.C.’s U Street

  1. I’m looking forward to seeing the film. Though I don’t deny U Street’s historical significance, I think in many respects the corridor (in which I include adjacent streets) has been tokenized. Because so much has been focused on U Street as Washington’s “Black Broadway” a lot of the history has been compressed into narratives that celebrate the biggest and the best while overlooking or minimizing some of the vernacular spaces, ordinary people, etc. that truly made U Street special. “U Street” was a complicated ecosystem that extended well beyond the corridor into Georgia Avenue, Prince George’s County, and even some rural hamlets more than a 30 minute drive from downtown Washington. That complete cultural ecosystem and its role in arts-based resistance to white supremacy, the creation of what James C. Scott calls “transcripts of resistance,” is what really forces me to interrogate all of the narratives — from Blair Ruble’s tightly focused book to Derek Hyra’s wider view of gentrification — looking for the stories I know should be there but aren’t. Natalie Hopkinson’s work on Go-Go comes closest to framing what I think is the bigger picture that U Street represents. At any rate, looking forward to the film!

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