“This was a labor of love,” said Jamal Joseph, the director of “Sonia Sanchez: Shake Loose Memories,” during the question-and-answer session following the screening of the documentary.
And that labor and love exuded from behind and in front of a camera that pursued Sanchez to venues far and wide over several years. Superbly complementing the filmed performances was a fascinating trove of archival footage and photos that highlighted the poet’s remarkable but always challenged odyssey.
Stanzas of her poetry flowed in front of musicians, dancers and other wordsmiths, most rewardingly Amiri Baraka and Oscar Brown Jr.
Her performance with Brown, who died shortly after their engagement in May 2005, was a delightful duet, as Brown interwove his “Afro Blue” with Sanchez’s chants and ululations, with them ending simultaneously on an earthy blue note.
Sanchez, born and raised in Harlem, has often written and spoken about her days in San Francisco as a participant in the founding of Black studies on the West Coast, but it was something else to see her reading one of her poems before a huge crowd with the late Allen Ginsberg standing right behind her.
It was vintage Sanchez at her anti-war best.
Those of her fans who were fortunate enough to be at the live moments captured in the film must have shook loose a few memories, and none was more electric for this reporter than her appearance at the College of New Rochelle and her unforgettable performance there.
Unforgettable, too, in the film and for Sanchez are those Malcolm moments. She recalled her first meeting with Malcolm X and how mesmerized she was by his “gentle eyes.” “I told him that I didn’t agree with everything he said,” Sanchez related in the film, “and he looked down at me and said, ‘One day you will, sister, one day you will.’”
Then, against silent footage of Malcolm, Sanchez recited her poem to him, that last stanza hanging in the air like gossamer: “Do not speak to me of living/life is obscene with crowds/of white on black. Death is my pulse. What might have been is not for him/or me/but what could have been/floods the womb until I drown.”
There are moments in the little-over-an-hour film in which the music tends to drown out her words, the dancers a movable distraction, but more often than not, Joseph and his team of producers at New Heritage, including Rachel Watanabe-Batton and Voza Rivers, have done a masterful job distilling the magic and majesty of this wonderful mistress of words and images.