A few moments before the screening of his feature documentary film “All Power to the People!,” Lee Lew-Lee pauses in the lobby of the Laemmle Monica 4-Plex to share an anecdote about one of his heroes.
In his wraparound shades, yard-long dreadlocks, dark olive blazer, black T-shirt, work boots and jeans, Lew-Lee, 44, seems the very essence of Hollywood cool. Looks can be deceiving. Neither Hollywood cool nor hot, the Silver Lake-based Lew-Lee might best be described as Hollywood not.
“Sometime in the ‘50s,” he says, “a group of famous cinematographers were being photographed en masse by a local paper. The cameraman was having difficulty getting everyone in the frame. He kept ordering them, back, back, back, until some were stumbling up a stairway behind them. Finally one of the cinematographers, an Asian American, suggested, ‘Why don’t you use a wider lens?’ The cameraman snapped, ‘Shut up Chinaman, you make the chop suey, I take the pictures.’ ”
Laughing loudly, Lew-Lee delivers his punch line: “The poor guy never recovered when he found out that the ‘Chinaman’ was one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, James Wong Howe.”
These are the kinds of stories Lew-Lee revels in. Stories that hinge on confrontation, reversal and irony. Stories that require a wider lens to pull in the full scope of the picture. His lyrical, one-hour, 54-minute meditation on the 1960s--told through U.S. government documents, rare news footage and interviews with ex-activists and federal agents--is certainly such a story.
“All Power to the People!” shows how the ‘60s might have been viewed had the era been reported from the perspective of a gifted, albeit radical, journalist of color. Subtitled “The Black Panther Party and Beyond,” the film is not a paean to the Panthers, as some have assumed. The contemptible megalomania, corruption, narcissism and excesses of the Panthers are exposed as dispassionately as are their inspiring self-reliance, idealism, vivaciousness and courage.
The three-minute title montage that opens the film begins, ominously enough, in the clouds, a la Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 masterpiece of propaganda, “Triumph of the Will.” But when we emerge from the clouds, we are not delivered into the nightmare of Hitler’s Reich but are set at the dawning of our own republic.
This sequence, which is a stunning visual summation of 400 years of American history and race struggle, received standing ovations when it was screened for audiences in Harvard, and at the recent Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.
The film was the grand prize-winner of the 1995 Roy W. Dean Award for socially conscious film and video. It has been acclaimed by British playwright Harold Pinter as “a work of great importance.” And an assortment of artists and activists that includes documentary icons Haskell Wexler and Mel Stuart, attorney (and ex-Panther) Kathleen Cleaver and former U.S. intelligence operatives Philip Agee and Wes Swearingen have issued similar testimonials.
“My film is about the ‘they’ in American society,” Lew-Lee says. “The ‘they’ are always people who become, at a certain point, intoxicated by power. Whether ‘they’ are Huey P. Newton, the KKK and the white supremacists, or J. Edgar Hoover. My responsibility as a filmmaker is to look at these things from an unjaundiced viewpoint, which is difficult because, psychologically, my affinities are with the underdog.”
He knows something about the underdog. Lee Lew-Lee is an Afro Chinese American who says that at one time or another he has been ostracized (because of his mixed heritage) by both his Jamaican and his Chinese relatives. He claims to have been stabbed by skinheads, hung out windows by his feet by schoolmates and hounded underground in fear of his life.
Cheerful, soft-spoken and intense, Lew-Lee is a rail-thin, self-taught student of photography, social politics and race. Barely audible one moment, then booming with laughter the next, he alternates anecdotal humor with chilling political observations, all the while politely yet fiercely celebrating each of the marginalized cultures that form his mission and his heritage.
His maternal grandfather, T.T. Lew, was a U.S.-trained Chinese national who was awarded his doctorate in psychology from Yale. “When my grandparents returned to China in 1919, my grandfather was selected to be one of the 99 scholars who made the laws that guided China from feudalism into the modern age,” Lew-Lee says. This legal code, he observes, “was a Chinese rendering of Lincoln’s insight that an enduring, enlightened government should be created of the people, by the people, for the people.”
His father was an Afro Chinese scientist from Jamaica who was killed in an auto accident when Lew-Lee was barely a year old. Encouraged from the age of 6 in photography, he was raised in Manhattan on a steady diet of art and multiculturalism. “My mother tried to give me positive black and Asian role models,” Lew-Lee recalls. “She realized that I was a melding of these cultures.”
In 1967, at the age of 14, Lew-Lee met Martin Luther King: “I spent two hours in his presence. I remember him asking, ‘How can we ask for civil rights in America, when we go to war in Vietnam, denying others their human rights?’ It was a moment of awakening, for me. A year later he was murdered.”
At age 16, against his mother’s will, and after the assassinations of King, Robert Kennedy and charismatic Panther leader Fred Hampton, Lew-Lee joined the Black Panther Party in Harlem. “I worked distributing clothes, food and medicine to the poor in ghetto areas of New York,” he says. “This was sorely needed, and I wanted to help.” But over the years, he became disillusioned.
His conflicts with individuals in and outside the party soon forced him to flee for his life, he says, and remain underground for seven years. He worked odd jobs, drove a taxi, then a bus. One night in the early ‘80s, he came to the rescue of an Irish visitor who was being hassled by skinheads in New York’s Lower East Side. They stabbed Lew-Lee in the back, almost killing him.
“I was living underground like Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man.’ I didn’t know I’d be on the run for seven years. All this time, I’m thinking about doing this documentary that would tell the truth about the ‘60s.”
He intensified his photographic efforts, and his work began appearing in newspapers and magazines. He taught himself to operate a TV camera and soon went to work for a PBS program, “South Africa Now.” “I began photographing everything related to South Africa that passed through New York,” he says. Stints with NBC and CNN followed.
In 1991, he became cameraman for Barbara Trent and David Kasper’s 1992 Academy Award-winning documentary, “The Panama Deception.” Trent remembers Lew-Lee as “a dedicated ‘kick-butt’ filmmaker. We worked with him during the difficult completion stages of ‘The Panama Deception.’ ‘All Power to the People!’ is a testament to his commitment and talent.”
Says Lew-Lee, “Someone told me that the filmmakers were pretty decent people and they were progressive. I did not know it, but three members of the crew had been killed by the time I came in. The good thing about that situation was I saw that they made the film on no money--a quarter of a million dollars. So I said, if they can pull it off, then so can I. Which I proceeded to do.
“I needed about a quarter-million to make the film,” Lew-Lee says. “I had to do it entirely out of pocket and on what I could borrow.”
He took work on other films to finance his project (including Steven Spielberg’s 1995 landmark documentary on the Jewish holocaust, “Survivors of Shoah”). By late 1995, he finally raised the cash to make the rough cut.
German television saw a 10-minute trailer and became interested in the project, and it was eventually picked up in the United Kingdom by Jane Balfour Films. But his independent company, Electronic News Group, is still looking for an American distributor.
“Documentaries as a whole are not money-making, but this documentary is like ‘Hoop Dreams’ on steroids,” Lew-Lee says. “Nothing is going to stop this film. We have a plan to sell it through infomercials direct if we have to. That will allow us to do more films.
“The true producers and directors of this film are Dr. King, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Ruben Salazar, Fred Hampton and the many, many thousands of people who were imprisoned or killed in the struggle for human rights in this country. If I have done them justice in this documentary, then I am happy.”
“All Power to the People!” will be shown Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. through April 6 at the Laemmle Monica-4 Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.