Friday, January 06, 2017

Reel South: Soul City

Floyd McKissick endorsed Nixon in 1972 and was appointed to the bench by Republican Governor James G. Martin in 1990. That made him quite a maverick among civil rights activists, but McKissick was his own man—but he was also a man of vision. He had a plan for a new city entirely conceived, built, and managed by African Americans. It could have been something like Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” but it was undermined by politics (and one might argue, ugly architecture). The story of the founding and still-born death of the ambitious North Carolina community are chronicled in Monica Berra, SheRea DelSol & Gini Richards’ Soul City (trailer here), which airs as part of the current season of Reel South on PBS’s World Channel (hosted by Darius Rucker).

While McKissick led the Congress on Racial Equality, he pretty forthrightly advocated “Black Power,” even though he sounds a bit slippery in 1960s archival footage when asked to explain what that term meant to him personally. Therefore, many former allies inevitably charged him with selling out when he endorsed Nixon and started accepting HUD money to build Soul City.

Both Nixon and North Carolina’s Republican Governor James Holshouser (quite the rarity south of the Mason-Dixon back in that day) threw their weight behind Soul City, but the newly elected Sen. Jesse Helms did not. As one might expect, he emerges as the villain of villains in Soul City. Apparently, the Soul City project fell victim to rumors and tabloid journalism, which Sen. Helms exploited to cut all Federal funding. Unfortunately, Berra and company never really explain any of the allegations. They just assure us it was all slander, but that only leaves viewers wondering.

Regardless, McKissick is a fascinating, larger-than-life figure, who deserves his own full documentary-profile treatment, beyond the half-hour SC. The narrative of Soul City’s initial development and premature demise is also quite instructive. However, amateur architectural critics might wonder if the shortcomings of 1970s Brutalist and International style architecture hindered the project, at least on a psychological level. The surviving buildings that were erected certainly look very much of their time, which in this case, is not necessarily an endorsement. It also looks like the could-have-been iconic Soul City sign already had conspicuous rust stains streaking the concrete background. That just doesn’t help build confidence.

The filmmakers talk to most of McKissick’s close associates, but sadly nearly all of the relevant political figures, including Nixon, have long since gone to the great logrolling swamp in the sky. Although the helmers are more-or-less conventional in their approach, the film sounds terrific thanks to the groovy original soundtrack performed by the UNCSA Jazz Band. Recommended for the history and music (but not the architecture), Soul City premieres this Sunday (1/8) on World Channel.