A recent outdoor screening of The Spook Who Sat by the Door at a tent city demonstration Credit: j. Michael

Solidarity Cinema is a casually organized group of determined leftists who explore subversive ideology through film—most members are legitimate activists who are often busy doing other things, but still find it important to make time for screenings when they can. The group started in Chicago at the beginning of quarantine and have met intermittently since. They operate outside the bounds of traditional distribution and exhibition, showcasing revolutionary cinema through their website, a digital archive, and at some (socially distanced) in-person events.

Toward the end of July, organizer J. Michael (the group’s instigators asked to be identified using only their first names because of privacy concerns) sent an e-mail to participants apologizing for a brief hiatus and thanking people for utilizing and adding to the digital library. Together they concluded that it would be fun to do some introductions, with people specifying their names, pronouns, how they got radicalized, and what films—left or otherwise—they’ve been watching.

Over the next several weeks, people from all over the world—including someone in San Juan, Puerto Rico—responded in-kind. One cited Ana María García’s La Operación (1982), a short documentary about the U.S.-sanctioned sterilization of Puerto Rican women in the 50s and 60s; another noted Pedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory (2017), a narrative film about a group of Portuguese factory workers who go on strike. Someone mentioned that they’d watched An American Pickle, starring Seth Rogen, which one person lamented as being “depressingly and maddeningly terrible, only in part because of the erasure of historical and contemporary socialism.”

Two of those three films are found in Solidarity Cinema’s online library, which features an extensive, free catalog of “film accounts of left struggle and solidarity,” per the text emblazoned on top of the group’s striking, all red-and-black website. What began as a discussion group, initially taking place once or twice a week during the onset of quarantine and along with virtual screenings of films such as Humberto Solás’ Lucía (1968) and Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), morphed into an archive (available once you join the list) with more than 200 films, and, more recently, outdoor screenings that occur in conjunction with political actions. Recently, the organizers screened films at tent cities across Chicago to advocate for housing reform and the Freedom Square anniversary.

“I think it’s bad in any given situation, [with] any organizing, to just assume you know what people want,” says J. Michael, referring to the expansion of the group’s programming. Indeed, by offering a wider array of ways for people to participate, they’ve adjusted to accommodate the interests of their members, who now total more than 500. The Solidarity Cinema website offers up films to people even before they join the list, with titles including Patricio Guzmán’s epic The Battle of Chile (1975–79), Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat (1961), and Pratibha Parmar’s A Place of Rage (1991). J. Michael especially likes Jamaa Fanaka’s Emma Mae (1976); Fanaka was part of the L.A. Rebellion movement, alongside luminaries such as Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Zeinabu irene Davis.

The films included appeal to different members for different reasons. One member, Chicago social worker Laurel, notes in her introduction to the group that she “appreciate[s] when films center care work (see Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work) and relationships as I’ve recently seen in [Sarah Maldoror’s] Sambizanga, [Howard Alk’s] The Murder of Fred Hampton, [Sara Gómez’s] De Cierta Manera, and [Věra Chytilová’s] Daisies.” The latter four are all available on the group’s website.

No one involved assumes that cinema is the thing that will save us, so to speak, but each recognizes cinema’s place within the leftist experience. “None of these films completely achieve a global revolution on their own,” says Julia, one of the group’s co-organizers, “but [they] also kind of show you that revolution isn’t a single moment in time. It’s this continuum of struggle, and I think watching films in a group setting as a community, whether online or outside in a parking lot, you’re allowed to place yourself in that continuum of struggle.”

This sentiment ties back to the history of many films in the Solidarity Cinema library. Despite “just” being movies, some were suppressed and others outright banned. “I don’t have any delusions that a screening with 70 or 100 people of The Spook Who Sat by the Door is going to turn Chicago upside down,” says J. Michael, “but there’s also a reason why the FBI was scared of it and tried to destroy every copy on the face of the earth.”

Some people look to literal superheroes to save the world, ascribing radical politics to commercial endeavors like the Marvel and DC movies and the Star Wars franchise. These films, however, aren’t much compared to those in Solidarity Cinema’s archives, like the aforementioned The Spook Who Sat by the Door, directed by Ivan Dixon in 1973, which tells the story of a Black man who infiltrates the CIA, learns their covert operating methods, and teaches them to urban guerrillas, or Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976): a story that centers a coal miners’ strike in rural Kentucky. One need not look to superhero movies for metaphors of social struggle because these films already exist, showcasing people undertaking revolution in tangible ways.

“That’s what film is really good about, is giving you not just a historical context, but a sensory context,” says Julia, “and I think that can be a big part of solidarity.”

Solidarity Cinema provides access to radical cinema that might otherwise not be attainable, at least not without signing up for various streaming sites and purchasing physical media, often at prohibitive costs—all this in a political moment when it’s as vital as ever to be watching it. For some, this might be their first experience with films of this kind. As group member Ben Grant, a maintenance worker at a state university in Florida, puts it: “I was never one to sit down with films like [the ones] we’re curating here, so this is all a brand new adventure for me and I’m positively stoked to dive in.”

Whether these films are new to someone or whether they’re revisiting them, it’s all part and parcel of an ongoing learning experience. “Education is both learning facts, I guess, but also learning how to continually deepen your analysis, having convictions, what it means to have convictions, who you’re aligned with,” says Julia, “and that’s an ongoing thing. Because we’re not in a fixed moment of time.”   v