When American filmmaker Damani Baker talks about the power of meeting his "first black president," he isn't talking about Obama. He means Maurice Bishop, who led a bloodless coup on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada and, for a hot minute in the early '80s, worked to turn it into an Afrocentric socialist paradise.
In The House on Coco Road, Baker sets out to recall his brief and largely idyllic experience on the island. In 1983, Baker's mom Fannie Haughton abruptly uprooted her young family from Oakland to seek a better life in Bishop's vision for a new society. But the documentary ends up painting a far broader picture of the woman who brought them there and her role in the history of black activism.
Home movies reveal Baker's family's ongoing quest for a sunnier future—from segregated Louisiana, where his great-grandparents were sharecroppers, to California in the Great Migration, to college campuses for his mom's political awakening and then to his boyhood home of Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party that gave way to the crack epidemic.
Through this lens, we start to understand his mom's seemingly wild plan to move their family to a tropical island in the wake of a revolution. "To live in a country where there is a black prime minister and black folks taking care of their own. I thought, what a good experience for my children," Haughton tells her son, still smiling as she thinks back on that year. "It was a utopia."
The utopia was short-lived. Bishop was deposed by his right-hand man. Reagan then sent in troops to take down what he claimed was "a Soviet Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy."
Baker says this is a lie, and his film places the episode in the larger narrative of black oppression at the hands of white America.
Still, it's a remarkably hopeful film. Baker's intimate family portrait makes a compelling case that, even in the darkest times, moms and dads should still strive toward a brighter future where their kids can play carefree in the sun. RUTH BROWN.
SEE IT: The House at Coco Road screens at Clinton St. Theater on Thursday, June 22 at 7:30 pm. $7-$10 suggested admission.