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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Labels: Documentary, Floyd McKissick, Reel South, Short Films, Southern Cinema