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Civil Rights Activist Jack O’Dell Cuts a Riveting Figure in New Film

The 95-year-old Vancouver resident once worked alongside MLK, before being ousted.

Dorothy Woodend 21 Feb

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor. Reach her here.

The Issue of Mr. O’Dell, Rami Katz’s film portrait of 95-year-old activist Jack O’Dell, offers a riveting portrait of a man who was at the centre of radicalism in the U.S. for more than half a century.

The career of O’Dell, a long-time Vancouver resident, “is a crucial episode in the hidden history of American radicalism,” The Nation wrote in 2014. From working with Martin Luther King Jr. to campaigning with Jesse Jackson to his later writing and teaching career, O’Dell was on the frontlines of the fight for racial, social and economic equality.

Katz’s film premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, where it picked up the President’s Award before going on to screen at festivals across North America. It’s coming to Vancouver with a free screening and discussion at SFU Woodward’s on Feb. 26.

O’Dell worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In addition to his work with U.S. labour and anti-racism movements, he helped to fundraise and strategize for the civil rights organization.

But his membership in the Communist Party led to his ouster from King’s organization, as well as earning him attention from the FBI and John and Robert Kennedy.

Still fighting for civil rights and workers’ rights, O’Dell continues to speak out about inequality today. Soft-spoken yet resolute about the ongoing struggle for change, he cuts a riveting figure in Katz’s film portrait: radical, intellectual and deeply committed to social justice.

The Tyee spoke with Katz about his film, as well as the role of documentary as a tool of social change.

Tyee: How did you first come to know Jack O’Dell?

Rami Katz: I’ve known Jack O’Dell for most of my life. My mom, Carol Frank, met his wife Jane Power at SFU in the ’90s, and we’ve been family friends since. Over the years, we’ve had many conversations about history and politics, and I’ve always admired not only the work he’s done in the labour and civil rights movements, but also the way he frames his ideas about the world.

When you were making the film, was there anything you found really surprising in terms of his story, as well as the larger social movements, he was involved with?

I was surprised to learn that President John F. Kennedy labelled Jack O’Dell the number-five communist in America, and how Jack was fired from working for Martin Luther King, Jr. for being associated with the Communist Party. I think O’Dell’s story brings to light how the anti-communist hysteria during the ’50s and ’60s overshadowed certain aspects of the civil rights movement, and how there was this immense pressure to rid King’s organization [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] and the movement at large of any suspected communists.

Although much of Mr. O’Dell’s activism took place in the U.S., how do you see the lessons of his life and work pertaining to Vancouver?

There’s a lot of work being done here in Vancouver by activists and organizers who are confronting many of the same issues Jack speaks about in the film, including racism and police brutality. This upcoming screening of the film at SFU Woodward’s is co-presented by the Hogan’s Alley Society, a community organization that does anti-racist work which, to quote from their mandate, “came into being to advocate for the rights of black Vancouverites who have endured the legacies of urban renewal and their erasure from the official historical narrative.”

In the film, O’Dell maintains that changing social consciousness requires eternal vigilance. Do you think the fact still holds true?

Yes, I think it especially holds true today. In recent years there has been a rise of far-right populists, but also a resurgence of activism and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Voices from veteran activists such as O’Dell, who played a key role in the civil rights movement, provide inspiration and a path forward and are a reminder that there are alternatives to the way our societies are currently structured.

Do you see documentary, and your film, as another form of activist work?

There is a long history of documentaries, including my own, which can be labelled activist films because they are engaging with pressing social issues. I think of myself more as an artist than an activist, though, because I’m not out organizing every day. I’m working on my craft and figuring out how to tell the best story and how to change minds and hearts that way.  [Tyee]

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