Sonia Sanchez has been at the forefront of major creative and socio-political movements since she began her career in the 1960s as a Black Arts Movement writer and the founder of the Broadside Quartet poetry workshop. In addition to publishing more than a dozen books and seven plays, she designed courses for one of the country’s first university-based Black Studies programs. Sanchez has spoken at more than 500 colleges and universities, inspiring generations of activists, literary types and writers. She was a longtime educator at Temple University in Philadelphia and was named the city’s first poet laureate.
Still, Sabrina Gordon, who co-directed the new documentary “BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez” with Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater, noticed a divide between people who know about Sanchez and those who are clueless. This relative lack of public awareness, she says, motivated her. ”BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez” will screen at DOC NYC, which one of the biggest documentary film festivals in the United States. We talked with Gordon about Sanchez as a film subject, her political struggles and getting fans Questlove and Talib Kweli on camera.
In a time where we’re seeing more and more biopics or documentaries on notable activists or artists, why specifically did you choose to cover Sonia Sanchez?
Well, she’s someone who’s really well-regarded in literature generally, and she’s one of the founders of the Black Arts Movement from the ’60s and ’70s. What’s interesting about Sonia is that in some circles, she’s famous—everybody knows about her. Then there are times where I could be talking to someone about the documentary, and they have no idea who she is. She’s someone who should be more-widely known—she’s a contemporary of other famous people, she’s prolific and she should get her proper due. She’s appeared in a lot of media and films, like she has been interviewed about Amiri Baraka and a variety of issues, but I think she was due for a proper, definitive biography that really celebrates her and introduces her to a new generation of readers and writers.
You got some real heavyweights to appear in this film, like Questlove and Talib Kweli. Was it difficult to solicit those interviews, or were people jumping at the chance to talk to her?
There was no real challenge with that, except for scheduling. [Laughs.] This is the thing about Sonia: She’s a writer, an educator and an activist. So she has a range of colleagues, fans and students. She has multiple generations to talk to from different walks of life. They were all very amenable, and it wasn’t actually difficult to get people to participate, which is interesting, because she can be a controversial figure.
For those who are new to Sanchez’s work, what—besides being real about the structural racism of America—has made her particularly controversial?
She is an artist, but her art is political; she’s a political activist. That is tied to who she is as a person and explains part of why she’s not as mainstream of an artist as she could be. As anyone knows about any kind of activism, it’s not always popular or easy. It deals with challenging the status quo. She made a choice to be that person. There’s a theme throughout the film that she made a decision to commit her life to a certain kind of work. She talks to an interviewer who said, “You could have been so famous!,” but that’s really not what her life was driven by. Even as poet laureate of Philadelphia, she was controversial—she testified in the trial of Mumia [Abu Jamal], and that brought her some kind of attention. She was also outspoken about what happened during the MOVE bombing. But that was the path of her choice.
How did you, Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater come together to make this project?
Janet, Barbara and I worked together on another film called “Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter,” which was about a woman fighting for asylum in Philadelphia to protect her daughter from ritual genital cutting in Mali. Barbara and Janet, who are based in Philadelphia—I’m based in New York—were approached by a colleague who knew Sonia. They then asked me if I wanted to collaborate with them on this project.
I’m of a different generation than Barbara and Janet, but I knew of Sonia when I was a kid, having read her work when I was in 5th or 6th grade. I had always been a fan, so when they asked me if I wanted to work on the project, I said yes without hesitation.
Is there something that even people who know of Sonia’s work would learn from “BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez” that they wouldn’t learn in other media?
This is a very personal portrait of her, so you get a glimpse into her life and who she is as a human being on multiple levels—artist, mother, teacher, wife, all of these aspects that make up the totality of a human being. And you understand what she sacrificed for her work. From an artistic perspective, the film opens at the title credits and she’s writing. So you actually, from the beginning, are immersed in her process and how she creates something. I don’t think you’ve seen that anywhere.