It takes an incredible amount of tenacity and belief in a project to stick with it for 14 years, but that’s just how long it took for Ray Santisteban to see his documentary The First Rainbow Coalition come to light. All told, he’s worked for 26 years as a documentary filmmaker, teacher, and film curator who’s won multiple awards both for making films and teaching (including a “Faculty of the Year” Award from the Chicano Studies Program at UW Madison). He has always been interested in political subjects and artist profiles, addressing the themes of justice, memory, and political transformation in his work. One of the reasons The First Rainbow Coalition took so long was because Santisteban had to convince one of its most central characters, former Black Panther and longtime activist Bobby Lee, to finally speak publicly about it. And by that time, sadly, Lee was ailing with a terminal illness, making his presence in the film all the more poignant.
The story of the most unlikely of alliances, between Latino activists the Young Lords, Chicago Black Panther Party members, and working-class young southern whites of the Young Patriots, captures not only a surprising and compelling historical “moment,” but now feels timely in its way, too.
The San Antonio, Texas-based Santisteban talked to us a bit about the making of this film, including how he got to know all the activists featured in this story and the deep and lasting friendships between them that developed well past political allegiances.
What inspired you to want to make a film about the first Rainbow Coalition?
Since 1990, when I graduated from film school, I have worked on a number of films about U.S. activist movements of the 1960s within the Native American, Black, and Latino communities. I saw that there was a great deal of interaction between the various social movements of that era but few people were aware of that. And I think that is an important historical reality to share.
This film was an attempt to reassess the activism of the 1960s not as singular movements within the nation’s diverse communities, but rather as a series of alliances big and small that helped propel activism on throughout the country.
As the film neared completion, my goal for it expanded in that I saw it as a vehicle to show how communities could work together toward common goals; a message that directly counters rising voices seeking to sow division within the country.
How do you see this documentary as relevant to—or having an impact on—younger audiences?
I do hope this film has an impact on young viewers (18-21) especially. Although I hope that everyone who sees the film can benefit and learn from it, I believe that many young people today are looking for ways in which they can make a positive impact on the world. This film showcases a story they likely have not heard before and presents a unique approach to social change; that is working together with other communities rather than being isolated.
What was the hardest thing about starting this film? What other obstacles did you have to overcome?
The primary challenge at the beginning of the film was to figure out what the film’s story was really about. Unfortunately there was very little primary information about the Rainbow Coalition when we began to make the film. There were not any books written about that Rainbow Coalition alliance when we began production, so I really had to start from scratch with my research. There was a 1969 cinema verite film called “American Revolution II” by the Film Group in Chicago that showed interaction between two of the three groups I featured in my film, so there was just not that much out there about our film’s topic.
The film eventually over thirteen years to make. Once the program began production, the primary challenge over much of the course of the film was how to garner enough funding to keep moving it forward.
How did you get the members of this coalition featured in your film to open up to you and tell their story?
Gaining the trust of characters in a documentary film is an ongoing process throughout a film’s production; it’s a dynamic that does not just end at a specific juncture. You could lose a subject’s trust at any moment depending on your words or actions.
As a Chicano filmmaker, the Young Lords really were trusting with me from the very beginning; we knew a lot of the same people which I think helped a great deal. The challenge with the Young Patriots members was actually finding them and making contact with them, which took about two years to do; but once I did make contact we hit it off fairly quickly.
I was introduced to Chicago Black Panthers member Bob Lee by his longtime friend and fellow Panther Henry Gaddis. I later learned that Bob Lee had turned down a large number of producers over years who had sought interviews with him. He simply would not return their phone calls. I’m not sure exactly why he trusted me but I think it had a lot to do with the fact that we would talk at length about a wide variety of subjects; none of which related to grassroots politics directly. We’d talk about poetry, history, art, photography etc. The only time we talked about the Black Panthers or the Rainbow Coalition was when the cameras were rolling.
What was something you had to cut from First Rainbow Coalition that you wish people could see?
Towards the end of the film we had a short scene about how urban renewal programs eventually displaced the Puerto Rican from Lincoln Park and the Southern White community from the Uptown Chicago communities. I had hoped to strongly convey that this process of the displacement of poor communities (which continues today through gentrification) really started in full swing back in the 1960’s.
We do mention that many of the Rainbow Coalition members were displaced, but don’t go into it in much detail. 56 minutes seems like a lot of time to tell a story, but at the end you really are fighting to keep as much of the film intact as possible in order to make your broadcast length.
Can you pinpoint your favorite scene or one you think is most important?
I think the scene where members of the Rainbow Coalition gather in Houston once they hear that Bob Lee of the Black Panthers was diagnosed with cancer is a pivotal moment in the film. [It] takes our primary characters out of talking about the past to dealing with the present and their legacies, and shows how the ties that bound the Rainbow Coalition members did not just revolve around politics but really around personal relationships.
And I think it’s important to note that Rainbow Coalition members’ friendships were not just politically expedient; there [were] lasting friendships made during the 1960’s which continue on today.
Bob Lee’s message during his last days really captures the spirit of service that was at the heart of their movements: “Keep serving the people man. You know, even for just three or four hours a day. Like my mom would say, save your own soul; do something for somebody. And that’s pretty much how simple it is, man.”
Do you have any updates on the main characters in your film you can share?
Bob Lee passed away in 2017.
Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez who was a high school dropout during the peak of his work as an organizer, went back to school and is about to get his Masters.
Hy Thurman is opening a school called “the North Alabama School of Organizing” which will help a new generation of activists learn organizing skills and techniques.
What film/project(s) are you working on next?
I am in the early stages of producing a documentary film that explores the life of a Marine who has served multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan but who drowned while saving two young people here in the states.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
City Lights, Chungking Express, Black Narcissus.
Texas Public Radio interview: Members Of The First Rainbow Coalition Put Aside Differences To Fight Social, Racial Injustice