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FILM SUMMARY

 

Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey opens with a series of fast-paced newsreel clips. This introductory segment gives an overview of the documentary's focus: Khrushchev addresses the UN General Assembly; Joseph McCarthy searches for disloyal employees at the State Department; Stokely Carmichael philosophizes about his radical agenda; Bunche negotiates armistice agreements between Israel, Egypt, Trans-Jordan, Lebanon and Syria; Bunche wins the Nobel Prize and receives other accolades for his achievements. This introductory montage sets the stage for the fundamental issues and questions addressed in the film.

How should history view Bunche as we look back on his life and work from the 21st century?

Did Bunche's appreciation of "politics as the art of the possible" weigh too heavily on his approach and lead him to fail in achieving real justice for all people? Was he an honest broker or a tool of the industrialized West?

As the most honored and widely respected Black American of the day, did Bunche fight as diligently as he should to advance equality and justice for African Americans?

How did Bunche's childhood and education shape his philosophy and worldview?

After the introduction, the film proceeds chronologically. Photographs, commentary from family, colleages and historians, excerpts from Bunche's writings, newspaper headlines and documentary film footage tell the story of Bunche's rise from humble birth in Detroit to world renown as Undersecretary-General of the United Nations.



The account of his early years and schooling focuses on Bunche's family, especially his grandmother, Mrs. Lucy Taylor Johnson -- called Nana. It shows how her ideas of black pride, belief in education and hard work shaped her grandson's character, his competitive spirit and his commitment to excellence. In bold relief, the film portrays the racial prejudice of the times and Bunche's refusal to become its victim. He wins a scholarship to UCLA, graduates summa cum laude, goes to Harvard, earns a Master degree in political science and graduates with distinction in 1927.



Bunche is immediately offered a teaching position at Howard University, the pioneer black institution of higher learning in the country. He joins the faculty and is appointed chair of the political science department, which he reorganizes and expands. He returns to Harvard to pursue further study, conducts extensive field researh in Europe and Africa and, in 1934, is awarded a Ph.D. for his doctoral dissertation on colonialism. He returns to Howard where he resumes teaching and writing. Bunche responds to the growing racism and deterioting economic situation of the 1930s by calling for equal civil and economic rights for the American Negro. The theme of justice and equality will become the driving force of his life's work. In the midst of the depression, he and his friend, John P. Davis, form a new political organization -- the National Negro Congress -- to advance the social, political and economic status of the Black, and white, worker. Bunche's association with this organization, which later became Communist-infiltrated, led to the accusations that haunted him in the 1950's.

In a brief interlude, the film turns to view rising Fascism in Europe and the stranglehold in which the imperial powers held the vast colonial world. This segment, in particular the invasion of Ethiopia and the failure of the League of Nations to protect it against Fascist aggression, provides the context for the publication of Bunche's landmark book, A World View of Race. The book examines the economic basis of imperialism and racism.

As war engulfs Europe, Bunche is invited to join the Office of Strategic Services -- an intelligence agency set up by President Roosevelt in anticipation of America's entry into the war. Bunche leaves the academic world and begins his public service career which takes him to the State Department, to the San Francisco Conference and, eventually, to the UN. He is appointed head of the new Trusteeship Division, which is charged under the Charter with overseeing the administration of all territories placed under trusteeship and tracking thier progress towards self-government.

The next segment turns to Palestine as as Britain lays the problem of its mandate at the UN's doorstep. The film examines Bunche's role as arbitrator and negotiator during this intensely critical period in the Middle East crisis. His work earns him the Nobel Prize in 1950.

The film then returns to the McCarthy Era and the Cold War struggle between East and West. The search for Communists in high places leads to accusations against Bunche. Summoned to appear before the International Employees Loyalty Board, Bunche is finally cleared when his former friend, and former communist, John P. Davis, testifies that Bunche never was a member of the party. UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld, appoints Bunche Assistant Secretary-General without portfolio, a new position he creates and the highest one that can be held by a citizen of any of the five major powers.

The Suez Crisis of 1956 now takes center stage. Bunche plays a major role in diffusing the crisis, which has brought the world to the brink of a war between the great powers. He organizes, and directs, the first international UN peacekeeping force. The UN action successfully stabilizes the situation and the invading forces withdraw from Egyptian territory. Then the film treats the independence movement in Africa, as Bunche becomes the UN's chief troubleshooter. Vintage footage documents the celebration of Ghana's independence. Bunche is next seen in the Congo where he has been sent to offer economic and technical assistance to the newly independent nation.

Newsreel footage recalls the turbulent transition to self-government in the Congo, as ethnic and Cold War rivalry threatens to split the country apart. Bunche finds himself in the middle of a power struggle, working to negotiate a settlement and keep the country from descending into chaos. He describes this situation as the toughest spot he has ever been in.

The next sequence looks at Bunche's work on behalf of civil rights in the United States in the 1960s -- the March on Washington, the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The film concludes with an evaluation by scholars of Bunche's contributions to civil rights in the United States and human rights around the world. His own words end the film:

The real objective must always be the good life for all the people. International machinery will mean something to the common man throughout the world only when it is translated into terms that he can understand: peace, bread, housing, clothing, education, good health, and above all, the right to walk with dignity on the world's great boulevards.

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