'Scared of Revolution': Film Review

A moving tale of personal redemption.
8/15/2019

Daniel Krikke's documentary provides a deeply intimate portrait of Umar Bin Hassan, a member of the highly influential spoken-word group The Last Poets.

Don't go into Scared of Revolution imaging that you will leave having gained insight into the history and legacy of The Last Poets, the influential early 1970s music and spoken-word group that no less a music legend than David Bowie named "one of the fundamental building blocks of rap. Instead, expect to be taken on a sad journey with Umar Bin Hassan, born Jerome Huling, one of its early and most important members. Daniel Krikke's documentary delivers a deep dive into the psyche of the man it describes as the "Godfather of Rap," but unfortunately skims over much of the history of the group and its seismic impact on hip-hop.

The film spends much time following Hassan, who seems older than his 70 years. As we learn, he's lived a hard life. Born in Baltimore, he's the son of an alcoholic, abusive father and failed musician who would take the money eight-year-old Hassan earned shining shoes. His father eventually abandoned the family, and a teenage Hassan stole his younger sister's record player to get the money to travel to New York.

Hassan found success and critical acclaim with the release of the first Last Poets album in 1970. But along the way he became addicted to drugs, which wreaked havoc on both his health and career.

Testifying to the group's importance are such figures as Bill Adler, a music journalist who was director of publicity at Def Jam during the seminal hip-years 1984-1990, and Bill Laswell, who produced their 1985 album Oh My People. But while the men talk about such things as how The Last Poets should be ranked alongside Gil-Scott Heron in terms of influence and that they were sampled on a Notorious B.I.G. record, few details are provided. Fellow group members Abiodun Oyewole and Aba Donn Babatunde are heard from as well, but they mainly restrict themselves to talking about Hassan. Although Oyewole does take the opportunity to boast, "There was no Twitter, no Facebook. But we sold a million copies."

Hassan is frequently shown recording poetry, both new pieces and excerpts from one of his best-known works that inspires the film's title, "Ni****s are Scared of Revolution." In one poem, he talks about his former addiction: "Drugs have always been a friend of mine/ When I trusted no one else/ When I believed in no one else/ Drugs were always there."

There are moments in the film that may prove as painful for viewers as they obviously are for Hassan. In one, his elderly mother describes her anguish upon learning how he bought drugs with the money she gave him. Making it all the more difficult is Hassan sitting at her side with a forlorn, guilty expression on his face. In another, he listens to his adult daughter talking about what an absent father he was when she was growing up. Hassan also recounts his attempt to reconcile with his father in 1990. It was too late, however, as his father was dying, and Hassan found himself having to make the decision to turn off his life support. He cries while recalling it, commenting, "Every time I go up on that stage, he's who I'm really playing for."

But as the film makes movingly clear, Hassan has mended a lot of fences and achieved a certain peacefulness late in life. One of the final shots shows him playing with his young grandson, looking less like a "godfather of rap" and more like a typical loving grandpa.

Production: Ideefix Media
Distributor: Film Movement
Director/screenwriter/producer: Daniel Krikke
Director of photography: Thomas Fibbe
Editor: Tim Scjhijf
Composer: Stravos Markonis

72 minutes