Stream Joanne Grant's documentary about the civil rights icon for free via the Wexner Center
Ella Baker is sometimes described as a behind-the-scenes organizer of the civil rights movement, but that doesn’t quite get at her role. In “Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker,” a 1981 documentary by Joanne Grant currently streaming at the Wexner Center, Baker isn’t in the background. She’s often shown onstage speaking with a big voice, spurring groups to action with fiery speeches.
Baker was instrumental in forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960, and she mentored young activists like Stokely Carmichael and Rosa Parks. Before that, she served as a field secretary for the NAACP and helped establish Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Baker was integral to the movement; her influence was undeniable.
But she bristled at the notion of singular leadership, advocating instead for group-centered leadership. Baker saw herself as a facilitator. “I didn’t have the need to be considered a leader,” she says in “Fundi,” a theme she repeated in another scene: “My ego wasn’t at stake at any time.”
“Everything she was involved in, it was all about the collective, and collective action. It wasn't so much about her and her personality,” said Dave Filipi, director of film and video at the Wexner Center, which is presenting “Fundi” in conjunction with Tomashi Jackson’s “Love Rollercoaster” exhibition, with themes of voter disenfranchisement that overlap with Grant’s one-hour documentary. “It couldn’t be more timely.”Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
The further America gets from the civil rights era of the 1960s, the more the movement tends to be described as a monolith, with various leaders all fighting for the same cause in similar ways. But “Fundi” reminds viewers that history is often messier than we remember. Certain scenes provide fascinating looks behind the curtain of the movement, with Baker’s contemporaries discussing — and often disagreeing about — the recent past. Some of the voices critique Baker, who at one point admits, “I was difficult.”
“A lot of these people are almost sainted. … We're all guilty of it. As time passes, history starts to slide into these neat boxes,” said Filipi, noting that Joanne Grant, who was a writer as well as a filmmaker, approached the documentary from a journalist’s perspective. “It doesn't necessarily follow this neat narrative where every talking head is coming out and saying how important the person is. … She's getting the whole story, and she does want to have conflicting opinions.”
Ohio State’s Rare Books & Manuscripts Library holds Grant’s archive, and in a new Wex video, Jolie Braun, curator of the library's modern literature and manuscripts, provides an overview of Grant’s career, which also involved writing a biography of Baker. Grant worked as an assistant to W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, and she was a reporter for radical leftist newspaper The National Guardian, covering the civil rights movement in the South.
“Many of the male leaders of the civil rights movement have been recognized, but the women who had made significant contributions were less well known,” Braun says in the video. “Grant was part of a group of friends and colleagues who wanted to make a film about Baker because they believed her accomplishments deserved wider recognition.“
“[Baker] is still not terribly well-known to a contemporary audience. … And she was fighting for things that we’re still fighting for today,” Filipi said. “Hopefully people have a chance to see [‘Fundi’] and realize that people fought for this. People gave their lives for some of these issues, and we can't take it for granted, because people are always trying to take those rights back.”