Marcus Garvey is one of the most contradictory and enigmatic figures in American history, both visionary and manipulative, a brilliant orator and a pompous autocrat. He was a strong advocate of black self-help and unity among people of African descent, yet was willing to collaborate with the Ku Klux Klan. He inspired African Americans to support his economic enterprises with their hard-earned money, yet lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the mismanagement of those schemes.
Marcus Garvey: Look For Me in the Whirlwind, the first comprehensive documentary to tell the life story of this controversial leader, uses a wealth of material from the Garvey movement-written documents, film and photographs-to reveal what motivated a poor Jamaican to set up an international organization for the African diaspora, what led to his early successes, and why he died lonely and forgotten. Among the most powerful sequences in the film are articulate, fiery interviews with the men and women whose parents joined the Garvey movement more than 80 years ago. Together they reveal how revolutionary Garvey’s ideas were to a new generation of African Americans,West Indians and Africans and how he invested hundreds of thousands of black men and women with a new-found sense of racial pride.
The film begins in 1887 in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, where Garvey was born. It covers his discovery of racism as a schoolboy and his travels through Central and South America in his 20s. The terrible exploitation of black workers Garvey witnessed on that journey angered him. He returned to Jamaica after a two year sojourn in England and Europe, determined to change black people’s place in the world. “Where is the black man’s government?” he asked. “Where is his president, his country, his men of big affairs? I could not find them.”. In August 1914 he established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) and African Community’s League (A.C.L.). The organization’s goals were ambitious – racial unity, economic independence, educational achievement, and moral reform — but in just two years financial woes forced Garvey to move to the United States.
In the fall of 1917, a year and a half after arriving in the U.S., Garvey established the headquarters of the U.N.I.A. in Harlem where he found an eager audience among disaffected West Indian immigrants. Starting with a handful of compatriots, the Harlem chapter would become the parent body of the revamped U.N.I.A. It grew rapidly with the end of W.W.I and with dozens of chapters worldwide, it was destined to be the largest black organization in history. Key to Garvey’s ideology was black self-reliance. He established the Black Star Line, a shipping company which raised over $600,000 before collapsing in 1922, and the Negro Factories Corporation, which developed grocery stores, a restaurant, a laundry, a moving van fleet and a publishing house.
Garvey’s success in mobilizing blacks earned him the suspicion of the U.S. government. His brand of nationalism also led to bitter feuds with other black leaders, including African Americans and West Indians. The most notable of Garvey’s rivals, W.E.B. Du Bois, described him as “dictatorial, domineering, inordinately vain and very suspicious.”
In 1923, the U.S. authorities successfully prosecuted and convicted Garvey for mail fraud in connection with stock selling for the Black Star Line. Garvey served a two-year sentence and was then immediately deported. By the time of Garvey’s death in London in 1940, the U.N.I.A .was a mere shadow of what it had been. With his dreams of Pan African unity and economic independence aswell far from, he himself was considered by many to be either a laughable utopian dreamer or a flamboyant and dangerous racial nationalist.