By Whitney Strub
The September 1967 Head Start Manual of Policies and Instructions listed some recently made documentaries, including a “community action film” set in Newark, New Jersey, which “shows that there is strength in unity.” With the explosive events of July still so fresh, anyone could be forgiven for assuming that With No One to Help Us, as the film was called, depicted the urban uprising the press had termed riots, and which locals later deemed the Newark Rebellion, events so famous they demand no explication, whose afterlife would define public perception of Newark for decades to come.
In fact, With No One to Help Us focuses not on those iconic images of gunshots, buildings aflame, and tanks in the streets of Newark, but on the efforts of a group of poor and working-class mothers in the South Ward to organize a food buying club, to better forge collective buying power against the local grocers who exploited their individualized commercial weakness. Running only twenty minutes, the short film deserves a place in Newark’s cinematic canon, as a rare look at Black women’s activism, a story often overshadowed by the more masculine imagery that dominates the memory of 1967. As well, With No One points toward a genealogy of mutual aid in Newark, a topic that has drawn a great deal of attention on the left particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the urgent need for communities to organize internally in the absence of a serious state commitment to those in need—of healthcare, housing, or, as depicted here, affordable food.
The film opens in a quick jumble of shots, Black women talking about their negative experiences at the hands of local merchants. “He didn’t believe I had purchased what I purchased,” one explains, as a male narrator intervenes: “This is Newark, New Jersey. These women are on welfare. And they’ve formed this committee to protect their rights.” In the style of 1960s direct cinema, most of the speakers are presented without introduction by name, aside from Marion Kidd, chair of the committee, who has been struggling for eighteen months to get it organized. She lays out the problem: stores, such as the Clinton Hill Meat Market (“Your Southern Store Up North” as its sign announces, with perhaps multiple layers of meaning, not all of them comforting), that are “overcharging welfare clients who were buying on credit.” She asserts the solution: buying collectively at wholesale prices. Simple enough, so far.
The problem, however, is not one of analysis but rather one of power. With No One to Help Us is a remarkable film not just for its focus on the voices and political thought of poor and working-class Black women but also for its almost singular devotion to process. For most of the film, we watch Kidd and the other women talk. They make calls, they debate strategy, and it all conveys vividly the challenges of organizing even when everyone fundamentally agrees on goals. Democracy is simply messy. One organizer proposes a monthly members fee of ten dollars, on the grounds that “we gotta have the money to get started.” Rebuttal comes quickly: “I don’t know if everyone here is on welfare when they’re talking about ten dollars existing in the month to give up,” an attendee complains. Local churches have offered some food donations, but the women know they’ll need to organize for themselves for any sustainable impact, mobilizing resources they barely have.
Another conundrum arises in the form of a Black man in suit and tie, apparently from the local United Community Corporation, the local body set up to administer President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Thinking himself helpful, he advises the women on the need for a stronger presence at agency meetings if they’re going to make bureaucratic inroads; seeing twenty people at this gathering, he says next time there should be forty. The condescending tone, in which any racial solidarity founders on the shoals of gender, infuriates the women, who have worked tirelessly to reach this point and make their irritation known. The scene captures the costs of sexism; minus the smarmy mansplaining, he clearly possesses some institutional knowledge, but by conveying it patronizingly rather than in any register of solidarity, its value is wasted. Indeed, he inadvertently brings the women closer together as they unify against his intrusion.
The women manage to set up connections with wholesalers, but obstacles still arise; because of licensing and health-inspection requirements, the arrangements can’t include meats, to the disappointment of some. Still, their enumerated needs include scouring pads, bleach, canned milk, dry cereal, grits, lard, salt, pepper, and more, and one lead organizer explains that this is all a preliminary test: if they can band together, and if it indeed saves them money, who knows what else is possible?
We see the women (and some male friends) unload a truck into a storefront and unfurl a poster in the window about consumer cooperatives (which promise to “educate constantly” and “expand continuously”), and collectively cook a meal. “I was tired,” one member explains on the soundtrack, “we were all very tired,” with the tiredness of worry and uncertainty. But With No One to Help Us offers hope: here we have a group of Newark women empowering one another, working through their oppression, building consensus, and taking action. It’s the very essence of mutual aid effectively undertaken. Mutual aid works best as a tactic, not a strategy unto itself; untethered to specific campaigns, it can languish in permanent prefigurative stasis, arguably shaking people loose from capitalist alienation through new and more cooperative social relations but in practice easily sliding into simple charity (certainly not a bad thing in and of itself, but rarely possessed of the radical, transformative energies mutual aid aspires to unleash). In that sense, the film depicts an exemplary mutual aid project, one with concrete goals symbiotically tied to community self-empowerment, precisely the dialectic that moves participants from states of prefiguration to awakened political consciousness, as directed by themselves rather than any outside savior figures.
A short final scene with children at an amusement park feels glommed on and unnecessary, pinning the film’s political argument to a reproductive futurity (“for the children…”) when working-class Black women organizing for themselves was already a powerful enough claim to importance, though the fact that Project Head Start funded the film probably helps explain that.
With No One to Help Us is a modest film, not particularly stylistically or formally ambitious, mostly composed of medium shots and closeups without much local scenery. One could strain a bit and locate something Bressonian at times in some of the tightly cropped faces, but what really stands out here is less the filmmaking per se than the simple act of taking seriously the dignity and intellectual worth of Black women on welfare. It’s white figures behind the camera—producer Bill Jersey was a longtime liberal documentarian whose work also included A Time for Burning (1967), the remarkable documentary about racial tensions in Omaha, Nebraska, and husband/wife directorial duo Eugene and Carole Marner were true craftsmen, the kind of filmic journeymen whose rich and varied careers deserve more attention (together and apart, they helmed Phyllis & Terry, a short 1965 documentary about two poor Black girls that was praised by the tastemaking Cahiers du Cinema; shot television documentaries about Africa, birth and death, and more; wrote for Tales from the Darkside; won an Emmy nomination for writing work on PBS’s Heritage: Civilization and the Jews; made children’s movies in the 1980s such as Puss in Boots with Christopher Walken; and ran a summer stock theater in New York). Commendable work by them, to be sure—but not the historical focal point of the film.
Instead, the focal point is, of course, the women depicted. They’re a challenge for the historian to track, since the film gives us so few proper names to search for, but Marion Kidd left more of a paper trail—and a legacy of activism. August 1968 found her leading welfare mothers in a picket line at the Essex County Courthouse demanding higher benefits; the next month, a sleep-in for more back-to-school clothing funds. By 1969 she was in charge of a National Welfare Rights Organization contingent that “stormed the State House in Trenton,” as the Star-Ledger put it, with further demands for school clothing allowances, in “one of the noisiest demonstrations in recent State House history.” With No One to Help Us had clearly caught Kidd warming up. She continued this work into the 1970s and beyond, passing in 2012 at the age of 83.
With No One to Help Us has drawn little scholarly attention, though Stephen Charbonneau situates it within the “managerial liberalism” of the Great Society (it was one of many short documentaries produced by the Office of Economic Opportunity, which oversaw Head Start) in Projecting Race: Postwar America, Civil Rights and Documentary Film (2016). Mark Krasovic also uses the film to narrate the social history of community action programs in Newark in The Newark Frontier: Community Action in the Great Society (2016), which also notes that Marion Kidd lent her name to an ACLU lawsuit against the city after the police lawlessness of July 1967 that was masked by reducing the unrest to mere “riots.” Indeed, it was from Krasovic, a colleague at Rutgers-Newark, that I first learned about the film, which I’ve since assigned in numerous classes.
The fate of the buying club itself is not well documented, but I asked Krasovic, and he recalled Robert Curvin, a founder of the local Congress of Racial Equality chapter and later a Newark historian too, suggesting that it didn’t last more than a year or so, at most. Still: these women organized for power and made some changes happen, caught on film. With No One to Help Us is easily eclipsed by other Newark documentaries, sandwiched as it is between Troublemakers, which the year before it showed the New Left’s efforts to create “an interracial movement of the poor,” and Amiri Baraka’s The New-Ark the year after it, which captured the nascent Black Power politics that would culminate in the 1970 election of Newark’s first Black mayor, Ken Gibson. A few years later, Janie’s Janie (1972) showed a white woman’s feminist consciousness surfacing in the Ironbound.
All of those films are valuable, but none center poor Black women politicizing themselves. The buyer’s club may have been ephemeral, but its reverberations persisted, seen today in the work of such groups as the Newark Water Coalition and Brick City Mutual Aid, among others. Easily available on YouTube, Vimeo, and the Internet Archive, With No One to Help Us deserves placement in the canon of Newark documentary and cinema in which Black lives truly matter, and is very much worth watching and considering for those on the contemporary left engaged in mutual aid projects.
Whitney Strub teaches history at Rutgers-Newark, where he co-directs the Queer Newark Oral History Project. He has long blogged about films shot in Newark at strublog, and can be found on Twitter at @whitstrub.