Collective Activism

Running at the Tyneside Cinema until late January, Civil Rites is a new film by artist in residence Andrea Luka Zimmerman. It’s a response to the iconic Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech that he delivered in 1967, on receipt of his honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle, which he was awarded on a two-day visit to England.

Back then, King warned against the “darkness of discrimination” that was potentially casting a shadow across the United Kingdom. “I see some ghettoes developing and some prejudice existing – the thing is to prevent it in the beginning. If it can be prevented, England can save itself from many of the dark and desolate nights we have had in the US.”

A speech now fifty years old, Zimmerman’s work takes this as a jumping off point, visiting locations including Newcastle, Jarrow, South Shields and North Shields as it seeks to listen to citizens today as they think through responses to King’s speech. What has changed? What has not? Questions asked include: “Why does racism exist?”, “What does the word poverty mean to you?” and “Why do you think war has not been eradicated?”

Featuring over two-dozen interviews, those included range from passers-by to educators, community organisers and residents both long-established and new to the area. Zimmerman calls the film “a form of ‘witness statement’: place, voice and event working together both to honour moments of historic, collective resistance and to share thoughts and feelings on issues crucial to all our lives but about which we are rarely – if ever – asked.”

Each location in Civil Rites is filmed in a single fixed shot, while the whole sequence moves from dawn to dusk across the city. But what makes the film unique is the way it explores the region’s long-standing history of activism. The chosen locations are all central in Newcastle’s history of civil resistance, drawing on original personal testimonies and the dozens of sites and stories catalogued by the Northumbria University website ‘Radical Tyneside’.  Research by the university’s Professor Brian Ward into King’s visit and the region’s historic links to the African American freedom struggle also proved crucial.

Civil Rites runs from 8 December to 22 January at Tyneside Cinema. For more information, visit:

James Mottram

1. Still from Civil Rites. Courtesy of Andrea Luka Zimmerman.