The Education of Sonny Carson (1974)

The Education of Sonny Carson, which was made on a shoe-string budget, has several obvious flaws. The camera-work is amateurish. The script is sloppily edited. The performances are melodramatic and over the top. Yet in spite of its flaws, it often rises to greatness.

The real Sonny Carson was no angel.

“His autobiography, ”The Education of Sonny Carson,” was made into a movie in 1974. The film chronicled Mr. Carson’s early life in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he joined a gang called the Bishops. In the book, the climax of his early life of street crime, which he described with brutal candor, came when he robbed a Western Union messenger, who was black. He spent the money on clothes and a girlfriend, then was arrested and sent to a juvenile-detention institution for the crime.”

I’m old enough to remember Sonny Carson’s later career in the 1980s. He participated in anti-police brutality marches. He founded the Black Men’s Movement Against Crack. More controversially, he led a boycott of a Korean-owned supermarket called “Red Apple,” a boycott which led to his being investigated by the FBI for “violating the civil rights of Korean Americans.”

He got horrible press.

The NY Post, the Daily News, and the local TV stations loathed Carson. He was ritualistically denounced as an “anti-Semite,” a charge he answered by saying “that’s ridiculous. I’m against all white people.” NYC Mayor David Dinkins was pressured into disavowing him when rumors surfaced that he had been the recipient of Democratic Party campaign funds.

It’s important to remember, however, that this is the same NYC press that helped the NYPD frame the Central Park 5 for the rape and attempted murder of the Central Park jogger. It’s the same NYC press that tried to tie the Occupy Movement to a 5-year-old murder. It’s the same NYC press that regularly carries water for the white, racist, NYC ruling class. Anything they say about any black nationalist militant needs to be taken with a massive grain of salt.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that The Education of Sonny Carson, which covers Sonny Carson’s life from junior high-school to young manhood, rises to greatness, not in spite of its faults, but because of its faults.

Rony Clanton, who plays Carson, is an often powerful on-screen presence, but he’s not a subtle actor. He doesn’t draw out the complexities of Carson’s personality. He plays him as a straight up African American Christ. The Education of Sonny Carson might just as well have been called The Passion of Sonny Carson. Yet this is a strength, not a weakness. The Education of Sonny Carson doesn’t get bogged down in the real Sonny Carson’s moral failings. Carson, in Michael Campus’s film is a flawed man, but he’s also a representative man. When Carson is tortured by the NYPD for robbing 100 dollars from a messenger boy, we’ve already witnessed the crime. We know he’s guilty. But once two white detectives tie him to a pipe and beat him until he spits up blood, he rises above his crime. He becomes every black man subjected to police brutality, every slave brought over from Africa, every victim of every oppressive system of government. When he survives three years in prison with his defiant spirit intact, he cheer him on in spite of his flaws. Carson becomes subsumed by, and representative of the black struggle in America.

Similarly, the poor editing is a blessing in disguise. Had The Education of Sonny Carson been been better written, had kept its focus, we wouldn’t have gotten so many glorious shots of 1960s and 1970s Brooklyn. Campus lingers on a parade in Bedford–Stuyvesant far too long. It gets tedious. It kills the momentum of the narrative. As history, however, it’s enlightening. Brooklyn was a very different place in 1974 than it is now. There were no white hipsters with trust funds, but there was a dynamic, rambunctious, often violent street culture. There was crime, murder, betrayal, but there was also a community of people who were excluded from, and often stood against the American mainstream. If only they could get together and stop fighting one another, we think, they could start a revolution. The Education of Sonny Carson would become The Battle of Algiers.

But, alas, that was not to be. The Education of Sonny Carson gets the next few decades just about right. Carson is able to keep his defiant spirit alive in prison, but that can’t be said for his friends, gang members, and his old girlfriend. Carson comes home to a Bedford–Stuyvesant ravaged by drugs, to a neighborhood of the walking dead. He’s a living man in a community full of zombies. He looks out at the street. He imagines the parade we saw earlier in the film. But it’s not there. Where there were marching bands, cheering crowds, street gangs, colorful, dynamic expressions of African American Brooklyn, there’s nothing but dead concrete. Sonny Carson’s Bedford–Stuyvesant has been hollowed out by poverty, a lack of educational opportunity, police repression, and by the moral failings of its community. It’s ripe for gentrification. Bring on those hipsters.

A final note: The Education of Sonny Carson was an obvious influence on two later films, Walter Hill’s The Warriors and American Me by Edward James Olmos. If you liked either of these two films, you’ll love their rough draft.

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