By JR Valrey, the Minister of Information
Ever since I stepped into the Human Rights Movement in the mid 90’s, I have heard California Black Panthers talk about the work of a legendary Panther organizer in Pasadena named Michael Zinzun, who was notorious in the community for fighting police terrorism. I never met the man, who passed away in 2006, so I am glad that filmmaker and journalist Dennis Haywood brought his memory back to life with a documentary on him, called “Zinzun: A Revolutionary Activist”, which is officially selected to screen in the San Francisco Black Film Festival, this coming June. It is important for Black people to memorialize our community heroes and sheroes, instead of just allowing the racist media to dictate, through celebrity culture, who we should deem as important.
Filmmaker Dennis Haywood is prolific when it comes to making documentaries with social commentary. With his documentaries, he is a major asset to keeping the spirit of resistance alive in Black cinema today. Check him out in his own words. And go to sfbff.org
JR Valrey: What struck you about the legacy and life of Michael Zinzun that made you want to do a documentary about him?
Dennis Haywood: Growing up in Pasadena, we all knew who Mike was. He went to high school with my mother, and I remember seeing this man with the big afro when I was young and asking my mother who he was. She told me his name was Michael and he fought against police abuse.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about some of the community work that Michael Zinzun did while he was in the Black Panther Party and outside of it?
Dennis Haywood: Michael traded in his Porsche and bought a bus to take kids in the neighborhood places to explore life outside of Pasadena. He held the very first Black Panther meeting in Pasadena, at his house. Along with his wife Florence, there were around six other original members. He had a free breakfast program for the kids in the neighborhood. He started the Coalition Against Police Abuse in 1974 and he fought against police abuse until he died. He did so many things worldwide, that it would be a book, by the time I stopped saying what he did. An easier question would be what didn’t he do because the answer would be, not much.
JR Valrey: How difficult was it to get in touch with the people that loved Michael Zinzun to help tell his story considering he passed over a decade ago?
Dennis Haywood: He passed in 2006, but he was so loved that it wasn’t easy getting in contact with the right people to do this project. One of my producers was a direct mentee of Michael’s.
JR Valrey: What do you hope people get out of this film?
Dennis Haywood: This film is an educational tool for activism. Michael was a revolutionary activist. The Pasadena Unified School District talked about him for the first time after the film was viewed. The response has been overwhelming and he will soon be part of the curriculum. Hopefully, organizations like Black Lives Matter can learn from Michael about how to go about living the life of a true person fighting for the people.
JR Valrey: What does Michael Zinzun’s legacy mean to the city of Pasadena’s Black community?
Dennis Haywood: Michael is the greatest man who did the most that the city has produced. I made the film so he will be forever remembered. No one fought for others the way he did. For all social causes, not just police abuse. He was worldwide in the struggle.
JR Valrey: Why is it important for us to tell our own stories about our heroes in the community?
Dennis Haywood: Pasadena cherishes the memory of Jackie Robinson, but the truth is Jackie hated the way white people treated Blacks in Pasadena. He was chosen to play baseball and never returned to Pasadena. Michael chose to fight for the people and died in Pasadena. But all the kids now heard about was Jackie until now. Michael was 100 times the man Jackie was when it comes to contributions made to mankind.
JR Valrey: What is the importance of Michael Zinzun taking a non-compromising position with the Pasadena police, even to the extent where they beat him blind in one eye?
Dennis Haywood: Mike was a warrior. He didn’t care what the police did to him, he was going to stand tall. He taught me to stand tall and fight for my people. It wasn’t just Pasadena, he had a very strong hand in the gang truce in Watts. Michael was beloved throughout Los Angeles.
JR Valrey: How long did this documentary take to create from conception to post-production?
Dennis Haywood: Luckily, I was able to get in contact with Nancy Buchanan who produced Michael’s TV show, Message to the Grassroots, and she was also with him on trips to Namibia when they fought for their freedom to end apartheid. She had all of his archives and after she saw my first film, Thorns on the Rose: Black Abuse, Corruption & the Pasadena Police, she let me have everything she had. so it took around 6 months.
JR Valrey: Why did you enter this film into the San Francisco Black Film Festival this year?
Dennis Haywood: We entered the SFBFF this year because we enjoyed it last year. The Bay has a conscious vibe to it and the films I make are social. They are revolutionary, so as long as I’m making films, the SFBFF will be one of the sure stops.
JR Valrey: How could people keep up with the film?
Dennis Haywood: www.paafoundation.org