The US v. John Lennon (2006)
Bill Long 4/2/08
Give John A Chance
This documentary, released in NY and LA in Sept. 2006 and in London on the 26th anniversary of Lennon's death on Dec. 8, 2006, skillfully explores, with some fits and starts, Lennon's transformation from "flower child" artist to committed anti-Vietnam War activist whom the United States government tried unsuccessfully to deport to England from 1972-76. The action of the movie concentrates primarily on the period from 1967-1974, but it moves unsteadily backwards and forwards so that the notion of a fixed chronology is lost in the welter of images from that tumultuous period. This essay highlights significant events from that film and then talks more specifically about the deportation case against Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, which lasted from 1972-1976.
Getting the Flow of the Movie--and the Times
The movie opens with what directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld consider one of the significant turning points in Lennon's political life--his singing at the benefit/support concert for John Sinclair in Ann Arbor, MI on Thursday, Dec. 10, 1971. Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1969 after giving two joints of marijuana to an undercover narcotics officer. This concert brought together a collection of the most illustrious left-leaning entertainers and political organizers of the time, including Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis and Bobby Seale. Shortly after this concert the MI Supreme Court ruled the state's marijuana laws unconstitutional--thus leading to Sinclair's release.
This concert and the seeming connection between the power of the artist/political organizer to effect change in the Establishment's way of doing business (influencing the MI Supreme Court) no doubt struck terror of sorts into the Nixon Administration. Already worried about the power of the anti-War movement and knowing that he would face re-election in fewer than 11 months, the Administration then devised a scheme to get rid of Lennon. Aided by Senator Strom Thurmond, whose Feb. 4, 1972 memo to then-AG John Mitchell urged Lennon's deportation based on a 1968 conviction in England to possessing cannabis resin (hashish), the Nixon Administration began a full effort to have Lennon deported.
Lennon and wife Yoko Ono retained veteran immigration lawyer Leon Wildes to handle their case. Wildes had come upon the recommendation of Alan Kahn, house counsel to Apple Records--the recording company used by the Beatles and John Lennon. In a fascinating article reminiscing on that case, Wildes describes the legal strategy he used from Jan. 1972, when he was retained by Lennon, until the case was finally dismissed in 1976. I will speak about that below but since not much of it is in the documentary, I will skip it for now.
After dumping us directly into the Sinclair concern and then into immigration issues, the movie retreats to try to set the broader context in which these events were happening. The particular focus of the film is to show the gradual political radicalization of Lennon. Though a chronology isn't really given (that is, we don't really know what happened to Lennon in 1966-68 that radicalized him), we do meet John and Yoko in bed in Amsterdam in the week following their March 20, 1969 wedding (the wedding took place in Gibraltar). By that time John had been completely brought over to radical politics, even though he saw himself as an artist and not a political activist and he disagreed with efforts to spark a violent revolution. The film spends at least 10 minutes with John and Yoko in bed, where their message of total communication and "peace/love" was either welcomed by their supporters or ridiculed by those on the political right.
The documentary also has clips of a Dec. 1969 interview between John/Yoko and famed anti-War New York Times reporter Gloria Emerson. Not only does the film make Emerson look like a carping and bitchy critic, but it illustrates the way that the Establishment, even the left-leaning Establishment (embodied in the NY Times) would try to descredit Lennon for his more radical methods. Her approach, in the interview, seemed to be a combination of ridicule and complaint. Seeming to be concerned that Lennon not look "ridiculous," she peppered her comments with a patronizing style and contentousness that, nearly 40 years later, make her look like the lapdog and the ridiculous one.
But the movie breaks down a bit once we get to 1972--just when the immigration case against Lennon is heating up. The directors don't go into any of the legal machinations or interesting legal issues in the case, and their broad brush just wants to tar the proceedings with political meddling by the Nixon Administration. However, even though the Nixon Administration (and Nixon himself) were engaged in the effort to remove Lennon, the way that the case started and stopped, met various new challenges and ultimately was resolved, were not handled at all in the film. It just quoted John Lennon to the effect that the INS just seemed like a bureaucracy which didn't know how to deal with his question, and so it prolonged the issue for years. But John Lennon never professed to know much of anything about law--
Supplementing the Film with Leon Wildes' Reminiscence
Space doesn't permit many words about Leon Wildes' work on his case, but it should be mentioned, both because the film does such a poor job actually describing his case and Wildes does such a good job telling his own story.
Wildes mentioned that he secured a stay of the deportation order, which originally had ordered Lennon and Ono out of the country (they were on temporary visas, called waivers of admissibility) by February 1972, for a month. In that time they plotted and put into effect a two-pronged strategy. The first part of the strategy was to file with the immigration court a document which would argue that they were "outstanding persons in the arts or sciences whose presence in the US is deemed by the AG to be in the national interests." The purpose behind these documents was to give high profile to Lennon's case and to put the government in a pickle. If the government refused to make this recognition, they would be going in the face of millions/tens of millions of people who knew the international artistic importance of Lennon. But the irony was palpable. AG John Mitchell was just then receiving memos on ways to deport Lennon. To have him recognize the significant artistic importance of Lennon to the US would be a delicious irony.
Wildes had to go to federal court in order to gain an injunction to prevent deportation until these artist petitions were adjudicated. Finally, the INS approved them and declared John and Yoko "outstanding artists..." After this, the road would be for Wildes to argue that John's presence in the country was necessary to aid Yoko as she sought custody of a child from a previous marriage. When this was combined with Wildes' strategy of getting Lennon declared a "non-priority case" (a secret categorization of persons denied by the INS head at first but later admitted), which would mean that he would not be ripe for deportation, they had a winning combination.
Before that "non-priority" status was awarded Lennon, however, he was ordered to be deported by the INS, which order was affirmed by the Board of Immigration Appeals. However, the "non-priorty" status designation arrived just before the Court of Appeals entered its decision to reverse the BIA decision to deport Lennon. Thus, Lennon was able to remain in the United States even without obtaining permanent residence.
Admittedly, the legal issues in the case are complex and the subject is one whcih only immigration lawyers themselves know well. But the film suffered for not having examined or even tried to examine the legal strategy of Wildes. Americans are interested in that stuff.
In conclusion, one can say that the cocumentary obviously sides with Lennon against the authoritarian and paranoid tactics of the Nixon Administration. The Nixon folk really despised the protestors, and some of that attitude is still very evident in G. Gordon Liddy, who was interviewed for the film. Liddy doesn't come out looking like an attractive figure at all. But, then again, he probably doesn't care what people think, even though he keeps his moustache neatly trimmed. We are left asking ourselves the question of what the significance of the movie appearing in 2006 was. Certainly the parallels to the current Administration, though not expressly drawn, were hanging over the movie. And, it is a salutary warning--whenever you have politicians who are worried about dissent and want to squelch it (which our current President certainly wanted to do before he became unable to do so), free-speaking and creative people ought to worry..
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long