Quick, tell me everything you know about Grenada. If you’re over the age of 35, you can probably remember Ronald Reagan’s thin lips pronouncing the country’s name with a dangerous emphasis on the first two syllables, essentially weaponizing the word, conjuring images of an explosive device with a pulled pin just waiting to detonate. That’s the official American version of the Caribbean island’s modern history, one dominated by the assertion that Grenada’s government was working in tandem with communist Cuba to become a military base. According to Reagan, it was necessary to bring the “spirit of freedom” to Grenada, in the form of a military strike. But that’s not at all what was happening, argues the Netflix documentary The House on Coco Road, by director Damani Baker, who was living in Grenada at the time of the invasion.
The story of Grenada as Baker knows it begins in Los Angeles. Baker shows us childhood home movies from his mother, Fannie Haughton, relaying horrifying memories with a casualness that says you shouldn’t be surprised by them. Haughton reminds us that, in the mid-20th century, black families would drive together in groups for safety when they took road trips back home to the South, always packing their own food and never stopping for gas. These details may seem unrelated to the history of Grenada, but Baker, like Ava DuVernay in her, is tracing out nothing less than the historic roots of a population shift. He soon circles back to Grenada to paint a clear picture of why so many black Americans fled to the island country. But what’s most striking about Baker’s version is that it is dominated by women.
Interviews with Angela Davis, Fania Davis and Haughton, who was an activist and Davis’ assistant at UCLA, illuminate the complex operations of progressive organizers in the 1970s. Baker delves into his mother’s early, dangerous work with Davis and treats her later work, running the activists’ collective childcare center, with equal gravity; women could drop off their kids for a bit and stay in the fight. Baker has dug up remarkable footage, including Davis as she’s rarely seen, simply existing on campus, talking with other women or lecturing a class of rapt students.
The director picks up his own childhood story in Oakland, California, when Davis was charged as an accessory to murder. With Davis in prison awaiting trial, Haughton had gone on a volunteer trip to the Caribbean and witnessed what seemed to be the utopian development of the recently independent country of Grenada. There, a man named Maurice Bishop had assumed the role of prime minister, ousting the dictatorial leader Eric Gairy. Bishop’s grand plan of a community working in harmony to build an airport and become a tourist destination and a trade hub — without the trappings of greedy capitalism or racism — drew many traumatized black Americans to the island in the early 1980s. Haughton packed the family’s bags immediately.
That airport turned into Reagan’s justification for invasion; we see the president telling Americans on TV broadcasts that it served as a landing strip for Cuban-Soviet military forces. The director juxtaposes that with Bishop’s multiple public statements that they categorically did not want to be involved in military conflict, as well as Haughton’s own accounts of distress from the American president’s refusal to ally himself with Grenada, despite the many Americans living and studying there.
Haughton also happened to be friends with Bishop and the other high-ranking officials. My jaw literally dropped as Baker listed the names — so many women. The film perplexes and angers; Baker shows us that what these people had — a functioning paradise for and by black people, where women had equality — seemed to be working. And the United States could have helped. Because the U.S. government confiscated and destroyed much of the video and recordings of Grenada, pre- and post-invasion, Baker’s narrative — much shaped by materials from his mother’s personal archive — emerges as one of the only existing counterpoints to the official American story of Grenada.
If all of this sounds heavy, it is. But while Baker takes the subject matter seriously, the tone is often lighthearted, hopeful, reminiscent of DuVernay’s 13th, which simply relays the facts and allows you to draw your own emotional conclusions. But where 13th is backgrounded by bass-heavy hip-hop, Coco Road is sustained by the funky, psychedelic swirling guitar of Meshell Ndegeocello — even in his music selection, Baker is privileging the women. Stylistically, I can see influences of Zora Neal Hurston’s early short-film work on the way Baker overlays archival scenes atop one another, creating an eerie double-negative effect. Occasionally, Baker inserts himself into his mother’s voiceover, echoing her words for emphasis, like Gertrude Stein’s sound experiments. Baker may be a man, but he’s doing a hell of a job putting women up front.
This documentary doesn’t just tell the ill-fated story of the failed Grenada utopia — which failed because of American intervention. The House on Coco Road is instead a sprawling tale of African-American migration, the search for peace and America’s relentless sabotage of black escape.