I saw the moving documentary, The House on Coco Road, at the current Los Angeles Film Festival. The film is the personal and intimate account of filmmaker Damani Baker’s mother — Fannie Haughton — and her important role in American history. Over the years, Haughton has been active as a student, teacher, writer, scholar, and activist/organizer.  In this inspiring family portrait, Baker draws on poignant archival footage from several generations of his family. The documentary includes insights from well-respected activists and family friends, including Angela Davis, and offers fascinating background about this family’s journey to try and create a better society.  In 1983, Fannie Haughton was offered a position in the Ministry of Education in Grenada and left her home in Oakland with her two children for a new life on that island nation. But later that year, the U.S. invasion of Grenada changed everything. The House on Coco Road, executive produced by Danny Glover, includes a beautiful score by Me’shell Ndegeocello. It is a riveting portrait of a woman and her friends who dared to strive for a better world during tumultuous times, and who continue to inspire people today. The documentary will have one more screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Wednesday, June 8, at 3:40 pm at Arclight Culver City. I sat down with Damani Baker and Fannie Houghton to talk about this powerful film.

Danny Miller: Your family intersected with so many fascinating eras in the history of this country as well as some of the amazing people who helped to effect change. Damani, does the final film reflect your earliest visions of the story you wanted to tell?

damani-fannieDamani Baker: Not at all! This film has been a real discovery process for me every step of the way. The Grenada narrative was the most obvious place to start because it’s grounded in all this history — my family was there going through this experience that’s so connected to U.S. foreign policy, American Imperialism, and the Cold War. But then, later, I had this moment with my mother when we found this box of much older footage of her family’s migration west. My grandfather, whose parents were sharecroppers, shot all this amazing footage in Louisiana when my mother was young. I started to realize that the story was really about my mother’s path to activism. In order to get to Grenada, you needed to understand why someone like my mother would come to make that decision to move there with her children in the first place.

Ms. Haughton, did you ever have any reservations about being the focal point of your son’s film?

Uh…yes! (Laughs.)

Fannie Haughton: I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes person. I was like, “What do you mean you want to make a film about me. Really?” It was a little hard for me at first. He wouldn’t let me see any of the footage either, he kept saying, “Trust me, trust me!” (Laughs.)

When you finally saw the film, were there any parts that made you uncomfortable?

I saw it for the first time just two weeks ago. I think he did such a wonderful job. There was just this one moment in the film that I can’t believe he put in. But I said to myself, “Let the man do his work!”

Oh, I bet I know which part you’re talking about! Was it the moment where he tries to get you to talk about his dad and you say, “That’s not part of my story!”

(Laughs.) Oh, you got it. I was like, “He put THAT in there?” But I have to admit that everyone who sees the film enjoys that part.


It was great hearing Angela Davis talk about those times and working with you back in the day, and also her getting to hear from her sister, Fania, who I didn’t know much about. Had you stayed in touch with them all of these years?

Oh yes, we’re family. Fania’s daughter is my godchild, we’re just family.

You call yourself a behind-the-scenes person which is what makes your story so wonderful to learn about. If not for all of the unsung behind-the-scenes people, nothing ever would have changed in this country.

Yes, absolutely. One part that I was happy that Damani put in there is when I talk about the Angela Davis Defense Committee from the early 1970s because people don’t really know about the work that we did and why that committee made such a difference.

I love when you talk about the education you got back then from older activists on how to run a broader campaign and get people on your side.

Yes, that’s so important. We were very young and starry-eyed back then but we learned how to really make a difference in a broad campaign. Put on your suit, go out to talk to people, don’t put them down just because they disagree with you.

Yes, and how there was an awareness that while you would never get some people to agree with Angela Davis’s politics, you could certainly convince them that she deserved a fair trial.

Exactly. It’s all about grassroots organizing which we need even more of today.

Angela Davis is such a fascinating figure in American history and, to be honest, remembering how she was vilified back then and to some extent still is today, it’s kind of a miracle that she survived those years. Did you often fear for her life back then, as well as your own?

Always, yes. I’m glad that one of the clips at the end of the film is of Angela’s mother, Sally Davis. She had such a quiet strength and she would assure her daughters that everything was going to be all right. She gave them the strength to fight for what they believe in.

As an aside, where is the definitive feature-length biopic about Angela Davis? Damani, maybe that should be your next project.

Damani Baker: I’m game!

Oscar time! When I learned about your experience in Grenada, I have to say that I was mortified to realize that despite my opposition to Reagan’s policies back then, I kind of took the State Department’s version of what went down over there hook, line, and sinker. Do you think the real story of the U.S. invasion of Grenada is starting to become more well known?

I think culturally we are now asking a lot of questions. Grenada is very interesting because it was the first war since Vietnam where the U.S. completely censored all media. I think they learned their lesson in Vietnam with the embedded journalists who were telling the truth and they didn’t want a repeat of that.

The pre-invasion life in Grenada that we see in the film looked pretty idyllic.

It’s very interesting to look at the Grenada model today. I was only nine years old when all that happened but even I could see the great advancements over there in terms of health care and education. I remember thinking, “Why would all of this be destroyed?”


Was it hard to figure out how much background information about what went down in Grenada to include in the documentary?

I tried to keep it all within the lens of my family. When you learn about the invasion, it’s from the perspective of my family hiding under our bed. When you learn about the government coup, it’s from the sounds and experiences that we went through living on the island during that time. When you learn about the tragic confrontation between Grenadians themselves, you see it from the perspective of people like us who knew individuals on both sides. We were in a unique position — this black American family living in Grenada during a monumental time in history so from a filmmaker’s perspective I just wanted to stay true to our experience.

During the invasion, the fact the U.S. government wouldn’t help you leave was so appalling.

Fannie Haughton: It was appalling. We were part of a community of international workers. All the other countries were sending ships to get their citizens except for ours. I remember we had some people from the American embassy coming to meet with us and we thought they were going to tell us about when the ships would be arriving. But you know the main advice our government officials gave us that day? “Duck!” They didn’t care.

And yet they made a big show out of getting the American medical students off the island and to safety.

Yes, that was their justification for invading the country — to ensure the safety of those medical students.

Evoking the passions over the hostage crisis in Iran a few years earlier.

Exactly. But, you know, young people in Grenada are asking questions now. In schools they learn absolutely nothing about their revolution or their past.


This may be a naïve question, but having been in the center of that event and then coming home and seeing the spin put on it, how do you not get consumed with bitterness and resentment?

To be honest, when we came home and heard all of the negative stuff, I was not surprised at all. We knew how the system worked. Today when I talk to young people, particularly black men, I see a lot of cynicism and a real lack of hope. That’s why I’m still an activist. I understand what we were doing back then…and what we are still doing!

Your story is so inspiring for people who may be interested in activism in any form. Did you ever think of writing a book yourself about your experiences during this time?

Yes, I have.

Damani Baker: What? Breaking news!

I love how the film ends with your simple message of how you just wanted to help people.

And that message of imagining a better world can happen on such a local, immediate, and personal level, it doesn’t have to be about moving to another place or any large, organized movement. It can be as simple as having people ask themselves what they can do to make life better four feet from where they’re standing.

Fannie Haughton: I taught public education for 30 years and I’m still training teachers to teach. That’s where my activism is now — training teachers to do the kind of inquiry work that can lead to change on many different levels. I’m also working on a curriculum to go along with this film.

Oh, that’s a great idea! Honestly, looking back at what you and your colleagues were doing back in the 60s and 70s, I only wish that you all had been running the country!

(Laughs.) We were trying!

Damani Baker: We’re about to launch a new interactive site for the film where we want to rebrand this idea of “revolution.” Revolution has been taught one way — we mostly understand it as this negative fear-based aggressive form of change so we’re going to build this environment where people can fill in what revolution is to them. The template will be “Revolution is…” and the answer could be a family reunion at your grandmother’s house, a conversation you have at the dinner table, or helping someone down the street who’s having a tough time. There are all sorts of ways that we can effect change.

THE HOUSE ON COCO ROAD (PREVIEW) from Damani Baker on Vimeo.