Michael Zinzun was an activist and community organizer based in Pasadena with a heart for the entire world. His life and legacy is explored in the new documentary Zinzun: A Revolutionary Activist.
The storyline of the film is mostly linear and incorporates new interviews with Zinzun’s family, friends and mentees along with newspaper headlines and archival footage to explain who this man was. Zinzun was created by the same filmmakers who produced Thorns on the Rose, an honest look at police brutality in Pasadena.
This film opens by quickly explaining how Zinzun was born in the projects in Chicago then when his father died, he moved to Pasadena at the age of eight to live with an aunt. Zinzun was first introduced to the social justice movement through his friend, Jonathan Jackson, whose older brother was the legendary George Jackson. The elder Jackson became a household name for his work advocating for prison reform. He spent more than seven years in solitary confinement for petty theft. The younger brother himself became an activist and, in 1970, he sought to free George in a plot that had ties to Angela Davis. He was shot and killed in the attempt.
Zinzun is often associated with the Black Panther Party. Even the Los Angeles Times identified him as a former member in his obituary. The documentary acknowledges that yes, his own journey in activism had ties with the Black Panther Party, but he only was a member for two years and found many flaws in the political ideology of the party as well as the glorification of its leaders.
“When we talk about leadership, we have to learn from the lessons of the ‘60s and the fact that we can’t just put people up on pedestals,” Zinzun says in the film.
In 1974, he joined with other local activists to form the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA), which became the organization through which he lived out his mission. The first major case that spurred on the group’s work was the 1979 murder of Eula Love at the hands of police outside of her home.
Although the film follows the life of Zinzun, it also tells a broader story of the social justice movement, explaining how Maxine Waters supported their petition for a civilian police review board early in her career. During a scene where former police officer Don Jackson breaks down racism in police departments in the 1980s, the film cuts away to scenes from 2020.
Zinzun always had a team working with him because he knew the vision was bigger than himself.
“He did it in love, he went around to find individuals that had that same type of heart because you can’t just get anyone and bring them in,” Zinzun’s brother-in-law, Carlton Edwards, says. “They have to have the same heart, they have to have the same vision or focus that you have. So that takes time. Those are the things that a lot of people don’t speak about Michael. He took the time to find the proper individuals to minister in the way that they should to help the people out.”
Zinzun was very involved in the local happenings of Pasadena and South Central Los Angeles. He himself was a victim of police brutality when he was beaten by a police officer after attempting to intervene in what he saw was an unfair arrest at Community Arms. He was left blind in one eye and was awarded a $1.2 million settlement from the city.
He used his cable television program, Message to the Grassroots, to raise awareness about important happenings like the police brutality against Rodney King. He also was an advocate of peace between rival gangs and even hosted a truce meeting on the show. In the 1990s, he became a local spokesperson frequently interviewed on the news to discuss current events. The documentary expertly weaves in segments of Message to the Grassroots to paint the picture of Zinzun’s life mission.
Zinzun didn’t just talk about change, he practically improved his community as well. Following the example of the Black Panthers, he hosted a free breakfast program. He also hosted a Black history library in his own home and even ran a free pest control service so that his people would be able to live in better conditions. He took local children on field trips to the beach, museums and the zoo to broaden their worldview. Interviews and archival footage with Zinzun’s mentees Derrick Dancer and Twilight Bey are especially effective in showing the real impact Zinzun had.
But Zinzun also had a heart for the world. He took Message to the Grassroots to Namibia and Brazil and was vocal against apartheid in South Africa. While Zinzun hints at this larger mission in the beginning of the documentary, it only unpacks the depth of his global worldview in the last third.
Zinzun died in 2006, the film simply says “in his sleep” written in white text on a black background. Instead of elaborating on his death at the age of 57 and having a segment on people mourning his physical loss, the filmmakers chose to show how his work continues through activists Brandon Lamar, Jasmine Abdullah, Michael Williams and Patrice Marshall.
The life of a man like Michael Zinzun can’t possibly be captured in 40 minutes, but Zinzun: A Revolutionary Activist is a great history lesson on an activist who inspired a generation to see themselves as more than a statistic and as individuals with the power to make change.