Francisco by Alison Mills Newman review – lost classic of black radicalism

The 1968 American series Julia, about a single mother raising her son, was one of the first TV series with a black woman in the lead. The mum’s babysitter was played by Alison Mills. One day, aged 17, she asked the producer if she could stop wearing the hideous wig that covered her hair. The producer replied that her real hair looked like rats had been sucking on it.

Mills had been a working actor since she was 12, but was now fast approaching the realisation that she no longer believed in Hollywood. “My beauty,” she wrote a few years after Julia in her only novel, Francisco, “existed before the white man commercialised it or bought it, and it will exist long after the black man has woken up out this western nightmare.” First published in 1974, when it was hailed by the likes of Ishmael Reed and Toni Morrison, and now reissued with an introduction by writer and academic Saidiya Hartman, Francisco is the autobiographical story of a runaway 70s Hollywood starlet on the road in the San Francisco Bay area – a runaway from Hollywood and from white America.

A runaway, too, from fame and recognition, from Hollywood producers, from black “guest roles”, from waiting around for that movie that never gets made – but most importantly, from an enforced conformity that would have turned her into a palatable version of a black woman.

It is shockingly different from contemporary fiction inasmuch as Mills feels no need to placate her readers

The eponymous Francisco is her lover and the documentary film-maker Francisco Newman. Everything in the novel revolves around him making a film about Angela Davis. Mills wants to be there for her man because they are in love, but she is “honestly bored of Angela”. Francisco won’t have sex while he is finishing his film, so Mills sits to one side and describes coolly, in small letters and deliberately informal English, the black indie scene of the 70s. How, away from the Hollywood Hills, these accomplished men and women were living an alternative lifestyle of films and fornication – and happiness.

Mills attacks the mainstream film industry from the start. She describes producers as people “disappearing into luxurious office bathrooms only to return naked, lying on the floor and playing with themselves, inviting me to join them, making it unmistakably clear the repulsive act was required to secure the advancement of my already promising career”. The more political she becomes, the greater threat she poses; not only to Hollywood, but also to Francisco and his clique, who now see her less as a talent and more as “the great woman behind every great man”.

To not be a white girl, despite the standards of the time, is all that she asks. And to achieve that she allows herself to be nothing for a while but a shadow at film screenings and intelligentsia parties. Who is she when she is not putting on ridiculous wigs? Francisco is fuelled by the values of the civil rights movement – the true artist or intellectual is not someone successful under capitalist conditions but one who holds on to the truth of black liberation.

This book has the urgency and life-threatening despair of James Baldwin and shades of the bell hooks woman who seeks to reconstruct herself through love. It is also shockingly different from contemporary fiction inasmuch as Mills feels no need to placate her readers. But I do wonder what the author – now Alison Mills Newman – makes of the #MeToo and #HollywoodSoWhite movements; her story confirms that black artists have been banging on the door about the same stuff for 50 years.

Rediscovering this lost classic is like finding a montage of the radicalism of the black America of the 60s and 70s from where plenty of writers and activists of colour have drawn their courage. Read it for the author’s clear-eyed spontaneity, for Hartman’s foreword and for cameos by the likes of Angela Davis and Pharoah Sanders among others.

Francisco by Alison Mills Newman is published by New Directions (£11.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply