Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 02, 2017 2:58 pm 
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"The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story."

Those solemn words, spoken by Samuel L. Jackson, exemplify the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck's work in bringing to vivid, searing life the perception and anger of James Baldwin. The words are from an essay in Baldwin's short (165-page) 1955 essay collection Notes of a Native Son. The next line, which Jackson doesn't read, dampens the drama. It goes: "The story of a people is never very pretty." But never mind. Peck's goal, stunningly achieved, is to embody James Baldwin's restless, eloquent spirit with words and images whose sparkle and provocation never let up.
James Baldwin's anger and pessimism about the condition of blacks in America seem more relevant than ever today, half a century later, and arguably the country is more ready for his words - as we can see, because Jackson sounds so right speaking them. This isn't a biography of James Baldwin. It has rarely seen archival footage that's shockingly relevant. But it's not a work of investigative journalism so much as an act of ventriloquism - and of sympathetic rage.

Baldwin was a gay black man born in Harlem, a novelist, playwright, essayist, and intellectual. He was also an an expatriate, who lived most of his life abroad, first in Paris, then in the south of France in the medieval hilltop village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. The film's bass note, its primary text, is thirty opening summary pages of an unfinished, abandoned work by Baldwin, Remember This House. When Baldwin's sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart, gave him access to this manuscript, he decided to anchor his film with it. In it Baldwin speaks about the trio killed in quick succession, Medgar Evers (1963), Malcolm X (1965) and M.L. King (1968), important black American leaders and also Baldwin's friends. Interwoven with this text voiced by Jackson come other texts and many subtly connected images and archival speeches and interviews that flow with stunning relevance. If this isn't, on the whole, new information, it still continually surprises with its contemporary significance.

There are no talking heads after the fact here, only the voices, the images, and the words of the time - with some relevant contemporary ones, such as images of Ferguson, Missouri, a succession of young black men recently killed by cops, and, after talk in the Sixties of the possibility of a black president, footage of Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House.

Baldwin was a regular on television, with black and white interviewers. In a black one, Florida Forum in 1963 (when he was back from France, where he had gone to live in 1948, at the age of 24), he is together with M.L. King and Malcolm X, and Malcolm calls MLK an "Uncle Tom." (It's made clear that they came closer later, as both swiftly evolved.) In the anger of his talk Baldwin seems closer to Malcolm than Martin. Even in an appearance on an early Dick Cavett show he never tamps down his provocation and rage in speaking of the black man in America. It goes over better, maybe, when Baldwin delivers a powerful address and argument at a Cambridge University debate, which like the Cavett show appearance is woven through the film. At the end, at Cambridge, he receives a standing ovation.

We learn a little about Baldwin that's important from the start: that he was taken in hand at school by Orilla ("Bill") Miller, a white teacher who leads him to say "it was certainly partly because of her, who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people." We learn he was on the FBI watch list: reports dramatically "typed" onto the screen declare him to be dangerous. He was friends with the playwright of Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry, another tragic early loss for him when she died at 34 (of cancer), while still "young, gifted, and black." We see Bob Dylan sing about Medgar Evers in Leacock-Pennebaker's Don't Look Back.

Somewhere about midway Peck begins the most remarkable part of his film, exploring and annotating Baldwin's searing comments on the history of the Negro in America (and the role and necessary abandonment of the word "Negro," used by him, but rejected). Stunning use is made of clips from Hollywood films. There is the earlier, 1934, John M. Stahl version of Imitation of Life, where Louise Beavers comes to retrieve from school her 8-year-old daughter who's been "passing for white." There are other films with poignant, or not shocking, portrayals of white-black relations, like the 1950 No Way Out and 1958 The Deviant ones, all these films with Sidney Poitier - another famous African American Baldwin knew. A glimpse of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner leads to Baldwin's discussion of why this movie seemed so offensive and "bizarre" to black people. The "sweet" parting between Sheriff Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in the 1967 In the Heat of the Night hangs in the air as a provocation.

There are even more bizarre images, such as a propaganda film "The Land We Love" from 1960, an idealized, patriotic, all-white image of America produced at a time when the falsity of that image was becoming most obvious to anyone. But Baldwin in his writings alludes pointedly to the bubble in which many white people lived. As bizarre as anything is a sequence of happy singing dancing running cartwheeling white people approaching the camera down a sunny slope in the 1957 musical The Pyjama Game. At this point, this image shocks and astonishes, and, if you're white, you are set up to feel viscerally what it was like to be an African American watching an American movie in the Fifties.

It's these interweavings and juxtapositions that make Peck's presentation of James Baldwin and his era so impressive. You just have to see them. This is a work of discovery, and of montage, and of - the word again - interweaving of image and text that's passionate and unique. The anger leads to a section, "SELLING THE NEGRO," about slavery and what it was like to know ancestors had been torn from families and sold on the block as chattel.

All of his writing was essentially autobiographical, and James Baldwin comes fully, articulately to life here. And yet one may have some reservations about this powerful film as either biography or polemic. As one who read Baldwin at the time when his novels were current and groundbreaking, that whole side of him, the Jamesian stylist and narrator of gay experience, the Harlem boy preacher become European sophisticate and salon darling and lover - one feels the absence of all that. Indeed, even the bare the fact that Baldwin was gay is mentioned only once, and that only briefly. The chronology of his life is passed over - was born in 1924, left the country in 1948, and died in 1987 - and when and how he was in America isn't wholly clear. One first key decision to come back to America is in the text, but he went back and forth, and the dates, aren't given.

And then, when it comes to the questions about race in America, Baldwin's angry declarations and texts sometimes just hang in the air, as they always did, serving as eloquent, and elegant, sounding off and not more. He was a voice of conscience and consciousness, but his forcefully phrased pondering is posturing, without proposals, as it always was. Unlike his satisfying fiction or drama, his essays on race and politics come across as attitudinizing, with the suggestion of meanings that don't quite jell. They do wake you up to black rage, though, and Peck's new film is a superb and galvanizing collage of images and voices. We need to hear the pros and cons on Baldwin explored further (on his positive reassessment by black intellectuals, see Thomas Chatterton Williams' recent New Yorker piece). Obviously, James Baldwin deserves to be read and studied more than ever, and if this enthusiastic salvo by Raoul Peck attracts a broad new audience for him, it will have served a significant purpose.

Despite the importance of the images and Peck's timing and placement of them, this remains an embodiment of James Baldwin's voice. He told Jackson not to imitate or read Baldwin but to be Baldwin, and this is where the film's remarkable and satisfying, because Jackson does do that, makes the words of Baldwin subtly his own, not speaking in his own voice, or a mimicry of Baldwin but in a third living voice that expresses a passion about African American experience that's alive today.

I Am Not Your Negro, 95 mins., debuted at Toronto 2016, and was featured at the 2016 NYFF as well as nearly a dozen subsequent festivals, including Berlin Feb. 2017. It opens theatrically in the US 3 Feb. 2017 and in the UK 7 Apr. English language critics' critical rating is Metacritic rating now 96% based on 27 reviews ("universal acclaim").

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