Monday, January 30, 2017

In I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, Raoul Peck reminds us of James Baldwin's continued relevance

TrustMovies came of age at just about the time that James Baldwin -- essayist, novelist, playwright, short-story writer and the deepest thinker regarding race in America that had yet appeared -- hit his creative stride. To my mind this man (born in 1924, died in 1987) remains still the deepest thinker about race in America we've had, combining first-hand experience with thoughtful, honest analysis to reach the kind of conclusions that America, particularly its white contingent, had not been able to even form, let alone digest, on its own. It still, for the most part, has not.

All of which makes Raoul Peck's fine documentary (the filmmaker is shown at left) -- using only the words of Mr. Baldwin, along with archival film clips in which he (and a few others) speak -- so important and relevant to our current time. One listens to his words here with as keen an ear as possible (you may want to watch the film a second time), simply to better be able to take it all in. The documentary ostensibly jumps off from Baldwin's plan to write a book on the lives/deaths of three important figures from recent black history -- Medgar Evers (shown below, with Baldwin),

Martin Luther King (below, right) and Malcolm X (below, left) -- all of whom Baldwin knew. He did not live to complete this book, leaving behind only a minimal manuscript, so the film uses this, as well as his other writings, along with the archival (and some much closer to present-day) visuals, to give us Baldwin's look at America. The view isn't pretty, and it forces us -- especially those left-leaning, "right-thinking," would-be liberals among us -- to assess our own past and present and how seriously we've ever taken the idea that "black lives matter." How closely have we entered any of those black lives to discover how they were lived and/or spent?

Hearing Baldwin's words (via the voice of Samuel L. Jackson) while viewing the visuals makes for a compelling experience on a number of levels, reminding us of events we were part of back in the day, while allowing us to see the way in which these events were consistently refracted through our lens of "whiteness." This is true as much with the lives/deaths of Evers, King and Malcolm X, and the various protest movements -- then and now -- as it was with slavery (and its follow-up experience) and all the rest of American history.

The great strength of the film, and of Baldwin's writing, is the way in which it (together with Peck's visuals) forces us to see and acknowledge all this. Among the many highlights is Baldwin's book-end appearance on the Dick Cavett television show which begins the film and comes again near its end. The second appearance includes a face-off with a white Yale professor who offers up the usual platitudes about black life having improved over time and so please-stop-making-everything-about-being-black-or-white. Baldwin's answer to this is a combination of enormous passion coupled to absolute specifics regarding the black experience in which he decimates those platitudes.

How does one truly put himself in the shoes of another? Well, first off, you have to honestly, genuinely try. Mr. Peck -- together with the inspiration, intelligence and toil of Mr. Baldwin -- has given us one enormous shove in the right direction.

I Am Not Your Negro -- from Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studios, and running 95 minutes -- opens this Friday, February 3, in New York City at Film Forum, The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9; in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark; and here in Miami at the O Cinema, Wynwood, and the Regal South Beach 18.

To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here and then keep scrolling down.

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