Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Top Ten List #3 I Am Not Your Negro

Medgar Evers

James Baldwin (left) with Medgar Evers, March 1963

Medgar Evers casket, 1963

Malcolm X, 1963

Malcolm X casket, 1965

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. casket, 1968

James Baldwin

James Baldwin (center) with A. Philip Randolph (left) and Bayard Rustin (right) following the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama, March 1965

James Baldwin listens to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. following the march from Selma to Montgomery, March 1965

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO        A              
USA  France  (95 mi)  2016  d:  Raoul Peck

What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.
—James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro clip - Future of America YouTube (2:01)

A blistering and incendiary commentary about American history as seen through the educated and emancipated eyes of James Baldwin, an openly gay, distinguished black American writer forced to leave the country in 1948 due to the entrenched systematic racism that he felt was so pervasive that he literally feared for his life and had to escape, moving to Paris, where he finally felt safe and his career blossomed.  But during the Civil Rights struggles of the 60’s, he felt an obligation to be a part of it and not watch from afar.  What he witnessed was white community rage targeted against non-violent blacks marching for equal rights, police brutality against innocent black victims in protection of that white rage, and the murder of three influential black figures in the 1960’s, Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, all shot down in the prime of their lives before they reached forty, with the writer having a close personal relationship with all three men.  Baldwin envisioned writing a book tying the stories of these three men together called Remember This House, but he died in 1987 before it was ever completed.  However, every single word of this film is taken from Baldwin’s original draft, becoming a shattering and profoundly moving film essay read by Samuel L. Jackson that emulates what Baldwin had in mind, speaking candidly about race in America from personal experience, yet retaining poetic oversight in recalling how difficult it is for America to be truly accepting of blacks, as instead they buy into various fantasies that make whites feel better about themselves, but have virtually nothing to do with black reality.  It sounds harsh at times, and sarcastically critical, but he lays the foundation of how whites have been fooling themselves since blacks were brought to this country, as they’ve always been viewed and treated as less than human, but the majority white population barely raises an eyebrow to the barrage of violence inflicted upon blacks on a daily basis, accounting for the lack of credible social change that’s been crying out for a solution for centuries, but there’s little evidence that whites have any personal interest in the lives of black people other than through various entertainment venues, where a solid musical soundtrack featuring traditional blues music accompanies archival footage, where only the contemporary Kendrick Lamar tune playing over the end credits feels like a minor misstep.  What’s curious about the timing of this film, now that one political party has completely abandoned all efforts in addressing issues of race, or social and economic inequality and has instead become a party exclusively for white people, perhaps people of good conscience may listen this time around, while previously they might have felt overly complacent, thinking this criticism is simply too brutally harsh, as conditions for blacks couldn’t haven’t deteriorated to this extent, but the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and continued police shootings of young black males across the country, with police departments routinely spreading false narratives to justify their actions, along with the rise of an exclusively white political party, which also has a habit of spreading false narratives, with no accountability whatsoever by police officers across the country or their unions, where white supremacists are no longer considered terrorists, but every black man in America is subject to being treated like one, have left this nation anxiously in a different state of high alert, especially if you are a person of color.  Ironically, this may actually become the most commercially viable film of Peck’s career.  

Haitian director Raoul Peck got his start with what is arguably his most brilliant film, The Man On the Shore (L’Homme sur les quais) (1993), a poetic masterpiece recalling the insidious terror from the late 50’s to the early 70’s during the reign of the Duvalier dictatorship and his armed militia, the Tontons Macoute, who similarly terrorized the Haitian population, yet few have ever seen that film, as it has never been released on DVD.  Still it remains one of the most meaningful and impactful films this viewer has ever seen.  Peck spent many years in the Congo when his parents escaped the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti in the early 1960’s and followed with LUMUMBA (2000), another extraordinary work revealing how Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba (Eric Ebouney) and his struggle for African liberation was undermined by the former Belgian colonial rulers, their longtime financial partner, the United States, and by extension the United Nations, inventing a fictitious communist bogeyman to justify covert actions removing him from power on behalf of western capitalist world bank issues.  Despite being freely and democratically elected, U.N. soldiers that were assigned to protect Lumumba did nothing to stop his torture and brutal assassination in 1961, revealing the moral hypocrisy of how America and its western allies, the supposed democratic leaders of the free world, actually undermine democracy in African states.  The HBO made-for-TV production SOMETIMES IN APRIL (2005), shot in Rwanda, reenacts the Rwandan genocide, using thousands of local Rwandan citizens, many of whom experienced the genocide firsthand, to act out their own national tragedy, where over the course of 100 days in 1994 Hutus massacred more than 800,000 Tutsi people, mostly using machetes, claiming the use of a bullet was a wasted bullet on a Tutsi “cockroach.”  Perhaps the most devastating scene is a massacre of schoolgirls by an angry mob of murderers at a French Catholic school after the European evacuation, where the girls refused to betray their Tutsi classmates, so all of them were shot together.  As in LUMUMBA, Peck implicates the inaction of the Western democracies who spent their time in the United Nations arguing about whether what was taking place was actually genocide (requiring a military response) or merely “acts of genocide,” where they could sit on their hands and do nothing, noting that the western media was far more preoccupied with the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.  While those, up until now, are likely Peck’s best films, the one this most resembles is PROFIT AND NOTHING BUT!  OR IMPOLITE THOUGHTS ON THE CLASS STRUGGLE (2001), a blistering critique of capitalism, that rages like Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, laying out the case for capitalism’s winners, but only at the expense of over two-thirds of the rest of the world who, as a consequence for the lavish lifestyle of a few, live in abject poverty with absolutely no hope of any change in their lifetime.  In tiny powerless countries like Haiti all hope is lost, where Peck suggests criticism is meaningless, as the war is won, complete with all the means to communicate the message, as the media is all owned by large corporate entities which are not about to dilute their profit margins.  This kind of seething emotional rant is exactly what Baldwin had in mind when recalling the bloody history in America of how whites have mistreated blacks from the outset, viewed and treated contemptuously as second class citizens, as if they are less than human.  While many would prefer to believe otherwise, the reality is that most white Americans have simply never risen above that view.  

In addition to the unfinished book, Peck includes material from an infamous debate at Cambridge University in 1965 between Baldwin and William F. Buckley on the 100th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery, arguing the question, “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” which can be seen on video and in written transcript here, Transcript: James Baldwin debates William F. Buckley (1965) - Blog #42, also viewed here:  James Baldwin Debates William F Buckley 1965 - YouTube (58:57), and transcribed here:  Classics of American Political and Constitutional Thought: ..., where Baldwin at one point pleads, “The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors, through four hundred years and at least three wars.  Why is my freedom, my citizenship, in question now?   What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history.”  Baldwin never joined various organizations, like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or Malcolm X’s Black Muslims, or even the Black Panther Party, and offers his reasons, but mostly because he refused to believe all whites were bad.  Fittingly, his own childhood growing up in Harlem is an example of a white teacher going out of her way to help a gifted black student, not only bringing him to libraries, discussing great literary works, but taking him to plays and concerts, offering him exposure to a wide range of arts, where it’s clear it was at great personal risk to do so, as this was certainly not reflective of the norm.  Similarly, Peck expands the canvas to include clips from American films, revealing how whites were revered for their heroism, like John Wayne in STAGECOACH (1939), or the many romantic films where men routinely get the girl, while blacks were continually emasculated, shucking and jiving in UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (1927), reduced to minstrel clowns like Stepin Fetchit in I AIN’T GONNA OPEN THAT DOOR (1947), or the butt of all jokes in Eddie Anderson’s character of “Rochester” in various movies and in television on the Jack Benny Show (1950 – 65), perhaps reaching its apex with Sidney Poitier in GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR DINNER (1967), where a handsome and virile black man never gets sexy or struts his stuff, has an overly timid onscreen kiss, refuses all premarital sex, and has to tip-toe his way through an interracial marriage in a white world without stepping on anybody’s toes, conceived as idealistically perfect, having to be completely acceptable to whites in every way, which is the only way the film was accepted in the American South.  Baldwin makes a point about America’s double standard on the Dick Cavett Show (1968 – 74), I Am Not Your Negro clip - Baldwin/Cavett YouTube (1:17), claiming whenever whites pick up a gun, like John Wayne in the movies, they are viewed as heroic patriots defending their land and freedom, but when blacks pick up a gun, whites don’t hesitate to view them as criminals and outlaws, where society treats them differently solely due to race.  Outside of honorary war service, there may not be a single instance in American history when a black man picked up a gun and white America concluded they acted heroically.  Accordingly, America, a land formed by patriotic fervor and revolutionary sentiment, “Give me liberty or give me death,” has never allowed blacks to have their own heroes.  This racial stigma persists into the present and contrasts mightily with the list of black men being beaten or killed in the hands of the police, where a pathological sickness persists in our society, part of which is a societal unwillingness to clearly view a problem even exists, offering less and less of the urban resources needed to address the problem.  White police anxiety in the presence of black communities has led to killings in epidemic proportions, where there is a systematic, nationwide problem, yet little if anything is done to stop the killings.   

One of the strongest realizations of Baldwin as a small child was that in viewing the John Wayne movies where the noble American hero saves the day from the savage Indians, is that “the Indians were you.”  Blacks in America are perceived in much the same way as the Indians, a force that needs to be eradicated, to pave the way for whites, which may subliminally explain why so many young American blacks today are either dead or incarcerated in order to alleviate the fears of a pervasive white anxiety.  Baldwin goes so far as to find the white race delusional in their thinking towards blacks, as they continually lead their lives in total denial about the reality of black life, where in this film a perfectly coiffed Doris Day worries about her looks and her love life in LOVER COME BACK (1961), but the scene fades to a succession of archival photographs of lynched black men, made all the more harrowing and grotesque by the clueless faces of the white men gathered nearby, not a single one feeling an ounce of remorse (The Charleston Chronicle, American Lynching: 4,000 Unpunished ...).  As those faces peer back at us from the screen, Baldwin offers some stinging remarks, “You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves.  And, furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage.  You never had to look at me.  I had to look at you.  I know more about you than you know about me.  Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” while we hear firsthand stories of school children having to pass by lynched bodies hanging from trees in order to get to and from school, where the bodies were intentionally left hanging for days in order to send an even more terrifying message.  How much more of a stark contrast is there than that?  Whites are simply used to looking out for themselves while ignoring the festering problems that persist in black urban communities, which are literally starving for jobs, resources, opportunities, institutions, hospitals, medical centers, and places of employment, all strangely and peculiarly missing in black neighborhoods, yet drugs and liquor stores are pervasively found wherever you look.  What impact does that have on black kids growing up?  It’s obvious the implications are that the larger society simply doesn’t give a damn about them.  That is what every black child learns at a very early age while white children everywhere are told they are special and can be whatever they want.  Blacks must continually strive to overcome this disadvantage, as exemplified by the young black girl passing for white in IMITATION FOR LIFE (1934), humiliated and ashamed when her visibly black-skinned mother shows up in her classroom, exposing her secret identity.  One of the more interesting revelations was hearing Baldwin speak so derisively about the Kennedy brothers, recalling being in the room with playwright Lorraine Hansberry urging Attorney General Robert Kennedy to provide protection for the innocent black students who were bused to previously all-white schools, where she walked out of the meeting when it was clear he was offended by the request, believing all that theory about justice is blind, leaving kids to fend for themselves against angry white mobs spitting on them while yelling angry racial invectives in their faces, traumatic moments leaving permanent psychological scars.  Baldwin also recalled a speech by Bobby Kennedy in 1961 predicting in forty years we may have a black president, a message that reverberated differently between black and white audiences, suggesting the comment was laughed at by blacks, as it condescendingly suggests if blacks capitulate and behave themselves “like good little negroes,” maybe whites will let you have a president — in forty years — , which is followed by poignant, slow motion footage of the Obamas marching in the first inauguration parade. Among the most effective stream of images are white police violently targeting the mostly black Birmingham marchers with dogs and billy clubs in 1963, the black outrage shown in the Watts riots in 1965 and again after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, then connecting these same images to riots following the Rodney King verdict in 1992 allowing all white police officers to be vindicated of any criminal wrongdoing, where they could simply walk away free, followed by more recent images of young blacks who have been killed at the hands of police, suggesting a single time line connecting the past to the present, where Baldwin’s outrage can be seen in a brief clip from the Dick Cavett Show in 1968, James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show - YouTube (1:02), where his words continue to resonate just as deeply now as when he spoke them.  This is not just brilliant and articulate filmmaking, it is essential viewing, among the most acutely intelligent and profoundly eloquent films ever made on race in America.    

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