Wednesday, March 15, 2017

MOVIE REVIEW/I Am Not Your Negro
Baldwin's Fire This Time Letter To White America

A shot from Raoul Peck's documentary "I Am Not Your Negro", directed by Raoul Peck.

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                     
Wednesday, March 15, 2017

First-class filmmaking in every respect, Raoul Peck’s searing documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” is a brilliant autopsy of the white American social and cultural condition and institutional white racism and brutality to Blacks via James Baldwin’s 1979 notes entitled “Remember This House” (for what would be an unfinished book.)  Written as a chronicle of the assassinations of his friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr, Mr. Baldwin’s notes are palpable via Mr. Peck’s and Alexandra Strauss’s shrewd editing and the superb archival research of Marie-Helene Barberis and Prudence Arndt.

Notable are fond remembrances of Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X.   Samuel L. Jackson's solemn and soothing, soul-stirring narration has much to do with the depth of feeling in the writer's tales.  Mr. Jackson's work is the very best he's done on film.  His voice caresses Mr. Peck's fine film so movingly.

Mr. Peck lays out a roadmap: bucolic imagery, then inhumane or untenable disruptions of nature and grotesque violations of humanity.  Mr. Baldwin's appearances are as a voice of warning, admonition and reason, a moderator and indicter of white America's frenzy of violence against Black people.

Given today’s turbulent times in America and elsewhere, “I Am Not Your Negro” couldn’t be more timely or necessary.

“Negro”, a mix of archival news footage, television clips (a priceless clip of Mr. Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show) and vintage American films examines the effects of white cultural privilege and white supremacy on Blacks in America, and more so on the white psyche.  The film uses artists and activists to bookmark chapters of America's evolution or devolution on race and racism.  At every turn, "Negro" is an appeal to conscience -to white conscience - and it is always compelling viewing.

The documentary dissects white mythology like open-heart surgery and argues that the culture upholding it is on life support - and at the expense of the millions of Black people it has been propped up on the backs of. 

James Baldwin (center) in a scene from Raoul Peck's documentary "I Am Not Your Negro", directed by Raoul Peck.  Magnolia

Race, racism and the criminalization of Black people by white people, corporate media and destructive American film imagery while simultaneously ignoring the historic and continuing white violence against Blacks in America is often front and center in Mr. Peck's enlightening documentary. 

Just as interesting is the cultural analysis of how films like "Stagecoach" and "The Defiant Ones" are viewed in Black and white communities.  Images of colorful, lively 1950s musicals like "The Pajama Game", when reframed in an entirely different context, look monstrous, garish and ugly - excessive and so sickening as to be disquieting and assaultive, even disgusting and downright unsettling.  The juxtapositions of white gaiety and Black pain are some of the most jarring, outrageous and despicable moments of "I Am Not Your Negro", aside from photos of lynchings.

The most arresting revelation of “I Am Not Your Negro” is Mr. Baldwin’s argument that white behaviors toward Black people go beyond matters of race and deeper instead to an individualized deficit of self-esteem and lack of soul further induced by a bereft culture (aided by capitalism’s inherent flaws) that promotes perfection, false gratification and an emptiness that yields devastating returns. 

The white imagination has offered devastation and deadly havoc so as to be psychotic, Mr. Baldwin argues, and this irrational state of being has accounted for the inability of many whites to live with themselves much less with Black people. Hence segregation, which Mr. Baldwin alludes to as a severely detrimental harm.  The images of the two radically different pop cultural worlds and ways of life in "Negro" are a segregation that proves unassailable. 

Duality of beings are a theme throughout "Negro" and at its crux the film reveals that two grandiose and murderous lies have been told about America: white superiority and Black inferiority.  After seeing "I Am Not Your Negro" you are forced to rethink the safety of the white cultural and social order as you have come to learn and know it.

Above all Mr. Peck’s terrific filmmaking delivers unblinking and unconquerable truths via Mr. Baldwin.  "Negro", which riveted and transfixed me to no end, is a fascinating, inspirational document about white America’s still-unexamined self-reflection and self-examination rather than an examination of race.  Mr. Peck's documentary also crucially amounts to a bible of the Black experience in America.  I was nodding almost all the way through, and I spotted other viewers in the theatre doing the same.

Today, America’s divided house burns, blazing out of control.  The flames leap ever higher.  Mr. Baldwin’s notes “Remember This House” are titled so for this very reason - the House of America looks destined to crumble.  ("No kingdom can maintain itself by force alone," notes Mr. Baldwin.) 

Cruelly, it is fitting that this Baldwin work - and by extension white America’s - remains unfinished.  So many hundreds of thousands, make that millions of Black people - have died in the process of trying to make America more perfect and in this new, deadly era of "greatness" the deaths (in Kansas, in Ferguson, in Cleveland etc.) continue unabated.  “I Am Not Your Negro” is fearless, important viewing for everyone in America, from high-school age and above. 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             This marvelous documentary implicitly asks: how much will white society at large permit or recognize the existence of Black people so as to allow the merest penetration of (if not full participation with) the white consciousness?  Is the deliberate shunning and marginalizing of Black people by white society that society's way of avoiding a look in the mirror at itself and its own contradictions and failures in a world they constructed through violence against those Blacks (and Native Americans)? 

Mr. Baldwin argues that in addition to the horrors and holocaust of enslavement, the Black person has been demonized as a boogeyman as projection and distraction from the true monster lurking within the white community.  This demonization is utilized as power and leverage - and one of the surprising things is that Mr. Baldwin speaks less of white supremacy than he does a defective morality and brotherhood.  There is much to unpack in an economical 93 minutes, and Mr. Peck stays ever disciplined as the archival footage speaks volumes.

Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin in Raoul Peck's documentary "I Am Not Your Negro", directed by Raoul Peck.  Magnolia

The physical tension and violence permeating the American experience for Black people is what Mr. Baldwin finds himself constantly grappling with as he asks where he fits in this insane place, and if the white members of the human family will acknowledge him and his people as its own family in the fragile glass house called America.  "There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it," Mr. Baldwin states as he speaks of a "heartless, unthinking white majority".  "Negro" is akin to a nomadic, tenuous 500-year journey of a Black person trying to find their place in a foreign land that is America, an epic journey littered with the dangers of demonization, generations of sudden and persistent violence, and corpses.  Mr. Peck's film never lags or stiffens.

What Mr. Baldwin appeals most to during "I Am Not Your Negro" is humanism - that the white population has violated its innate and fundamental principle: humanism.  Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Peck find texture in a cornocuppia of Black faces, stories and realities, the latter man bolstering them with excellent insertions of duelling cultural narrative touchstones, movies defining the Black experience in America, and those defining what could be said to be an artificial and fantastical white experience. 

"I Am Not Your Negro" via Mr. Baldwin posits that the marginalization and figmentation of Black people by white society is behavior having little to do with whiteness and everything to do with guilt, fear, deep psychopathology and paranoia.  Glamourous lies are upheld while violent ugly truths are largely suppressed.  ("Violence is as American as cherry pie," Black Panther Party member H. Rap Brown declares.)  The U.S. national anthem, whose third verse rejoices over the enslavement of Blacks and was written by Francis Scott Key (who owned enslaved Black people), butresses Mr. Brown with its line, "the bombs bursting in air...".  (It is an anthem that, until later this year, San Francisco 49ers NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for.)

A true intellectual and visionary, Mr. Baldwin, who died in 1987 in France after fleeing racism and homophobia in the U.S., always had his finger on the nervy, raw pulse of race relations between Blacks and whites and of the instutitionally racist white social order.  The powerful microphone drops made throughout Mr. Peck's documentary are exacting, potent and insightful.  This resonant, thought-provoking and altogether excellent documentary merits several viewings.  "I Am Not Your Negro" will blow your mind - in a good and critically necessary way.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity.  Running time is one hour and 33 minutes.

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