“I Am Not Your Negro”–James Baldwin

 

I Am Not Your Negro

Nominated this year for the Academy Award for best documentary, I Am Not Your Negro is the best film in this category I have ever seen. An indie film (and PBS Independent Lens program) I Am Not Your Negro gives us a fuller understanding of the brilliant mind and soul of James Baldwin, a critical thinker, writer, and essayist, whose work is not as well-known as it should be.

At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind thirty pages of an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, interweaving his incisive and excoriating psychological analysis of race, national identity, and morality. Filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the world through the author’s own words. Enabling viewers to appreciate Baldwin’s unmatched eloquence, I Am Not Your Negro paints a portrait of his rich intellectual power, emotional pain and literary achievement.

James Baldwin in France
James Baldwin at home in Saint Paul de Vence, France in 1985.

Remember This House was supposed to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.  And his letter to his literary agent becomes the template for I Am Not Your Negro,   interspersing lines from the letter to convey Baldwin’s emotions at the time of his friends’ deaths.   I Am Not Your Negro

 Though James Baldwin has been dead for over 30 years, I Am Not Your Negro speaks with unimaginable clarity and force to both the 1960’s Civil Rights movement of his generation and today’s Black Lives Matter. Some of the most compelling scenes intercut footage of police violence in the ’60s with similar violence today, using Baldwin’s words to conflate the two eras. Uncomfortable truths and stark lessons from the shadows of history illuminate Baldwin’s delineation of the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: a dialectic of guilt and rage. In political and social relations between blacks and whites, Baldwin commands this territory, zeroing in on the lengths that whites will go in order to wash themselves clean of their complicity in and denial of oppression. The seminal and stunning argument that Baldwin presents is that racism is the manifestation of an underlying, psychologically pervasive feeling of self-doubt and vulnerability on the part of bigoted whites. Impotence and violence are two sides of the same behavior. Baldwin mercilessly penetrates the psychodynamices of the racist personality: hate comes from fear (of one’s own fragility and weakness) leading to rage and violence.

For the most part I Am Not Your Negro ignores Baldwin’s identity as a homosexual. As early as 1949, Baldwin intrepidly wrote about being gay, a central theme in some of his fiction. As a black gay man, Baldwin’s intellectual excellence was demeaned on several fronts due not only to racism but also to homophobia (which the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover menacingly reported). One of the most overlooked political activists, Lorraine Lansberry (playwright of “Raisin in the Sun”), is seen with Baldwin, in a courageous standoff against an unempathetic Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, in their failed attempt to have him go down to Birmingham, Alabama to support a fourteen year old girl’s fight for integration of a whites-only high school. This is a moment in history that few of us knew…until now.

I Am Not Your Negro makes you think about the life of an extraordinary black gay 1950’s intellectual in our present overheated, anti-intellectual moment in history.

In a scene from “The Dick Cavett Show,” Baldwin tangles with a Yale philosophy professor who condescendingly scolds him for making everything about race relations. The initial spectacle is painful, but Baldwin’s mildmannered triumph of brilliance over credentialed arrogance is thrilling to witness. In what seems effortless, through James Baldwin’s own eloquence we see race not only as a black intellectual sees it but as American blacks all have been defined by it.

Many of Baldwin’s most acclaimed books were written as an ex-pat in Paris where he found the emotional and physical distance required to create his profound dissection of American life. With chilling clarity, the US history of injustice is evident.

Hollywood traffics in stereotypes of black menace and subservience. In a reflexive move, I Am Not Your Negro also becomes a commentary on a U.S. cultural and economic system devoted only to simplistic racial “types” and on perpetuating a fiction of America as the greatest purveyor of freedom, democracy, and happiness. Posters, ads and a particularly rich selection of period movies –some of them Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss–force the viewer to evaluate and draw conclusions about this country’s fear and denial of race.  Juxtaposition of images and footage of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter with Baldwin’s three civil rights icons serves to underscore the plight of the US in our so-called post-racial present. I Am Not Your Negro is a sobering reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.

Note: Baldwin’s own words:   “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.”

“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. . . . I’m forced to be an optimist.”

 

 

The Salesman–Not Exactly Arthur Miller

The Salesman movieThis 2017 Academy Winner for Best Foreign Film defies easy categorization.   The masterful Asghar Farhadi is the director, screenwriter, and producer of the 2013 Cannes Winner, “The Past”, the 2011 Academy Award Winner of “A Separation” and his most recent, The Salesman. All three of these Iranian films are idiosyncratic narratives of Shakespearean themes . The first destabilizes the past reminding us of unintended consequences (The Past), the second focuses on the nature of truth when there are no moral absolutes (A Separation), and the third reveals primal vindictiveness and revenge when one’s family is attacked (The Salesman). The Salesman, despite its low dramatic temperature and pacing, will raise questions about compassion and loss and human decency.

An Iranian couple –Emad and Rana– move to a new apartment. The couple are both acting in a production of “The Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, with some censorship by the government. After a horrific act of violence, Rana does not wish to report the incident, raising questions for her husband Emad and the audience. Rana withdraws emotionally from the trauma and her performance as a stage actress is affected. The air between Rana and Emad remains disturbed. Not capable of communicating their shock and injury to each other, Emad becomes obsessed with demanding revenge from the guilty party and sets out to find him. As the wounded husband who cannot speak of the unspeakable, Emad transforms into someone Rana cannot understand. Now what is unsaid cannot be said. Each is afraid to say the wrong thing more than saying nothing at all.

Miller’s play, The Death of a Salesman” is the cinematic device to create a play within a play, having Enad and Rana mirror the marriage of Willy Loman and his wife Linda. However, with their marriage’s fragility as one of the central plots, the cultural divide between Iranian culture and American seems to obstruct the viewer’s comprehension or sympathy for both Enad and Rana, although Rana’s loss is more poignant and more accessible.

Not as impressive a film as his two earlier award-winning ones, “The Salesman” suffers from its play-within-a-play conceit, a parallelism between the heart-breaking marriage of the Lomans and that of Emad and Rana. This dramatic device did not succeed for this reviewer, and in fact was a distraction, although wondering how this couple would come to terms with their trauma held my interest.

 

Manchester by the Sea– Rocking the Boat

 

Manchester by the Sea

In the brooding film, Manchester by the Sea, we watch a grief-stricken irritable loner, Lee Chandler (2017 Academy Award Best Actor Casey Affleck) drown in self-effacing pain and rage. He works as a handyman in a Boston apartment complex and acts out his anger in meaningless bar fights and bullying of tenants.

Lee receives a phone call that changes his life. His older brother, Joe (played by Kyle Chandler), has died of a heart attack and Lee has been designated as the legal guardian of his sullen teenage son, Patrick (the remarkable Lucas Hedges). Dreading returning to his hometown, Manchester, in order to care for his nephew, we see–through a series of flashbacks– why Lee is so reluctant to return. The unspeakable tragedy which caused him to run away is revealed. Caught in depression and grief, he is incapable of displaying emotion towards his nephew, his ex-wife (the wondrous Michelle Williams), or what is left of his family.

The central plot is all about Lee and his psychological journey through tragedy and torment.   But it is also about his nephew, Patrick, who is struggling with his own grief over his father’s death as well as his abandonment by his alcoholic mother.

Manchester by the Sea is a serious film, but not a great one. It’s slow moving enough to notice, especially the second half’s slackening pace. The viewer has to work patiently to understand the cutting back and forth between past and present, the only clue to the time-travel being the scenes where Patrick’s father, Joe, is still alive.

This movie has something to say, but doesn’t say it very well.  Michelle Williams saves this movie from an even rockier ride. Though she has a small role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, she gives us a gut-wrenching portrait of a damaged woman, injured by the tragedy, and regretting the horrifying invective she threw at Lee in a moment of tremendous heartbreak for both of them. In a powerful confrontation with Lee, this small yet significant performance is a treasure to behold. Her wounds are still trying to heal.

Casey Affleck, on the other hand, gives us a character with mannerisms that are unbelievable and dissonant with the emotional nature of the character he is playing. His portrait of Lee’s emotional detachment from the rest of the world is wooden with zero visual affect. Yes, he is traumatized so he can’t recapture the person he once was. None of us can. Yes, he needs to take care of himself first.

No one will punish Lee for what he did, for what he knows he did. So he spends the rest of his days punishing himself, consumed with guilt. And the only way he knows how to punish himself is by hurting others and pushing them away. Why didn’t they cast an actor adept at showing anguish in his eyes, visually, –in his soul–even while enduring an all-consuming suffering?

There are narrow ways men are allowed to deal with their feelings because they consider vulnerability to be weakness. A stunning performance does just that–show the vulnerability behind the facade. Manchester by the Sea, and particularly Casey Affleck, doesn’t seem interested in exploring mental illness more deeply and more courageously, showing more of its symptoms through a variety of facial expressions, at least in the eyes which are not shut down by the emotions they conceal. They should be haunting and disturbing, flecks of passion and damage.

This is Manchester by the Sea’s most glaring fault: This film misses an opportunity to look more critically and more complexly at how things are for someone so grief-stricken. But Manchester by the Sea also fails to examine the dangers of masculinity closing men off from their own feelings or experiences, rendering them emotionally broken. This movie received almost universal adulation but it is far less award-worthy.

Sorry, all of you who voted for it.