Wednesday, May 31, 2017

I am not your Negro

At some point during his illustrious career, the African-American writer, James Baldwin accumulated notes for a book about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers.  Baldwin was older than these three men and seems to have regarded himself as a kind of older brother to these luminaries in the struggle for Black civil rights.  The book was never completed and, indeed, remained embryonic -- there are only thirty pages of notes, but they are, apparently, splendid in their own right.  Raul Peck's silly and meretricious I am not your Negro (2017) is a film-essay about the oppression of African-Americans in this country.  The picture uses text by Baldwin, read very effectively by Samuel E. Jackson, as its structure and guiding principles.  Although Baldwin's prose is often super-heated to the point of melting into a sheer white-hot rant or paranoid harangue, I don't blame the hyper-sensitive author for the idiocy of this picture.  Baldwin's points are exaggerated but probably valid for the time they were written, although, I think, less pertinent today.  The problem with the film is the visual imagery adduced in support of Baldwin's critique is completely disconnected from the arguments that the author makes -- indeed, not merely disconnected but, even, actively distracting, subverting, as it were, the viewer's attention from Baldwin's preaching to the glossy images supposedly illustrating his words. 

I should observe that my distaste for this film is a minority opinion.  Critics have generally raved about this film's perspicuity with respect to race relations.   However, as I noted above, a distinction must be made between Baldwin's words and the pictures used to complement them.  Baldwin is photogenic; he's so ugly that he's cute and he has huge eyes bulging with worry and a broad toothy grin that is very endearing when he suffers himself to smile or show pleasure at something.  On the subject of race-relations as everything else, he is a single raw and pulsing nerve.  Fantastically eloquent, he's never at a loss for words -- his rhetorical stance is to make a statement so hyperbolic that it is impossible to credit and, then, double-down on the assertion, amplifying and expanding it.  Some of what he says is self-delusional -- for instance, he repeatedly characterizes himself as a man of sorrows, a victim's victim, someone who stands before White society as an abject and despised creature.  But this is most abundantly not the case -- we see a huge crowd of White students at Cambridge rise to give him a standing ovation when he has just told them that their culture and its values are rotten to the core.  A motif in the film is his memory of where he was located when he first heard of the deaths of his three specimen Civil Rights' heroes -- in one case, he was vacationing on the beach in Puerto Rico, in another case, he was enjoying his supper at someone's home while touring London -- in the third instance, he was sitting poolside in Hollywood with a crowd of movie stars.  Baldwin's account of the funeral of Martin Luther King is vulgar -- he spends an inordinate amount of time establishing where he was located vis a vis Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte and other stars of motion pictures and the music recording industry.  When he bursts into tears, he is consoled by his friend "Sammy" referring, of course, to Sammy Davis Jr.  Notwithstanding Baldwin's propensity to showboat, he is a very effective critic of White society and most of what he says is relevant to the state of race relations today.  Where the film goes off the track is in Raul Peck's bizarre imagery.  Peck delights in playing excerpts from Fifties musicals to demonstrate how detached from carnal reality most White people were in that decade -- he scapegoats Doris Day and, even, seems to suggest that her screen persona has something to do with lynching.  Characteristic of Peck's shoddy, dishonest pictorial accompaniment is a sequence interposing photographs of Bobby Kennedy and Lorraine Hansberry, a Black poet and activist who challenged the Attorney General to take a more activist stance during the Civil Rights movement.  Kennedy rejects Hansberry's plea and, then, we hear Baldwin note that she has died -- the impression is that Bobby Kennedy somehow engineered her death.  Similarly, the film shows us pictures of the dead Malcolm X while Baldwin bewails the fact that "they" have killed him -- who is this "they"?  Is it the nefarious Kennedy brothers again or just White society in general?  Clips of old movies are shown devoid of any context and when lacking anything to illustrate  Baldwin's harangues, the camera just indulges in pretty Steadi-cam tracking shots of swamps and bayous or, sometimes, elevated railroad lines or residential neighborhoods in the South.  There is a striking sequence appropriated from some Chamber of Commerce film made in the early sixties urging White merchants to market to Black people -- is this supposed to be a bad thing?  Neutral?  Or a good thing?  And there is a problem that the film radically decontextualizes powerful images -- we see race riots, poverty, police beating Black people, etc. but we aren't told who these people are, or what pushed them into the roles that we see in the film.  I have long argued that Ken Burns has had an immeasurably adverse effect on documentary filmmakers -- Burns perfected the technique of having a celebrity read a powerful prose text while his camera decorously swoops and zooms and tracks through old photographs that generally have very little to do with the subject at hand.  And this adequately describes what Peck is doing with this film -- he's firing in all directions with film imagery deployed to attack just about everything in Western civilization, but the pictures are not effectively linked to the words; they seem to be just wallpaper to the celebrity narration provided Samuel E. Jackson.  Not content with decrying the state of Black and White race relations, Peck loads up the film with images from cowboy and Indian movies -- but he completely ignores the purpose for the scenes that he shows or what they originally meant in the context of the films from which these clips have been extracted.  Is a shot from the anti-war anti-Vietnam allegory Soldier Blue to be taken as an indictment of the genocide of the American Indians?  If so, we are asked to accept for real an atrocity that, in fact, has been staged by Hollywood -- it's incongruous as if Claude Lanzmann were to illustrate Shoah with clips from Schindler's List. Or are we supposed to see the image as just one more picture made by White people to cynically exploit Native Americans?  Is it really fair to set up John Wayne only to knock him down again and again.  The man's been dead for forty years.  At one point, the film shows an aerial shot of a big box store like Walmart.  White people fill the store pushing shopping carts before them.  What if the all the people in the store had been black -- the case of many urban Walmarts where I have shopped?  Is the Walmart bad in one case and good in another?  Is it only bad and an example of mindless consumerism when filled with White people?  But don't Black people patronize those stores just as much as Whites?  In many instances, I suppose one could say that Baldwin spoke truth to power, but Peck fills the movie with so many absurd lies, primarily as a matter of film's visual aspect, that he undercuts everything his hero tells us.    

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