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PROGRESSIVE CINEMA - One of the most artistic and daring political
statements at this years Toronto International Film Festival, was the
world premiere of Haitian-born Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, based
on James Baldwin's unfinished book Remember This House. Not
surprisingly the film won the People's Choice Documentary Award for its
"radical narration about race in America today." Peck is from Haiti and
has created one of the most progressive filmographies in cinema
history. He actually received privileged access to the Baldwin archives
because the family knew of his outstanding works on the Conga leader,
Patrice Lumumba, specifically the 1990 political thriller Lumumba:
Death of a Prophet and the 2000 award winning drama on the same
subject, Lumumba. They trusted in his ability to accurately represent
Baldwin's life and writings, and so he took 10 years to bring this
masterpiece to the screen, after being rejected by every American
studio he approached. And public agencies said "this is public money so
you have to present both sides!" Thus, his ability to produce this film
through his own successful company and a supportive French TV station
ARTE, allowed him to make a film exactly like he wanted, with no
censorship, and no one telling him to rush the film or mellow the
Peck "didn't want to use the traditional civil rights archives." He chose to avoid the talking heads format and picked Samuel L. Jackson to embody the spirit of Baldwin in the potent narration. The film's powerful structure utilizing rare videos and photos and personal writings of Baldwin, and at the same time aligning them with contemporary issues of police brutality and race relations, creates a mesmerizing awareness of the continuity in the struggle for civil rights.
Baldwin made a deep impact on the young impressionable Haitian filmmaker. Peck remembers back in the 60s when mostly white Americans were honored in pictures on walls, and that "it was Baldwin who first helped me see through this myth of American heroes." He felt that Baldwin had been forgotten or overlooked, while James Meredith, Medgar Evers, the Black Panthers, Huey Newton, Malcolm X and other Black leaders were either killed off, imprisoned, exiled or bought out. There were rare exceptions on commercial TV, once where Baldwin talked on the Dick Cavett Show for an hour uncensored.
Baldwin, although a literary giant and a close friend to many leading activists, rarely appeared at events and mass rallies, and declined membership in parties or groups such as the NAACP, Panthers, SNCC, etc. And although he was homosexual, rarely focused on the issue of gay rights, which would have been even more isolating in those decades. Rightfully, this film brings to life Baldwin's poetry and passion for justice, and regains his importance in the field where art intersects activism.
While addressing the enthusiastic audience in the Q&A, director Peck mentioned, "I hope this film will help rephrase what is called the race conversation, which deep down is a class conversation." Although class wasn't developed as much as race in this film, not coincidentally, Peck is now in post-production on a drama about young Karl Marx(!) a major historical figure who has rarely if never been a subject in America cinema. And all of Peck's previous films are imbued with a deep sense of awareness in the class struggle.
The director was a special guest at a TIFF Talk entitled Race and History where he covered many of the points mentioned here about taking control of your own artistic project. He defended the idea that an artist has a point of view and shouldn't be forced to compromise his political message, whether it's acceptable or not. Near the end of the conversation I was able to ask him a question about how difficult it is to market films on race and class. He responded by saying "I come from a generation that was more political and where the film content was more important. . . I tried to keep the content but provide a great movie. . .All my films are political but I make sure I tell a story, that it's art and poetry and that the audience will enjoy it." He confesses that he's privileged having his own company and that his films don't always have to make money. "It's about financing your movie, not making a profit. . .It's difficult to have those two sides in your head, because you know that having to make a profit means you often have to compromise. . .Once I have people trust me with their money, I am obliged to give them a great film -- I'm not obliged to give them profit." And he gave them a great film! I Am Not Your Negro was recently purchased by Magnolia Pictures for North American distribution, where they praised Peck for crafting a "profound and indelible statement that couldn't be more timely or powerful."
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For those expecting the creator of "I Am Not Your Negro," the new
racially incendiary documentary based on an unfinished manuscript by
James Baldwin, to be culled from the ranks of a new crop of young black
militants, guess again. The documentary is by the 63 year old,
Haitian-born, Raoul Peck, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of
Congo and now spends most of his time as head of a film school in
France and living in the US. He's also an unrepentant Marxist whose
next film is scheduled for release as the "Young Marx."
Peck's comments at a recent Q&A made it clear that he's been a fan of James Baldwin from time immemorial. He was able to get the rights to Baldwin's entire oeuvre including the unfinished manuscript "Remember This House," which explores the history of race relations through the prism of the three fallen African-American icons, victims of assassins during the 1960s: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
Peck has assembled an extraordinary treasure trove of archival footage which he has seamlessly edited, and conscripted the noted actor, Samuel L. Jackson, to read Baldwin's words as the voice-over narration. Visually, Peck rivals Ken Burns as one of the master documentarians of today.
There are many clips of Baldwin speaking (on the Dick Cavett show for example) as well as newsreel footage from the 50s and 60s, highlighting the many instances of racist behavior on the part of white American society, particularly during the civil rights era. Baldwin's wrath and Peck's too not only indict the obvious southern racism of the times but those of northern whites tooRobert Kennedy is particularly excoriated for paying lip service to the aims of the civil rights movement. Peck also intersperses images of more contemporary victims of police brutality (such as the Rodney King beatings and Trayvon Martin).
Peck has a particular fondness for American films from the 50s, particularly musicals, which he views as saccharine and out of touch with the reality of violence against African-Americans throughout American history. In one instance, the "lily white" image of Doris Day is contrasted with the next set of imagesa group of turn of the century blacks, lynched by white (presumably southern) racists.
Much of the documentary features Baldwin's incessant diatribes against the "white man." Peck makes it clear that Baldwin's focus is more on "class" than "race." One might surmise that Peck is arguing that the entire social structure must be changed before equality is achieved between the races. But that seems to be a baseless canard as Malcolm X is shown (at least before his trip to Mecca) as a clear opponent of integration and brands Martin Luther King Jr., his so-called "comrade- in-arms" in the civil right struggle, as nothing more than an "Uncle Tom." Underneath all the militant babble about the need for "respect" and "dignity", it's economic equality that is truly being demanded here.
The problem with Peck's documentary is that it's all wrapped up in the figure of the chain-smoking provocateur, Baldwin. Unlike Peck, I am no fan of Baldwin, whose negative, "the glass is half empty" outlook on race relations, is more than grating.
The failure of Peck's documentary revolves around his lack of balancethere is no attempt at self-criticism of the African-American communityone comes away from I Am Not Your Negro with an image of African-Americans as an exclusively noble group demonized by whites. One of course cannot ignore the extremely deleterious effect racism and discrimination had on African-Americans throughout our history but how can anyone move forward if one embraces a culture of victimology?
Instead of Baldwin, perhaps Nelson Mandela should have been Peck's subject here. Unlike Baldwin, who spent years of exile in France, Mandela was imprisoned for years by a racist South African regime. Unlike the negative Baldwin, who held little hope for racial reconciliation, Mandela went out and immediately established truth and reconciliation committees and forgave the white community for the years of Apartheid in South Africa, working for racial reconciliation until the end of his days.
Peck is no doubt an extremely talented filmmaker whose choice of Baldwin as his documentary subject is unfortunate. One wonders if Baldwin was truly committed to economic equality or simply enjoyed getting a rise out of his audience--flipping the proverbial "middle finger" at the very people who appeared to welcome and revel in his demeaning insults.
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