Saturday, February 04, 2017

Documentary on James Baldwin

(Photo by Jenkins/Getty Images)
Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges. All men have gone through this, go through it, each according to his degree, throughout their lives. It is one of the irreducible facts of life. From the first paragraph of Baldwin’s essay, “Faulkner and Desegregation,” Partisan Review, Fall 1956 (Vol. 23, No. 4): 568-573.

An introduction to a new documentary on James Baldwin from the Los Angeles Times:

“James Baldwin got to the root of America’s persistent, racially tense sociopolitical climate nearly 55 years ago. In an interview on Henry Morgenthau III’s ‘The Negro and the American Promise,’ alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he laid at the feet of white America the divisive language they once created to dehumanize black people, which set off centuries of division.

‘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,’ he said. ‘I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it… If I’m not a nigger and you invented him—you, the white people, invented him—then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.’ 

That was in 1963 when, with cigarette smoke wafting around his head, Baldwin challenged, on public television, America to reckon with its responsibility for some of the problems that plagued the country. As the new documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ argues, if America had listened, perhaps our current uncertain political atmosphere might never have arrived. But it’s here, and still Baldwin has the answer. 

That’s the sentiment of documentarian Raoul Peck’s film, which arrives  in theaters Friday [February 2, 2017]. And quite like Baldwin, the film is unadulterated, uncompromising and unapologetic.

‘It’s practically saying to this country that the “American Dream” doesn't exist because we built it on the genocide of Native Americans and blacks,’ Peck said. ‘It’s saying if you don’t fix your problem that you have — not me as a black person — my presence will wrack your dreams. Each minute of this film is a bomb. There is nothing innocent, no respite. Bomb. Bomb. Bomb. Bomb.’” [….] The rest of Tre’vell Anderson’s piece for the Los Angeles Times is here
And from the review by A.O. Scott in The New York Times: 

“A few weeks ago, in reaction to something we had written about blackness and whiteness in recent movies, my colleague Manohla Dargis and I received a note from a reader. ‘Since when is everything about race?’ he wanted to know. Perhaps it was a rhetorical question. 

A flippant — though by no means inaccurate — answer would have been 1619. But a more constructive response might have been to recommend Raoul Peck’s life-altering new documentary, ‘I Am Not Your Negro.’ Let me do so now, for that reader (if he’s still interested) and for everybody else, too. Whatever you think about the past and future of what used to be called ‘race relations’ — white supremacy and the resistance to it, in plainer English — this movie will make you think again, and may even change your mind. Though its principal figure, the novelist, playwright and essayist James Baldwin, is a man who has been dead for nearly 30 years, you would be hard-pressed to find a movie that speaks to the present moment with greater clarity and force, insisting on uncomfortable truths and drawing stark lessons from the shadows of history. 

To call ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ a movie about James Baldwin would be to understate Mr. Peck’s achievement. It’s more of a posthumous collaboration, an uncanny and thrilling communion between the filmmaker — whose previous work includes both a documentary and a narrative feature about the Congolese anti-colonialist leader Patrice Lumumba — and his subject. The voice-over narration (read by Samuel L. Jackson) is entirely drawn from Baldwin’s work. Much of it comes from notes and letters written in the mid-1970s, when Baldwin was somewhat reluctantly sketching out a book, never to be completed, about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Reflections on those men (all of whom Baldwin knew well) and their legacies are interspersed with passages from other books and essays, notably ‘The Devil Finds Work,’ Baldwin’s 1976 meditation on race, Hollywood and the mythology of white innocence. His published and unpublished words — some of the most powerful and penetrating ever assembled on the tortured subject of American identity — accompany images from old talk shows and news reports, from classic movies and from our own decidedly non-post-racial present. [….] 

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is a thrilling introduction to his work, a remedial course in American history, and an advanced seminar in racial politics — a concise, roughly 90-minute movie with the scope and impact of a 10-hour mini-series or a literary doorstop. It is not an easy or a consoling movie, but it is the opposite of bitter or despairing. ‘I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive,’ Baldwin said. ‘I’m forced to be an optimist.’” The full review is here

James Baldwin: Select Bibliography of Published Works (novels, short stories, essays, poems, and plays)  
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. 
  • The Amen Corner. New York: Dial Press, 1954.  
  • Notes of a Native Son. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1955. 
  • Giovanni’s Room. New York: Dial Press, 1956.  
  • Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. New York: Dial Press, 1961. 
  • Another Country. New York: Dial Press, 1962.  
  • The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial Press, 1963. 
  • Blues for Mister Charlie. New York: Dial Press, 1964.  
  • Nothing Personal (with Richard Avedon) New York: Atheneum, 1964. 
  • Going to Meet the Man. New York: Dial Press, 1965.  
  • Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. New York: Dial Press, 1968. 
  • A Rap on Race (in dialogue with Margaret Mead) Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1971.  
  • No Name in the Street. New York: Dial Press, 1972. 
  • One Day When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. London: Michael Joseph, 1972. 
  • A Dialogue (with Nikki Giovanni) Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1973. 
  • If Beale Street Could Talk. London: Michael Joseph, 1974. 
  • The Devil Finds Work. New York: Dial Press, 1976. 
  • Just Above My Head. New York: Dial Press, 1979.  
  • Jimmy’s Blues: Selected Poems. London: Michael Joseph, 1983. 
  • The Evidence of Things Not Seen. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985.  
  • The Price of the Ticket. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. 
  • The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Randall Kenan, ed.) New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.

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