Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Review Of I Am Not Your Negro


I Am Not Your Negro

I just saw I Am Not Your Negro. I just recently saw that the reviews for it are massively positive, like almost to a review 4 out of 5 and up. This film is getting into Harvard with these marks. 

There's a telling scene that speaks to this doc's power. The film opens with and then occasionally cuts back to a rapt Dick Cavett interviewing Baldwin on one of Cavett's sixties' late night shows, up then against Carson, who in ratings Cavett couldn't keep up with.

After each question, Baldwin launches into one of his lengthy and uniformly powerful "I give witness" orations about the collective American black man standing on the edge of doom and so, in Baldwin's reasoning, America as well. It does as well since its moral status and very fate is tied to its treatment and to be hoped for resolution of its horrible legacy of slavery and the systemic discrimination that came after and persisted at least until the passage of sixties' civil rights legislation with systemic remnants lingering still. Baldwin is eloquent and powerfully effective in his answers, speaking out of his own experience and what he has seen  before going to Paris, read and heard about while there, and what experiences and observes on his return. There is then, at that time, virtually no gainsaying him as witness. 

The doc latterly cuts back to the Cavett show and Cavett brings to the set another guest, his revered Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss, who Cavett has on from time to time to do some audience friendly philosophizing. Cavett asks Weiss, who is clearly Jewish and looks to be in his late fifties or in his early sixties, what he thinks of what Baldwin has said. Weiss says, maybe self protectively, maybe not, that he hasn't heard all of it but that of what he's heard he agrees with some of it and disagrees with some of it.

The doc focuses then on what Weiss says he disagrees with, which I paraphrase as:

"We're all human, with more in common than what separates us by skin colour. Why is everything you say so insistent on dividing us by black and white? I have more in common with a black scholar than with a white man who rejects scholarship. You have more in common with a white author than with a black man who rejects the importance of literature."

Baldwin's blazing answer, another leap into effectively powerful self dramatizing oratory, summons up in short order the history of white oppression of blacks in American, its continuity into the present, perhaps 1965, maybe a few years later, and how in order to write with a clear mind and heart Baldwin left America in 1948--he simply had to get out--and wound up in Paris with $49.00 in his pocket. He was, he says, answering Weiss, safer and more at ease in Paris as poor as he then was, a kind of stranger in a strange land, than he would have been in America, where at any time he was in danger of racist violence. 

In a word, his answer blows Weiss away and makes his plea for less racial dividing and more non racial focus on us all as individuals appear naive and seemingly unaware of the context of what Baldwin is saying in answer to him and what he talks and writes about generally--essentially America's horrible and murderous racist past and present.

So, where we see Baldwin bearing witness to this history of racist depredation that still finds itself alive in the sixties on his return to America from Paris, the doc is searing and moving and is right.

But, as Matt Stoller Zeitz writes in his otherwise laudatory review Of I Am Not Your Negro:

....Peck [the director] miscaculates, I think, in lifting us out of the 20th century and linking many of Baldwin's observations about his own time to events and cultural developments that occurred after his death. Mixed in with the historical footage and photos and the scenes from old movies are bits from trashy daytime talk shows and reality TV shows, and images that allude to the financial meltdown of 2008, the Ferguson uprising, Barack Obama's election, and the presidential campaign of 2016. These elements don't damage the movie too terribly. But they do break the spell Peck weaves. And there are times when the present-tense stuff diminishes the timelessness of Baldwin's observations by connecting them too bluntly to American life in the second decade of the new millennium. Like Baldwin's writing, this movie will always be relevant, and yet here it is, dating itself... 

I'd get even more pointed than Stoller Zeitz. The miscalculation lies in the assumption that what Baldwin bore such powerful and eloquent witness to in the sixties and before is continuous with (say) the microcosmic killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. As if they were simply unmitigated murders fitting within the "narrative" of whites' oppression of blacks, of lynching, and of white power bringing down its boots at will on hapless black victims. As if between now and then nothing has changed. As if America is still clothed in systemic racism. As if these and other events are free of complicated specifics that explode the seamlessness of the fit with the narrative. 

Here, and in other places in the doc where Peck has the witness Baldwin bore still telling for America today, which of course is far from racially ideal, he manages, at least to my maybe contrarian ears, to make Baldwin come across as shrill, strident, apocalyptic, overly self dramatizing and histrionic. 

There are other more minor irritations, from which I think larger problems in the doc and with Baldwin too can be extrapolated. One is showing Baldwin castigating, as he has it, the soppy, sentimental wretchedness of the culture standing behind Doris Day's singing for never confronting the culture standing behind Ray Charles's magnificent, soulful singing. 

Where to start? 

One, Day is an apple. Charles is an orange. Why set up a straw man of the need for the apple to confront the orange. 

Two, here Baldwin's had racially sourced blinders that prevent him from realizing what a terrific singer Doris Day is. She could swings, has that swinging  pop in her singing. Her voice is strong, pitch perfect, agilely supple and tremendous in its conveyance of mood and in its dynamics. 

Three, in Baldwin's blinkered demand for a (needless) confrontation, he's blind to the genius of an aspect of the culture Day stood for and on, the great white jazz bands and the great white female jazz singers of the first 3/4s of the 20th century. 

Four, indeed, here's where Weiss has a point to make about Baldwin's relentless, at times undiscriminating, racial division. Baldwin's dismissal of Doris Day here is like reducing Elvis to his movies, or Sinatra to his persona, or Sammy Davis to playing the token for the rat pack. 

Five, I think the demand for confrontation shows some of the rigidity of Baldwin's apocalyptic analysis even then; and that itself shows by how the last 50 odd years make the doc's continuing the past into our moment so misconceived. 

All the above said, I'd recommend this film: it's always engaging; Baldwin is a huge, powerful figure and witness; and his largeness gets its due. I'd give it 3.65 out of 5.

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