This Friday “I Am Not Your Negro” opens in three NY theaters: Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Monroe Theater, the Film Forum and the Magic Johnson AMC Theater in Harlem. Directed by Raoul Peck, it is based on 30 pages of notes for a book titled “Remember This House” that James Baldwin intended to write about his three friends Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, all of whom were martyred in the struggle for Black Liberation.
The film is a mixture of archival footage of the three men, interviews with Baldwin and excerpts from his books narrated by Samuel L. Jackson that are intended to complete the unfinished project cinematically. Originally from Haiti, Raoul Peck has made both documentaries and narrative films, always with a political focus. A docudrama about Lumumba was favorable to the martyred anti-colonial leader while one on Father Aristide was widely viewed by Haitian activists as a hatchet job. Since Peck was Aristide’s Minister of Culture, one might suspect that something like a family feud had taken place. Peck’s latest project is a film titled “The Young Karl Marx” that will be screened at the Berlin Film Festival next week.
There’s not much new in the portraits of the three martyrs but perhaps unintentionally Peck has succeeded in making a riveting portrait of their admirer James Baldwin. My knowledge of Baldwin is sketchy at best. By the time I joined the radical movement in 1967, Baldwin had been eclipsed politically by Amiri Baraka and other Black Nationalist literary figures coming on the scene. Some Black nationalists disparaged Baldwin because he was gay, including Eldridge Cleaver who wrote a vitriolic and homophobic attack in “Soul on Ice”.
Born in Harlem in 1924, James Baldwin had ample reasons to emigrate from the USA. In 1948, he moved to Paris to begin a highly successful writing career, including a novel “Giovanni’s Room” written in 1956 that was a roman a clef about a gay writer living in Paris.
The portrait of Baldwin that emerges in this film is of a man deeply resentful of racism who has not quite established his identity within the Black liberation struggle. Although a prominent spokesman for racial equality, he always tends to couch his critiques within an older vocabulary of the existential movement that was so dominant in Paris in the 1950s as well as that of the Black church that was so influential in his Harlem childhood.
Much of what Baldwin says in the film is a combination of cri de coeur and politics but all of it is compelling. For those who have not seen Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in their prime, that’s additional motivation to see Peck’s film.
This year, I reviewed a couple of documentaries about men with Asperger’s, a form of autism not so serious that it prohibits those with the illness from developing a relatively normal life. On the other side of the autism spectrum we can find Owen Suskind who withdrew from everything and everybody at the age of three in 1994.
His father is Ron Suskind who was sitting on top of the world that year as the senior national affairs writer for the Wall Street Journal and who would win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting a year later. Suskind was distinguished by his 2011 “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President” that captured Barack Obama in his essence:
My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help. … I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you … I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.
When Suskind discovered that his son was autistic, he did everything he could to break through to him as a father. Nothing seemed to work except a chance discovery one day that the young Owen was utterly obsessed with Walt Disney animated films. This led to him watching films with his son, interacting with him in various ways about the characters, and even imitating them to Owen’s obvious delight.
Much of the film follows the adult Owen as he is on the verge of leaving an institutional setting and living on his own in a supervised apartment complex. The small triumphs throughout the film, including him landing a job as a ticket collector at a local movie theater, are deeply satisfying but obviously nowhere near as satisfying as what his mother, father and older brother felt.
The climax of the film has Owen speaking to a conference of autism experts in Paris that will have you standing and cheering much more than any of the manipulative “inspirational” films that pass through the Cineplex routinely.
To its credit, Democracy Now has had three episodes on Owen Suskind, including one where he summed up his achievements:
AMY GOODMAN: Owen, what does it mean to be autistic?
OWEN SUSKIND: It means you have special talents and skills inside you.
AMY GOODMAN: What are those talents?
OWEN SUSKIND: Oh, god. Being a good artist and a piano player and a good writer, author and storyteller, and possibly a good golfer and a great problem solver.
Released in 2016, “Life, Animated” is now available for free on Amazon Prime and is also available on iTunes, VOD and DVD.
If I told you that “De Palma” consisted of nothing but the 76-year old director sitting in a chair speaking nonstop for 110 minutes about his film career, with nothing visually going on except clips from his movies, home movies of the De Palma clan, and still photos of various people he has worked with over the years, you’d think it might not be that interesting. After all, talking heads are supposed to be the bane of most documentaries.
But if you love film, as I and my regular readers do, this is a film that can’t be topped. Available now on Amazon, ITunes and other VOD platforms, this is more informative about filmmaking than any class you can take at UCLA or NYU. Basically, De Palma is a disciple of Alfred Hitchcock and has dedicated himself to making films in the Hitchcockian mode. Despite emerging as a pop culture figure in the 1940s making what appeared to be conventional mystery films, Hitchcock would become recognized as a cineaste par excellence.
“De Palma” would make a terrific companion piece to “Hitchcock/Truffaut” that can be seen on HBO Go or on Amazon with a seven-day trial membership for HBO. Sitting through both documentaries will go much further than any film school class. Trust me. Been there; done that.
Like Hitchcock, De Palma is a “sensationalist”. He wants to jar people out of their seats even though it is done indirectly. No matter how traumatized you were by the scene in “Psycho”, where Tony Perkins stabs Janet Leigh to death in the shower, you never see the knife approaching the body or flesh wounds. It is the combination of the music and the blood trickling down to the bathtub drain that gives you nightmares. The same thing is true of De Palma’s “Scarface”. In that memorable scene, where the Colombian drug dealer is taking a chain saw to Al Pacino’s partner, you never see any contact taking place, only the blood spattered on the walls and the killer’s clothing. Brilliant stuff.