Movies: Documenting the Black Experience
17 Friday Mar 2017
Two documentary films from 2016 have made important splashes in the sea of movies available this year, not as big as might have been hoped, but present, visible and raising the see level of America’s racial history, and present.
13th, by Ava DuVernay, (Selma, 2014) is a wonderful case of “here, try my glasses and tell me what you see,” film making. After directing actors in multiple takes on historically accurate sets for Selma she has tapped a whole different set of skills to do to the research, story composition and editing of a documentary. The 13th reaches back to post Civil War Reconstruction and the 13th Amendment which, as we’ve all learned, “freed the slaves” in 1865. As with the Second Amendment, a clause obscures an important matter.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist.”
With the help of scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Jelani Cobb, and others, she points out that clause was not simply accidental, not a tautology pointing out that if a man was in prison he was not free. It provided a means by which plantation operators and others, who had just been deprived of their labor by the freeing of the slaves, could return a man to “slavery or involuntary servitude.” Financial catastrophe was in the offing. And so, municipalities, Sheriffs and local police began to arrest black men and boys at unprecedented rates, to be hired out to to the work they had just been emancipated from.
With disturbing graphs, and evidence from historians we see how black imprisonment increased gradually through the late 1960s, beginning a marked increase under President Nixon’s “War on Drugs” that penalized blacks for crack usage much more severely than whites for the equivalent in powdered cocaine. It continued its rate of increase through the Reagan Presidency, and surprising to some, slowed down not at all under Bill Clinton’s 1994 “Tough on Crime” bill, followed by a national Three-Strikes bill. The United States, in 2016, has the highest percent of population incarcerated in the world. With 6% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prison population.
She marshals film clips of former President Richard Nixon and an infamous quote from his Assistant for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
[Attributed to Erlichman by Dan Baum in a 2016 article in Harpers, disputed by others.]
The reviews of the movie have been favorable, with 96% at Rotten Tomatoes and 90 at Metacritic. Though predictably, the National Review pans it (DuVernay … with a publicist’s regard for exploitation over explication.) Though the argument she lays out isn’t meant to be presented in, and wouldn’t stand up in, a court of law, it is a pungent marshaling of facts and patterns, moving testimony that the US desperately needs to come to grips with its high rate of incarceration, and the Prison-Industrial System. Many of the statistics, concerns and emphasis also occur in Bryan Stevenson’s acclaimed book Just Mercy (2014) (reviewed here.)
I Am Not Your Negro (2016), though using standard documentary tools such as archival film footage, voice over, and cutting for contrast, does away with talking heads and departs from the usual straight time-line to a more impressionist palate. Director Raoul Peck (of Lumumba (2000) and Sometimes in April (2005)) moves between the 1950s when Baldwin moved to France and the 2014 Ferguson protests. Baldwin’s words are used throughout, sometimes in his own voice as he lectures, often to white audiences, and sometimes in Samuel L Jackson’s superb and sober baritone voice, reading from Baldwin’s texts.
Peck, born in Haiti and raised in France first became aware of Baldwin as a college student through two essays, in The Fire Next Time.
“Since that first contact with Baldwin, I never left him,” he said. “I read everything. He was a constant reminder for me, a constant mentor, a constant companion.”
Following the success of Lumumba he wrote the Baldwin estate (Baldwin had died in 1987) to ask for access to his papers for a film. Unexpectedly, Baldwin’s sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart, who had seen and appreciated Lumumba, wrote back and the two began to cooperate.
The hoped for point of entry was a book Baldwin had been working on at the time of his death. To be titled Remember This House, it was to be about the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s structures around three of its leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, as seen through the lens of Baldwin’s friendship with them.
“I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other as in truth they did,” he wrote, “and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much who betrayed them and for whom they gave their lives.”~~
The film does begin with the three, and some interesting footage of an interviewer pressing Malcom X and King about their differences over violence and non-violence. It soon turns to Baldwin himself in stills and archival footage, including this memorable appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968.
He goes on to say — from which the title of the film comes–
“What white people have to do,” Baldwin said once, “is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.”
I’ve seen the film twice and easily could see it again, after having been propelled back to re-reading some of his work which had grown dim with the years. The Fire Next Time, particularly the short letter “My Dungeon Shook,” to his young nephew, should be in all American readers. The longer “Down at the Cross,” [both are available separately as on-line documents] uses important parts of his biography –as a young preacher, then as breaking away from the church’s fundamentalism, learning to read the Bible again with Jews, his first meeting Elija Muhammad– to move to a searing analysis of the America he is surrounded by.
“I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be accepted by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. “
Many elements of his biography here, reappear in incredible texture and detail in his first, amazing, novel Go Tell It On The Mountain. I’ve been listening to an Audible reading by Adam Lazarre-White — mesmerizing. He picks up and adds to Baldwin’s rolling, Biblical locution. We are ears on the walls of Baldwin’s extended family saga. A film/theater version of Go Tell in On the Mountain appeared in 1984 (and is still available) with Paul Winfield, Olivia Cole, Ruby Dee and Ving Rhames in the cast. (Haven’t seen it yet; will report later.)
Some Reviews of I Am Not Your Negro