I Am Not Your Negro


James Baldwin listens intently.

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) Samuel L. Jackson (narrator), James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Dick Cavett, Robert F. Kennedy, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Barack Obama, John Wayne, Henry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Sidney Poitier, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rodney King, Michele Obama. Directed by Raoul Peck

 

James Baldwin at one point says in this documentary “The story of America is the story of the Negro and it isn’t a pretty story.” For those who don’t know, James Baldwin was a gay African-American writer who during the Civil Rights era became a prominent and outspoken representative for civil rights. Articulate, intelligent and respected, his was a voice that was angry but one that invited dialogue. There isn’t much of that going on today.

In 1979 he author sent a letter to his literary agent Jay Acton outlining a proposal for a book project entitled Remember the House. In it he said that he wanted to examine the civil rights movement and America itself through the murders of three of his friends; Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. When Baldwin passed away in 1987 he’d completed only 30 pages of manuscript.

Documentary director Peck wondered what that book might have turned out to be. Using Baldwin’s own words from the Acton letter as well as the manuscript itself (all of which is read by Samuel L. Jackson), he uses archival footage of Baldwin doing talk shows, delivering speeches and lecturing at universities to flesh out the written words.

Peck also uses footage of modern race-related issues like the events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of Trayvon Martin to reinforce that the more that things change, the more they stay the same. Baldwin was one of the most brilliant men of the 20th century and he spent a significant portion of his life in self-exile in France, much like leading African-American artists did to escape American racism. That gave him a certain amount of perspective, but he also clearly loved his country and almost inevitably when he felt he needed to lend his voice to what was happening, he would return home.

His observations are eerily timeless, speaking as much to modern audiences as to those of the 50s and 60s. At times it seems he could be talking about incidents that occurred just last week. He speaks in a cultured, urbane voice – something else we’ve lost as a society – and reminds us that once upon a time we had discourse in America, not just attempts to shout each other down. One wonders what he would have thought of the current President and of how social media has changed our country and how we receive information.

This documentary brilliantly weaves the archival and modern images with Baldwin’s words, not only reminding us that he was a great man (which he was) but also that we haven’t learned very much from him. The Oscar-nominated documentary really has a single flaw but it’s kind of a big one; it tends to flog the same points over and over again, but then again perhaps we need that since as mentioned a moment ago we really haven’t learned our lesson yet. Hopefully seeing this documentary might motivate some of you to read some of his books (I know I’m going to be checking out Amazon for at least one or two) but also to remind us that while we have made some progress, we still have a hell of a long way to go.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and depressing, the film shows us how little we’ve progressed in half a century. Some truly remarkable archival material brings the Civil Rights era to life.
REASONS TO STAY: An element of flogging the same points over and over again does occur.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images are violent and disturbing; there is also some profanity including racial slurs, adult themes and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “negro” is used 78 times in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonVudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: A Dog’s Purpose

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Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff


An aging cameraman can still appreciate the timeless beauty of a young Audrey Hepburn.

An aging cameraman can still appreciate the timeless beauty of a young Audrey Hepburn.

(2010) Documentary (Strand) Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Kim Hunter, John Mills, Alan Parker, Thelma Schoonmaker, Freddie Francis, Rafaella de Laurentiis, Richard Fleischer, Peter Yates, Kathleen Byron, Orson Welles. Directed by Craig McCall

The golden age of Hollywood was marked by larger than life stars and beautifully photographed films in gorgeous black and white or later, in epic Technicolor. Part of the reason those movies looked so good were men like Jack Cardiff – not that there were many like him.

Cardiff has worked with some of the greatest names in Hollywood – from the stars (Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn) to the directors (Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, Michael Powell). He came out of the British cinema working with the director-writer team of Powell and Emeric Pressburger which was better known as “The Archers” and with them was responsible for such classics as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus (for which he won the Oscar) and A Matter of Life and Death.

He would go on to work on other movies including The African Queen, The Vikings, The Barefoot Contessa, War and Peace, The Prince and the Showgirl (the Laurence Olivier/Marilyn Monroe film chronicled in My Week With Marilyn), Death on the Nile, Ghost Story and Rambo: First Blood Part II. He was active until 2007 but would pass away in 2009 while this film was in post-production.

Cardiff was known for his expertise with the then-nascent Technicolor process. Many cinematographers, used to black and white, had trouble when it came to color. You would think not since we all see in color but the fact is that the use of color can be a tricky thing when it comes to art and cinema. Cardiff always knew how to use color both subtly and epically.

McCall utilizes both archival footage and recent interviews with Cardiff and some of the people he’s worked with over the years. The segments featuring Cardiff are the most fascinating; he’s got a lot of interesting stories and his home movies on the set feature the stars letting down their hair somewhat are fascinating.

We don’t get a lot of background about Cardiff’s personal life. In fact, none at all that I can remember. I would have appreciated a bit of insight into who he was personally but that’s not really what this film is about – it’s about his professional life. That’s why his profession is the title of the movie and comes before his name although it might have been more accurately subtitled The Work and Not So Much the Life of Jack Cardiff.

There are a few too many talking heads mostly all saying essentially the same things. I thought the movie could have done with more examples of Cardiff’s work and more of Cardiff himself and less of people saying what a legend he is. But the movie serves to remind us of how glorious that age was and how much modern cinema owes to Cardiff. It makes you want to run right out and rent a copy of Black Narcissus and that can’t be a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: A look back at one of the greatest and most influential cinematographers ever. A reminder of Hollywood’s glamour.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many talking heads. Tells us next to nothing about the man himself.

FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cardiff is to date the only cinematographer to be honored with a special Oscar (in 2001).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some additional home movies Cardiff shot on the sets of his classic films as well as an examination of the three-strip Technicolor process that was one of his trademarks.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $20,840 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Black Death