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

The Godfather


Marlon Brando teaches Al Pacino how to make an offer nobody can refuse.

Marlon Brando teaches Al Pacino how to make an offer nobody can refuse.

(1972) Drama (Paramount) Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, Al Martino, Ruby Bond, Morgana King, Lenny Montana, Simonetta Stefanelli, Alex Rocco, John Martino. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

There are a number of film buffs in the world who would say that The Godfather is the greatest motion picture ever made and they’d have a pretty compelling defense of their assertion to offer. There’s no doubt that the movie is a cinematic classic, if not the very best then for sure among them. This movie which had a good deal of trouble getting made and saw production nearly shut down at least twice had to overcome incredible odds just to make it in front of the camera at all.

The Godfather is cinematic opera, passionate and full of tragedy and triumph. Certainly it had its share of controversy – there are Italian-Americans even today who feel the movie reinforced negative stereotypes about the Italians as Mafiosi, largely violent and criminal minded with all of the women being tramps or mamas. It’s not exactly a fair complaint but there is some merit to it.

That there were (and maybe still are) families like this is certain. However, the Corleone family has influenced nearly every crime family depicted on the big screen and small ever since – there would be no Sopranos without them. However not every Italian family has interests in illegal gambling, black market sales and prostitution. It is only a small number that do but there is something fascinating about them. Perhaps it’s that fierce devotion to their families which in their cases comes with a healthy “up yours” to everyone else’s family. As Don Vito himself explains, their family is merely providing a service. Things people want and maybe even need. In a just world, these things would not be illegal. However, they are and so it falls to the bold and the strong to provide them. At least, that’s how I think he justifies what he does.

This is a cast that comes together only once in a lifetime; Brando as the wily and powerful Vito Corleone who plays him with an odd vulnerability that shows through unexpectedly; Caan as the hotheaded Sonny who is as ruthless as he is fiercely devoted. Pacino as the coldly logical Michael, a war hero who didn’t want to be part of the family business until circumstances dictated otherwise. Keaton as Michael’s WASP girlfriend who acts as the audience surrogate, an outsider allowed access to a dangerous and fiercely private world. Cazale as Fredo, the oldest brother and the weakest. Duvall as the consigliere, the legal arm of the Corleone family and often the voice of reason. Castellano and Vigoda as the underlings, genteel and sweet old men on the outside but killers on the inside. Martino as the Hollywood star who the Don owns. Rocco as Moe Green, the Vegas casino owner who discovers he’s not as powerful as he thinks he is. Montana as the fearsome Luca Brazzi.

There are so many memorable moments in this movie that it’s impossible to even list them all. Murder and mayhem discussed at the family dinner table. Scenes of incredible violence and incredible tenderness. Tragedy on an operatic scale and triumph on a lavish scale. The montage of murder during the christening of Michael’s godson and nephew is perhaps the best scene in any movie ever. It’s so well-choreographed and so well-directed that you can only sit back breathlessly and admire it. There have been numerous attempts to duplicate it but none have ever even come close.

If you haven’t seen this movie – and chances are you have – this should be the next one you make a point of renting or streaming. If you love movies, I’m officially giving you the excuse you need to revisit it. Either way, you owe it to yourself to spend an evening with the Corleone family. Pass the marinara.

WHY RENT THIS: A must-see for everyone who loves movies. One of the best (if not the best) of all time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find the violence off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of bloody violence, foul language, sexuality and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is actually a town in Sicily called Corleone and Al Pacino’s maternal grandparents actually emigrated from there. However by the 1970s the town was too developed to be used in a 1940s period so filming set in Corleone was actually done in the village of Savoca, outside of Taormina.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $245.1M on a $6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Kane

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Homefront

Smash His Camera


Smash His Camera

Ron Galella's Mona Lisa.

(Magnolia) Ron Galella, Betty Galella, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marlon Brando, Dick Cavett, Robert Redford, Liz Smith, Neil Leifer. Directed by Leon Gast

It’s no secret that our society is celebrity obsessed. We eagerly devour every kernel of information about them; who are they seeing, where are they eating, what are they wearing. We are in a feeding frenzy for images of those whose lives we want to lead.

Stirring that frenzy are the paparazzi, photographers who make a living stalking the rich and famous, taking candid snapshots, and often using unethical or even illegal means. One of the first of these and most notorious is Ron Galella. He works mostly out of the New York area – he was a fixture at Studio 54 back in the day. His tactics were considered outrageous in the 70s and 80s when he was at his height, although he still continues to take pictures today.

Galella is a shameless self-promoter, and one gets the distinct impression that he considers himself as much a celebrity as some of his subjects. He was most famous for his stalking of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; their relationship bordered on the psychotic obsessive on both sides, he in getting pictures of her, she with stopping him by any means necessary which often had something to do with lawsuits. She finally won a restraining order from the photographer, requiring him to stand no closer than 150 feet, which he was known to violate from time to time. His most famous photograph remains one of her, crossing a street on a windy day, an enigmatic smile on her face and her hair ruffled by the breeze. It’s an extraordinary shot, one that Galella justifiably considers his Mona Lisa, and is one of the most enduring images we have of the former First Lady.

Inevitably when discussing the paparazzi the conversation must turn to the conflict between the First Amendment rights of the photographer versus the right to privacy of their subjects. Of course, you know I’m going to weigh in on that score. When you venture out into a public place, you cannot have the expectation of privacy. That goes for the non-celebrity as well as the celebrity. If you go out to grab a bite to eat and someone snaps your picture, it doesn’t matter if you’re not looking your best and you don’t want to be photographed. People have the right to take pictures in public places.

It is only when the paparazzi take pictures of celebrities in their homes or yards that I have issues; after all, a person presumes they have privacy in their own home. It isn’t public property, it is private property and the expectation of privacy is in force there. Galella once took pictures through a hedge into the front entranceway of Katherine Hepburn (I think); the star was notoriously reclusive, so Galella felt it was acceptable to go to extreme lengths to get his shot. To me that was over the line; it was rarely done in Galella’s day but it is much more commonplace today, particularly with the advent of telephoto lenses that can take reasonably clear shots from hundreds of yards away.

Okay, I’m off my soapbox for now and back to doing what you’re here to read about – the documentary. Gast does a pretty balanced job of providing discussion from both sides of the fence. Some support Galella, particularly people like gossip columnist Liz Smith who in some ways has a vested interest – after all, her livelihood depended on much the same need for celebrity information. However, Galella has plenty of critics, such as Neil Leifert who deplores the tactics used by Galella and those who have followed in his footsteps, as well as Thomas Hove, a critic who feels his photography is without merit and will lose its relevance at roughly the same rate that his subjects do.

That is borne out somewhat when a young woman tours an installation of Galella’s photos and clearly hasn’t a clue who many of the subjects are. The question becomes are those photos still art or does their status as art depend on our knowledge of the subject? That really is the crux of the matter and Gast does a good job of bringing it up in the right way.

Gast, for those who don’t know him, is a superb documentarian, with the highly-acclaimed When We Were Kings to his credit. This isn’t quite up to the standards of that classic, but still is a highly thought-provoking look not only at the quagmire that comes from supporting the First Amendment (one talking head refers to Galella as its price tag) but at the over-the-top character who I suspect wanted to be as much a part of the show as his subjects were and are.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating insight into the ongoing debate between the First Amendment and the right to privacy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Galella suffers from an excess of self-promotion.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few instances of foul language and some nudity, albeit in an artistic setting. Nothing here that most teenagers haven’t dealt with before.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After having his jaw shattered by a single punch by Brando, Galella took to wearing a football helmet whenever he was photographing the mercurial star.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A photo gallery especially selected by Galella.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3644 on an unreported production budget. As a theatrical release, this didn’t make any money; however the movie has already aired on HBO and may well have recouped its production costs via that route.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Catfish