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

Selma


Marching into history.

Marching into history.

(2014) True Life Drama (Paramount) David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Common, Tessa Thompson, Dylan Baker, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Henry G. Sanders, Keith Stanfield, Charity Jordan, Tim Roth, Stan Houston, Stephen Root, Nigel Thatch, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Jeremy Strong, Lorraine Toussaint, Tara Ochs. Directed by Ava DuVernay

Selma is a watershed moment in American history and in particular the history of the civil rights movement. The brutality of Southern oppression on its African-American citizen was beamed to all our living rooms for all to see. Martin Luther King’s efforts to organize and call attention on the suppression of voting rights for African-Americans would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he had long championed and ended decades of African-Americans having no voice in the governing of their communities, states and country.

In 1965 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just come into law and while it is a magnificent piece of legislation preventing discrimination, in the South it may not have been signed into law at all. Those African-Americans attempting to register to vote, much as activist Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) was, were met with poll taxes, or impromptu quizzes that nobody could answer, white or black in a desperate attempt for white racist Southerners to hold onto power in Dixie.

Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), already a landmark civil rights activist or, as he is known by those who oppose him, agitator as J. Edgar Hoover (Baker) puts it, approaches President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation that will prevent the kinds of abuses taking place in voter registration in the South but LBJ is less inclined to do that; he has his War on Poverty to consider, which he feels will ultimately be more beneficial to the black community. He has just too much going on to put any energy into King’s demands at the moment, but being the consummate politician he assures the civil rights leader that he will get right on it…in a couple of years. Hoover, on the other hand, wants this whole civil rights thing nipped in the bud. His surveillance of Dr. King has revealed some strain in his marriage to his wife Coretta (Ejogo) and he wants to exploit that, but Johnson prevents it.

With the violence escalating in the South, King knows he can’t wait. He decides to go to Selma, a small town in Alabama whose sheriff Jim Clark (Houston) is particularly mean and stupid and likely to do something that will give King the ammunition he needs. Activists in the Selma area are only too happy to see a national figure like Dr. King arrive on the scene, although John Lewis (James) – a future congressman who is still serving today – and James Foreman (Byers) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, are suspicious of his motives.

During an evening non-violent march, the protestors are attacked by police. Three of them – Cager Lee (Sanders), his daughter Viola Lee Jackson (Jordan) and his grandson Jimmy Lee Jackson (Stanfield) are chased into a diner. When the police arrive, they make a point of beating the crap out of the old man and his kin. When Jimmy Lee tries to protect them, he is shot in the abdomen and killed. This galvanizes the organizers, leading Rev. James Bevel (Common) to suggest a march from Selma to Montgomery.

This is exactly what Governor George Wallace (Roth) doesn’t want. His right hand man in the state troopers, Colonel Al Lingo (Root) is enlisted to take care of things. In the meantime, in order to prevent the march, the President allows Hoover to carry on with his plans, delivering a tape of Dr. King allegedly having sex with another woman. While the tape is clearly fabricated, she gets King to admit to having had affairs. In order to repair things with his family, King decides to skip the March which is set for March 7, 1965. On that day, Alabama troopers face about 600 marchers and attack them on national television, bloodying the peaceful protesters – some of them, like Amelia Boynton (Toussaint) into unconsciousness – and horrifying a nation.

King, horrified beyond measure, returns to Selma with his wife’s blessing. He knows that the march needs to take place or else it would all be for nothing. He calls on the nation, to people of conscience of all colors to come to Selma and march with him. Many do come, including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Michigan activist Viola Liuzzo (Ochs) and Unitarian minister James Reeb (Strong). With a tense stand-off between the forces of racism and the forces of freedom, would the march take place and would change come to the South?

History tells us that the March did finally take place successfully and that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 that Johnson championed would become law (until it was dismantled by the Supreme Court two years ago). Like Titanic, most of us know how the story ends. In the hands of a gifted director, we would feel the tension of those participating because they, unlike us, did not know how the story would end.

DuVernay for the most part accomplishes this. She is aided in this to a very large extent by Oyelowo who delivers a remarkable performance as the late Dr. King. There is a tendency for us to deify certain people – Dr. King, Gandhi, President Lincoln and so forth – to the point that we forget that they are human beings, far from perfect and full of frailties. DuVernay impressively gets that point across that Dr. King, as great a man and courageous a man as he was, also did things that he wasn’t proud of, also made mistakes and also had a playful sense of humor. At times he needed encouragement, phoning Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing a gospel song so that he might be reassured. At times he wasn’t as strong as his iron-willed wife Coretta was. Oyelowo captures these moments and makes the man relatable to all of us.

In fact most of the cast is impressive although Wilkinson is miscast as LBJ. The LBJ I remember was a force of nature and larger than life and Wilkinson makes him more of a backrooms conniver, which he also was but there was a charisma to him that Wilkinson doesn’t capture. Many who knew the late President have complained that the film does an injustice to his memory in its portrayal of him as obstructive and unsupportive which history tells us he was not, but this isn’t the LBJ story.

It’s not even Dr. King’s story, although he naturally dominates the screen time here. It is a story for all of us, about the tribulations of the Civil Rights activists and what they actually went through to get the rights we take for granted today. It also is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go, with events in Ferguson, Missouri mentioned pointedly in the movie’s post-credits Oscar-nominated song and parallels to modern oppression of the African American community.

Near the end we see footage purportedly of the actual March with some of it archival, although we mostly see celebrity marchers like Davis and Belafonte. Due to the rights to Dr. King’s speeches being owned by DreamWorks for a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil Rights era that has not yet come to fruition, we don’t get to hear the actual words of Dr. King’s speeches; instead, DuVernay had to rewrite them so that they were in the style of his oratory but not his actual words. Shame on DreamWorks for not allowing the film to use the words inspiring to so many.

This is one of the better movies of the Holiday Awards season and it justly received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some are moaning about DuVernay not receiving a nomination for Best Director but truth be told those that did receive the nomination also deserved to be nominated; what separated the five films that got the nod and this one are essentially splitting hairs; to my mind, she had a tendency to be a bit ham-handed in some of the activism scenes with swelling strings to the point that you couldn’t hear the dialogue but were supposed to feel inspired. It is a bit manipulative and could have been handled better. She should have trusted the material to bring out those feelings without hitting us in the head with them.

Nitpicking aside, this should be mandatory viewing for all of us who think that the need for activism has ended. We should all understand what was endured by those who fought for the rights of African-Americans and continue to be endured. Freedom is not given, it must be fought for and so many continue to fight. The legacy of Selma is with us still and should inspire all of us to rise up and support those who still need to shine the light on practices that should outrage all Americans – but still doesn’t. We shall overcome indeed, but we haven’t yet.

REASONS TO GO: MLK is humanized here. Captures the scope of the march and the events surrounding it. About damn time there was a movie about Selma.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure about the LBJ portrayal. Could have used archival footage better.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some disturbing violence of defenseless people being beaten, some brief strong language, adult themes and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Free screenings of the film were made available to 275,000 high school and middle school students.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Detachment

J. Edgar


J. Edgar

Armie Hammer and Leonardo di Caprio get a look at the critics who complained about their make-up.

(2011) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas, Ken Howard, Geoff Pierson, Dermot Mulroney, Zach Grenier, Denis O’Hare, Damon Herriman, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson, Christopher Shyer. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Like the subject of yesterday’s documentary review, J. Edgar Hoover is a polarizing figure. There are those who believe he was the nation’s greatest lawman, a tremendous organizer and meticulous planner who built the Federal Bureau of Investigation from a powerless joke to perhaps the most elite law enforcement group in the world.

However, there are many who look at him as more of a cautionary tale, proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. His confidential files on many prominent Americans destroyed lives and created a climate of fear that lasted for half a century. Eastwood, a prominent Libertarian, takes on a figure who remains enigmatic more than thirty years after his death, one whose private life was a source of great speculation but of which little is truly known.

Hoover (di Caprio) is embroiled in a feud with Martin Luther King, whom he considers to be a dangerous subversive. He also finds that his legacy is being tarnished and he feels that it is time to remind America just what an important part he played in keeping the country safe, deciding to dictate his memoirs to a parade of agents over the course of several years.

Starting with the Palmer Raids in 1919 when as a lawyer for the Department of Justice, he instituted a task force of Bureau of Investigation agents who would arrest anarchists after a series of bombs (including one at the home of then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Pierson) who eventually appointed Hoover to his post).

Hoover’s bureau is at first toothless; not allowed by law to make arrests or carry firearms, they function mainly in an advisory capacity and aren’t taken too seriously in the law enforcement community. Hoover recruits men he feels will be above reproach both morally and professionally, including Clyde Tolson (Hammer), a young man that Hoover fancies. However, homosexuality is completely taboo back then and if Hoover has feelings for Tolson, he must hide them well.

Not only from the bureau but from his mother (Dench) who tells him she would rather have a dead son than a live daffodil, referring  to the nickname of a gay acquaintance of the family who killed himself after being outted. Hoover lives with his overbearing mother even though he is the chief of an important bureau in Washington.

Once prohibition begins, the age of the gangster commences. Hoover turns his attention from anarchists and communists to gangsters who are not only running around lawless (and escaping justice by crossing state lines) but have captured the popular imagination. Hoover demands and gets legislation that allows his FBI officers broader powers, including the power to make arrests and carry firearms. When Hoover is criticized for not having personally arrested anyone, he stages arrests to make it look like he was the agent in charge when in reality he was just showing up for the press cameras after the dangerous work was done.

The kidnapping of the son of Charles Lindbergh (Lucas) becomes a game changer. Hoover endures the ridicule of supercilious cops (Mulroney) and watches them bungle the investigation, refusing to use the modern investigative techniques that Hoover (to his credit) was instituting at the FBI. Of course, history records the fate of the Lindbergh baby but it was the FBI who arrested Bruno Hauptmann (Herriman) for the crime.

Eastwood makes clear that Hoover used the tragedy to further his own agenda, which in particular allowed the FBI to be in charge of a central repository of fingerprints . He also used it as publicity to establish the FBI as an organization to be admired; a series of comic books came out portraying Hoover as an action hero, taking down criminals himself (when in fact he did not).

It was about this time that Hoover began keeping private files on public figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, which he used as potential sources of blackmail to get what he wanted but also to keep an eye on people he considered subversive. Those files would cover figures from politicians to Presidents, actors to musicians, writers to journalists and go well into the 1970s.

The movie deals with Hoover’s private life gingerly, including the rumors of cross-dressing and homosexuality, both of which are disputed to this day. Eastwood intimates that both were in the background but never really acted upon.

The movie is long (but then again it deals with a 50 year career in the public eye) and it drags a bit towards the end. Some critics have complained that Eastwood doesn’t give Hoover an excoriation for his abuses of power (which I think was unnecessary – there have been plenty of calling to accounts for Hoover to render another one unnecessary) and that the old age make-up used by Hammer and di Caprio were distracting (which I found untrue).

After a subpar effort with Hereafter Eastwood returns to form with a potential Oscar contender. Di Caprio delivers a powerful performance that has to be considered an early entry into the Best Actor race. He makes Hoover relatable and human in some ways, while enigmatic and unapproachable in others. He never demystifies Hoover but never makes him a demagogue either. He is a man with an agenda, one which mostly involved cementing his own power, authority and position. He was also a man who yearned for acceptance and admiration.

Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, is the glue that holds the movie together. He is the conscience of the king in many ways, and his Clyde witnesses some egregious violations of civil liberties and common decency but he is above all else loyal both to the bureau but more to the man.  It is at times heartbreaking to watch.

Less has been said about Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, the woman who served as Hoover’s executive assistant and in most ways the keeper of his secrets. She was a formidable woman in her own right and according to the movie anyway, rejected a proposal of marriage from Hoover. Watts gives her that inner strength as well as making her easy on the eyes. It’s a very strong performance that may well get some Oscar consideration of its own, although I’m less sure of that it will personally.

Is this the definitive film biography of the former FBI director? It certainly is for now but I’m not 100% sure that there isn’t a better movie on his life out there to be made. For my money, this is a very good movie that works not only as a biography but a look at the trappings of power and how seductive they can be. It truly is a cautionary tale and one which I sadly suspect we haven’t learned from as a species yet.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-caliber performances from di Caprio and Hammer. A return to form for Eastwood.

REASONS TO STAY: The bouncing around of timelines sometimes gets confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language here and there and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Armie Hammer’s great-grandfather was oil tycoon Armand Hammer who was suspected by Hoover of having communist ties; Hoover was said to have had a confidential file on him.

HOME OR THEATER: This would probably look just as good at home as it would in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Creation (2009)