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 Help


The Help

Viola Davis is tired of Emma Stone asking what it's like to be nominated for an Oscar.

(2011) Period Drama (DreamWorks/Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Anna Camp, Brian Kerwin, Mary Steenburgen, David Oyelowo, Aunjanue Ellis, Nelsan Ellis. Directed by Tate Taylor

Often those who work as domestic servants are relegated to being background characters, even in real life. They clean the houses of their employers, cook their food and even raise their children, but their stories are rarely told. That’s especially true of the African-American domestics of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s as America stood on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss with her head stuffed with the dreams of being a writer. Her mother Charlotte (Janney) has different dreams for her daughter; mainly of getting married, something Skeeter isn’t eager to do. Her friends mostly already have and can’t figure out why on earth a good looking girl like Skeeter remains unhitched.

Skeeter is surprised that her longtime nanny and maid Constantine (Tyson) is gone. According to her parents, Constantine has gone to Chicago to be with her family there but Skeeter senses that there is something she’s not being told. She holds her tongue however, considering her mother is battling cancer. Skeeter is also far too busy starting a new job as the columnist for the (fictional) Jackson Journal dispensing housecleaning tips.

Her friend Hilly Holbrook (Howard) has become something of a community leader, head of the local Junior League and writer and proponent of a bill that specifies that the hired help in Jackson homes must have separate toilet facilities. This doesn’t sit well with her maid Millie (Spencer), who doesn’t appreciate being sent out in a hurricane to use an outdoor commode. When she pretends to use the family restroom, she is shown the door much to the chagrin of Hilly’s mom (Spacek) who was Millie’s actual employer.

Millie is the best cook in Jackson so it won’t take her long to get another position, this time with Celia Foote (Chastain), a wrong-side-of-the-tracks blonde who is married to an ex-boyfriend of Hilly’s and has thus earned social shunning. Celia knows nothing of cleaning house or cooking, and she desperately needs someone who can train her in both, or at least convince her husband Johnny (Vogel) that she knows something.

Also in Skeeter’s circle is Elizabeth Leefolt (O’Reilly) whose young daughter Mae is being raised by Aibileen (Davis), who has raised seventeen white babies while her own son died recently. She keeps her grief to herself, pouring herself into taking care of the family she works for. She notices that Elizabeth doesn’t really interact with her daughter much, rarely picking her up and Mae has become as a result way more attached to Aibileen.

Skeeter is aware of Aibileen’s reputation as a housekeeper and asks Elizabeth permission to talk to Aibileen so she can get help writing her column. Elizabeth is reluctant and puts a stop to the conversations after a single session but Skeeter becomes fascinated by Aibileen and has the brilliant idea to write the stories of the domestics of Jackson and make a book out of them. Her publishing contact in New York (Steenburgen) agrees but is skeptical that given the climate in Jackson that Skeeter will see much co-operation.

It initially appears that the publisher is right when Aibileen refuses Skeeter but after a particularly impassioned sermon by the local pastor (Oyelowo) inspires Aibileen to change her mind. Aibileen also recruits her friend Millie and soon Skeeter is getting some pretty subversive stuff, things that are going to shake up Jackson to the core.

This is based by the 2009 bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett whose childhood friend Taylor adapted the work for the screen and directed. Taylor does a fair job with it, framing the story in the turbulent times; we see clips of Medgar Evers (and see the devastating effects of his murder on the community) as well as JFK and Martin Luther King. The archival footage dos help set the time and place.

It is the acting that is the real reason to see this movie. Davis in particular becomes the center of the movie and Stone, who is the erstwhile lead, seems to realize that and generously allows Davis to shine at her own expense. That turns out to be a good move for the film; Davis carries it. Her quiet dignity and expressive eyes are at the center of the movie. For my money, it’s an Oscar-caliber performance and I sure hope the Academy remembers her work come nomination time.

That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast isn’t impressive as well. Stone takes Skeeter and gives her sass and character. At times the character is written as kind of the “white person saving the black person” cliche, but Stone elevates it above stock character status. Speaking of sass, Spencer just about defines the term in her portrayal of Minnie who comes off as very spunky but there are moments when she reveals her inner pain, suffering in an abusive relationship and unsure of herself.

Howard has the juiciest role here, that of the hysterical racist Hilly. Howard has had some decent performances in a variety of movies, but this might be her finest. She captures the pettiness and vitriol of the part and her expression when Millie’s “terrible awful” is revealed is priceless.

Veterans Steenburgen, Janney and Spacek lend further credibility to the film which is well acted from top to bottom. There are moments of genuine comedy (the terrible awful) as well as some heartstring tuggers (when Aibileen reveals to Skeeter what happened to her son). Mostly, you get a sense of the attitudes towards African-Americans of the era. We’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a very long way to go (as evidenced in the treatment of our President and the continued use of racial profiling). The Help isn’t the best movie of the year but it is on a very, very short list.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and compelling source material. Drama, comedy, pathos; this movie has something for everybody.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be emotionally manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The thematic material is on the mature side; younger kids may not understand the historical context but for teens who might be learning about the civil rights movement this makes for some fine viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book the movie is based on was rejected 60 times before finally being published, a testament to persistence by author Kathryn Stockett.

HOME OR THEATER: As studio films go this one’s pretty intimate but the shared experience factor tends to make me lean towards theater for this one.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: GasLand