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 Jackal


The Jackal

Anyone think Bruce Willis is overcompensating just a bit?

(1997) Suspense (Universal) Richard Gere, Bruce Willis, Sidney Poitier, Diane Venora, Mathilda May, J.K. Simmons, Richard Lineback, John Cunningham, Jack Black, Tess Harper, Sophie Okonedo, Daniel Dae Kim, Leslie Phillips, Stephen Spinella, Larry King. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

 

The old saying goes that it takes a thief to catch a thief, which to my mind is utter claptrap. Plenty of thieves have been caught by people who aren’t thieves. However, if you’re going to follow that logic, then it follows that it takes an assassin to catch an assassin.

A raid on a Russian disco by the FBI and Russian military cops ends up with the brother of a high up figure in the Russian underworld getting shot. He blames the FBI for his brother’s demise and enlists the services of the most notorious assassin – only known as the Jackal (Willis) – who accepts a payment of $70 million to off the director of the FBI.

Deputy director Carter Preston (Poitier) gets wind of this and is presented with quite the dilemma; nobody knows what the Jackal looks like which is quite handy if you’re an assassin. Actually, that isn’t quite true – there is the former terrorist for the IRA named Declan Mulqueen (Gere) who knows what he looks like. And, if he is willing to help Preston and Major Valentina Koslova (Venora) track down the Jackal, well, the feds would be grateful. At least he’ll be able to get out of prison and see his former girlfriend, a Basque terrorist named Isabella Zanconia (May) who is now married to another man and living in Northern Virginia, who also knows all about the Jackal. For somebody whom law enforcement agencies have so little information on, these ex-terrorists sure have the goods on him.

Even with Mulqueen’s help, the Jackal leads them on a merry chase around the globe. He’s building a big bad remote control gun with which he can take out his target without actually being on the site; poor Jack Black (in an early role) plays a rawkin Canadian gunsmith who asks one annoying question too many and gets perforated by his own creation. That sucks rocks, dude.

Things get far more personal between Mulqueen and the Jackal and it turns into a kind of mano a mano cat and mouse game between the two. Still, how do you stop him when you don’t even have the target right?

This was based loosely on the 1973 thriller Day of the Jackal which in turn was based on a novel of the same name by Frederick Forsythe which was based on a real life plot to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle of France. That movie is considered one of the classic thrillers of its day and still holds up well nearly 40 years later.

I don’t know that this one will hold up as well in 2037. It has been utterly Americanized and comes off with the Jackal as kind of a cut-rate anti-Bond, with all sorts of gadgets and disguises – Willis has a goodly share of wigs, hairpieces and fake moustaches which must have been fun for him, and he has a different personality with each look from a frumpy Canadian to a suave gay man to a no-nonsense cop. Willis makes a pretty credible bad guy.

Gere’s performance is pretty good. Although his Irish brogue is inconsistent, he has the charisma to make what is essentially an IRA terrorist a sympathetic character although they backpedal and make the good guy terrorists in the movie mostly non-lethal who were more freedom fighters than terrorists. I wonder how sympathetic Gere would have been if we found out that Declan Mulqueen had taken part in a school bus bombing, something that the IRA actually did. Still, he is in full-on movie star mode here and carries the movie pretty well, although Poitier who was undergoing a career renaissance when the film was made, is reliable and gracious enough not to steal the movie out from under his nose which he was fully capable of doing.

The plot often takes ludicrous twists and turns and requires some pretty severe leaps of faith as logic often fails here. There is also a kind of Eurotrash undertone particularly in the soundtrack and some of the scenes that have Willis posturing a little overly much. The ending is a bit of a groaner too. However as empty-headed action thrillers go, this is one that I still view from time to time with enormous affection. However for real thrills I would suggest you see the 1973 version first.

WHY RENT THIS: Poitier is as always terrific. Some terrific action scenes. Willis is excellent as the villain.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gere’s accent is unconvincing. Takes itself too seriously. Too much Eurotrash. Poor ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence and strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fred Zinnemann, the director of the original Day of the Jackal reportedly asked that the title of the remake be changed shortly before he passed away because he felt the original stood the test of time and was a completely different film from the newer one, which should warrant a different title.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While the DVD is sorely lacking in features, the Blu-Ray has a bunch including an unusually informative commentary track and a nice featurette comparing the 1997 version with the original 1973 film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $159.3M on a $60M production budget; this was profitable (more than).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Day of the Jackal

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Barry Munday