I Am Not Your Negro

protest

Especially at this moment of social crisis, it seems a moot point to dismiss relevancy as an insignificant part of any film’s power, something that goes double for a documentary about a subject of this sort. For my own part, I saw I Am Not Your Negro in the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at an arthouse theater. The audience was appropriately lively, and I would easily concede that I was swept up in the emotions of the crowd. But I Am Not Your Negro is no mere piece of rabble-rousing agitprop, nor is it heedlessly provocative for the sake of “sending a message.” It is relentlessly sober, contemplative, yet simmering with all too deserving anger, as Raoul Peck dives with incisiveness into a uniquely American kind of of injustice through one of the nation’s most singular minds.

It should be emphasized here that there is a harmony between subject and filmmaker that I have very rarely seen. Peck and James Baldwin are both shown to be equal parts celar-minded and wily, making points with wit that never masks an almost deadly seriousness. For Baldwin, this manifests itself largely in his archival interviews (which are contrapuntal to Jackson’s voiceover, of which much will be discussed later), and for Peck, this is shown in his sense of montage. It is sometimes almost hilariously literal (displaying footage of Mars while Baldwin describes the dissociation of whites from blacks) and sometimes breathtakingly damning, as he lets various scenes from media play in full and employs just the appropriate amount of current-day footage without letting it become distractiong.

But, arguably, I Am Not Your Negro‘s most valuable asset is Samuel L. Jackson’s revelatory voiceover performance of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, which forms the backbone of the documentary and was supposed to be a personal retelling of the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Jackson is extraordinarily, heartbreakingly subdued here, his trademark fire and brimstone compressed into a voice just barely recognizable. It is subdued, but it broils with repressed anger to a degree that every quiver, every pause conveys a bottomless pit of sorrow and emotion. Peck wisely alternates between this proposal of a book and the more energetic archival footage, and in doing so creates a cohesive and often troubling whole.

It is entirely false to say that Peck is didactic in his filmmaking or arguments, and only rarely does it feel as if he is “just” making his point to the audience. His form of rhetoric is couched in categorical terms (there are various parts named like “Heroes”), and it slowly builds throughout the film as the evidence mounts and Baldwin’s (and Peck’s) views are explicated further and further. There are the bravura scenes, such as an extended excerpt from Baldwin’s appearance on the Dick Cavett show where he rightfully excoriates a foolish professor who claims that Baldwin has a similar experience to him. But there are also the more damning and castigatory (and usually the weaker) scenes, like one that explicitly condemns Gary Cooper and Doris Day for being the emblems of comfortable white society.

But it is entirely to I Am Not Your Negro‘s benefit that Peck stops short of laying out a clear-cut message, as he recognizes the issues at hand are far more complex and important than befits a sound bite. Baldwin himself says “the history of America is the history of the Negro in America. And it’s not a pretty picture,” and the film makes the case in astonishingly powerful and almost unanimously persuasive terms. It draws no quarter in its insight, in its anger, and its genuine call for change.

Statement of Intent

In my limited experience, there are two types of “favorite” films. This does not apply just to films that the viewer relates to on a personal level (although that plays a significant part) or to the towering masterpieces of cinema, but to a very particularly moving form of connection that the experience of watching and subsequent reflection activates in a viewer. These two types, described in terms of what each individual lover has to say, are as follows:

1. It is immensely difficult to articulate the nature of the film’s greatness or general quality for whatever reason. Usually, this seems to stem from more intimate movies, ones that are difficult to evaluate from an impersonal lens. They are usually films that lie closer to real life, in the small interactions and little snippets of dialogue.

2. The viewer has an inordinate amount of things to say about the film from a variety of self-imposed perspectives and aspects. This more often than not occurs concerning mammoth films that are clearly great, grandiose productions (not to be conflated with Farber’s conception of white elephant art, as these are usually incisive works), whether they be in the canon or not.

Obviously, this binary is, as all binaries are, reductive, and there are many of my favorite films that fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Nevertheless, all of them are aligned somewhat with these dual categorizations. More importantly, never have I felt the urge of the second type as strongly as I have with Silence, Martin Scorsese’s depiction of incredible, purposeful, and troubling faith in the most hostile of locales. It is a film that gives no quarter, leaves no stone unturned in its repeated questioning of its central character and by proxy the viewer, and what results is a kind of affirmation, a complicated ambiguity that feels irresistible.

It is perhaps only fair to lay out my rather considerable shortcomings in undergoing this venture of writing multiple long essays on this great film. I have seen a grand total of—at this time of writing—six Scorsese films, and among the unseen are a good deal of films both relevant (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, The Wolf of Wall Street) and not but still essential (Mean Streets, The Age of Innocence). I also have not seen Masahiro Shinoda’s version of Silence, nor Shūsaku Endō’s original novel, though I do know the context in which the latter was made. And of course, I am a neophyte of cinema at best, whose cursory knowledge vastly outstrips any benchmark of actual viewing.

So why do I want to tackle such an extraordinary film in such a brazen manner? The film’s majesty, of course, speaks for itself and even for someone as unlearned as me I want to discuss it. The decidedly mixed response of the consensus as a whole (in that the detractors have stated their opinions as vociferously as the supporters) is another reason. But certainly the strongest is my identity as an Asian Christian and the ways in which it deals with that ideal. Silence challenged and moved me in ways even religion cannot, and I relish any attempt to grapple with it further.

This project of sorts will take some time, and I anticipate that posts will come out irregularly. There is no set outline at this time, but each essay will attempt to tackle some different facet of Silence, some focusing on more technical sides and others on more theological issues.

For now, this is what I have to say about Silence. There will be many, many more words forthcoming, and I pray that they will not come in the form of unadulterated fawning, but as a testament to the glory of this truly monumental work.

A Few Immediate Thoughts on The Before Trilogy

So many echoes, both conscious and (I presume, though putting anything past these three geniuses is risky at best) unconscious. Each film has a scene of “acting” in a certain way, and the rhythms and often content of the walks are admirably similar, but each feels so differentiated by the ravages of time and love. A car ride that forms the climax of Sunset becomes the first act of Midnight, the glory of Sunrise becomes more and more attenuated until it acts as a divider, and through it all Linklater grows ever more confident, as vital as ever; the sense of worldly weariness comes from the roles, not the collaborators.

March 2017 Capsules

20th Century Women
“Santa Barbara, 1979” is a place and time, but it is also a mindset. More accurately, it is a kaleidoscope of mindsets; chief among the great strengths of 20th Century Women is its utter fidelity towards representing the multiple perspectives of its five main characters. But it is so much more than that: its tone is part rebellious, part serene, and even part transcendental. In the struggle between generations that eventually comes to define the film, Mills recognizes there is no wrong answer, accepting each person warts and all. The viewer sees who these broken but valiant people as they were, as they are, and as they will be, both defined and undefined by their time, and for my part I fell in love with them. It is bittersweet, melancholic, and uniformly wonderful in its loose grace, as free as the younger generation and as composed as the older generation.

Tampopo
A curious case. For the most part, Tampopo establishes itself as an intensely lighthearted work, jumping off of the central storyline to engage in food-related vignettes with abandon. Most of these are to some degree outré, but a few stick out in their bad taste (for good and for ill). An undercurrent of violence in the film is ever present (perhaps fittingly, given its status as a “Ramen Western”) but there is a vast divide between two men beating each other for an extended period of time and a gangster getting shot in the middle of the street, or, in the film’s most fascinating and troubling vignette, a wife getting up from her deathbed to cook one last meal. But in the end, the central storyline is the main attraction, and Itami takes almost too much delight in both skewering and glorifying food, to wonderful effect.

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