Saturday, May 13, 2017

Defining Race: Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro

author James Baldwin

"Trumpcare was never about the well-being of Americans," actor Jeffrey Wright recently remarked as President Donald Trump continued to dismantle the former president's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. "It was about trying in vain to erase Barack Obama from the history books." Given the erratic nature of Trump's actual policies, where everything is put in direct opposition to Obama's legacy, Wright's claim isn't rhetorical. What he does is open a door into what the early days of the Trump era are all about: inducing social amnesia. The one consistency that both elected Trump and has sustained him so far has been the continuous fermenting rage over having had eight years of America's first black president. Even the term – Obamacare – when it springs forth from the lips of many Republicans, sounds like they're describing some kind of plague or pestilence that has swept the land and needs to be gotten rid of, denying both the intent of the Act (despite its deficiencies) and the political integrity of the man who put it forth. Obamacare never was allowed to be a piece of legislation, which is why the Republican alternative isn't even a sufficient improvement, or close to being a reasoned response to it. During the tenure of his presidency, I think Barack Obama knew that he was a lightning rod for both the unrealistic expectations of his followers and the irrational hatred of his adversaries. He also understood that any daring move on his part to fulfill those two terms in office would have likely led to a cataclysmic outcome given the nation's unresolved racial history and its string of assassinations. So he worked carefully (and with precision) to be both a visible and an invisible presence. Out of office, Obama is still a projection of America's torn psyche, an ineradicable reflection, one part of the nation wishing to bury the whip of slavery while the other refuses to confront and transcend this unsavory legacy.

You can sense these lingering projections as well in Jordan Peele's nervy horror/comedy, Get Out, which plays havoc with the latent paranoia inside racial perceptions. It gets you laughing and yet puts you in a state of paralyzed terror over what you are actually laughing at. Right from the first scene, Get Out twists our notions of racial profiling in knots. We see a black man calmly walking at night through a white suburban neighborhood who he ends up in fear for his life. Peele draws on a variety of pictures from different genre, including Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Stepford Wives, Meet the Parents, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead, then takes their familiar themes and revisits them through the prism of a polarized America where nothing is what it seems. After its unsettling opening, Get Out tucks itself snugly inside the uneasy skin of a young middle-class black man Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) who can't be sure that the parents (played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams), whom she's taking him home to meet, are as liberal as they claim to be. For most of the picture, Peele plays clever shell games with Chris's notion of what racism is and what it isn't. But he also toys with our perceptions and expectations without providing any emotional distance from the material (as Edgar Wright does in his genre satires Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which wink knowingly at the audience). Get Out finds bold new ways to get under our own skin, but it ultimately falls victim to its own need to offer simple solutions rather than trusting its uneasy questions. Betraying the conclusion that Peele originally had in mind, which was a beauty and provided a perfect payoff to an earlier scene, he skips over its discomfiting implications. The door out of his unsettling narrative turns out to have an easy lock to pick. Get Out plays comfortably to a predominantly black audience's need for heroism and freedom in order to avoid the true state of the nation after Trump's victory. It's as if Peele were trying to animate the dormant id of Obama.

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in Get Out

Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro has some of the same contradictory impulses as Get Out. Peck takes author James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, a reflective memoir about his friendships with black activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and tries to fashion a prognostic reading of contemporary racism. (At the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had written about thirty pages of the manuscript.) While there's true daring in letting Baldwin's words reach through time to make sense of post-Obama America, they often feel imposed on the present rather than illuminating it. Peck's film draws on Baldwin's anger towards white America for making his justified rage into something inappropriate to black progress (something Baldwin also wrote about in passionate detail in The Fire Next Time). But history has also proven that the answer to that claim is far more complex than what Baldwin – or Peck – come up with. I Am Not Your Negro takes up Baldwin's soul-searching and sometimes transforms his eloquence into ready-made slogans.

When Baldwin returned to America from Paris in the mid-sixties, he discovered a country in turmoil over civil rights. But rather than boil racism down to cause and effect, Baldwin's assertions, seen here on The Dick Cavett Show and in his various campus talks, capture the author and activist in the process of discovering the meaning of racism rather than declaring answers for it. As we look back today, the dichotomy between white and black America wasn't so simply drawn in the first place. For one thing, white America wasn't one adversarial entity. Many whites went South to help fight against segregation. Alliances were built between blacks and whites on university campuses to fight against discrimination. I Am Not Your Negro doesn't delve either into the psychological aspects of racism where blacks actually fought each other while struggling for solutions. Peck doesn't mention in his film that it was the Nation of Islam that turned on Malcolm X and had him assassinated (whether or not you believe the government and FBI also had a hand in it). He also doesn't refer to the famous broadside Eldridge Cleaver wrote on Baldwin in his popular book Soul on Ice – a piece dripping in ugly machismo in which Cleaver viciously attacked Baldwin's homosexuality – without a whisper of protest at the time.

There's no question that the urgency in I Am Not Your Negro comes from a strong desire to protest the way black America has been turned today into an innocuous citizenry (especially among polite racists who answer Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter, as if to say that black America hasn't been under siege). Peck does show a smart awareness when illustrating how in the sixties black activists like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were murdered for their idealism, whereas now we have a more covert racism at work, but he works against the strength of his thesis by settling for the more comfortable notion that – deep down – things are merely the same as they ever were. I Am Not Your Negro doesn't take the daring leaps that Ezra Edelman did in his thesis documentary O.J. Made in America. In Edelman's more nuanced film, he shows how black athlete O.J. Simpson positioned himself as the anti-Muhammad Ali at a time when others (like Ali) were all about blacks standing proud. Ali's celebrity came from the defiance of one man holding America accountable for all its broken promises. Whereas Simpson, who sped through the doors that Ali had opened, ignored the country's dashed ideals and went for the gold instead. In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the author visibly railed against being both ignored and turned into an expedient symbol, but in O.J.: Made in America, we see the reverse happening. O.J. Simpson is portrayed as a visible celebrity athlete who willfully turns himself into an invisible man by becoming an expedient symbol for whatever and whoever will make him accepted and loved in white America – until years later, when charged with murdering his white ex-wife, he needs to be perceived as black in order to sway the jury into finding him innocent.

Although I Am Not Your Negro doesn't quite open up the paradoxes of American racism the way O.J.: Made in America did, however, it's by no means a negligible film. The desire to move a partisan audience isn't born out of the same carny impulses that Michael Moore employs in his work. Raoul Peck brings an urgency, as if delivering an SOS, trying to step inside James Baldwin's thought processes while looking for clues to make sense of where we are now. And he's not often wrong. While looking into the films of John Wayne killing Indians in Hollywood westerns, he brings up valid (if already familiar) points. His taking shots at the whiteness of Doris Day in her vapid pictures in the sixties isn't. We're never told about her early career as a jazz singer when she played with black musicians and styled herself after Ella Fitzgerald. (Rock Hudson was an equal victim of that stereotypical mask in their romantic comedies, playing the virile all-American heterosexual when the opposite was true.) Playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun), who was the first black woman to write a play on Broadway, was a chain smoker who died at 34 of pancreatic cancer. But her death is linked here instead to her tireless struggle for racial equality -- we see Attorney General Robert Kennedy driving her to despair when he doesn't respond to her pleas against the violence against black protesters in the South. These are perhaps picky points to raise but they add up to the paring down of the larger meanings that I Am Not Your Negro is reaching for.

Whatever its flaws, one of the greatest strengths of the documentary is James Baldwin. His mellifluous voice purrs like a cat, but it also has the sharp claws of one. He's at his best in one scene from Dick Cavett when he takes on philosopher Paul Weiss, who complains about Baldwin making an issue out of race instead of focusing on character. Baldwin jumps in with a critique that cuts like a chainsaw to characterize race and character as more considerable for one who is black and denied access to institutions, housing and jobs. Besides being the strongest scene to anchor Peck's thesis (and the one that produces the film's title), it's a bracing time-capsule moment, too. Baldwin and Weiss's fiery argument – with both sides listening to each other – is in striking contrast to today's TV news programs, where people continuously shout each other down. Curiously, Peck's use of Samuel Jackson to narrate ends up working against the picture in ways that he couldn't have considered. Instead of talking in his own voice, which comes equipped with a dynamic strut all its own, Jackson speaks in Baldwin's softer cadences. (Early in the picture, I was having a hard time taking in Baldwin's points and only later realized that, for me, the problem was the timbre of Jackson's narrating voice.) What that vocal choice does is to make Baldwin's observations sound less dynamic, less confrontational, and less passionate. I Am Not Your Negro, a movie whose title lays claim to standing independent, bold and righteous, should never have its black narrator speak in a voice that strips it of its natural colour.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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