13th and I Am Not Your Negro

Along with three fiction films–The Birth of a Nation, Moonlight and Hidden Figures–these two docs explore the African-American experience, past and present. All but Birth of a Nation are up for Oscars and Birth would be, too, if Nate Parker hadn’t been pilloried for his response to questions about his involvement in a rape while an undergraduate (he was acquitted of all criminal charges). That is another story, one that deserves more discussion, but the two docs are my focus here.
Raoul Peck, director of I Am Not Your Negro, a compilation of reflections on race by James Baldwin, gives us an extraordinary film. Peck has a remarkably international background and his earlier film on Patrice Lumumba makes clear, his focus on social injustice is wide spectrum, such as the role of the United States in not just propping up but installing business friendly dictators like Joseph Mobutu around the world.
James Baldwin is a perfect vehicle for exploring race in America. As he himself says, he does not speak for any one position, be it Martin Luther King’s, the Black Panther’s, or Malcolm X’s, although he recognizes the value of all those who stand up for racial equality and social justice. Baldwin’s comments are sharp, incisive and more thought-provoking than sloganeering. He reminds us, for example, Patrick Henry’s rousing call to “Give me liberty or give me death” has become a centerpiece of the story of the American colonies in their struggle to throw off the yoke of British domination. And yet, the equivalent words, spoken by Black Panthers, are seen as a dire threat to national security. Baldwin saw the big picture. When a Yale philosophy professor tries to get him to agree that he has more in common with white intellectuals than working class blacks, Baldwin does not take the “let’s all get along; beneath skin color are common qualities,” bait. He rips into the professor, on the Dick Cavett show, with a litany of racist practices that underscore how institutions, like liberals, may not profess to be racist, and yet act in ways that perpetuate racist practices.
Weaknesses: Samuel Jackson reads text by Baldwin in a flat, ponderous tone. He lacks the lightness and sharpness of Baldwin’s own comments. And Peck sidesteps Baldwin’s gay identity despite the ways in which it factored into his place in the civil rights and Black Power movements.
But as a time bomb of precise, memorable insights into what it means to be black in America, I Am Not Your Negro is definitely the film of the year.
13th comes in second. It feels like a film distrustful of its own medium since it is one of the most talk heavy documentaries this year, with voice after voice telling us about the bitter irony of how emancipation led to incarceration. None have the eloquence of Baldwin although all are valuable. 13th gives short shrift to its most original insight: the arrest and sentencing of blacks in the Reconstructionist South to create a work force for the plantations and industries that no longer to rely on slaves. Prisons gave them a new form of legal slavery. But the film, determined to hold to a chain link historical progression, does not return to this point when it touches on the commercialization of the prison industry today, in which many prisoners perform virtual slave labor that profits not only well-known corporations but the private businesses that now run so many of our prisons.
The film compensates for its wordiness with hip hop “breaks” that seem to come from a different sensibility. Powerful, and thematically apt, they seem less like a primary way to make experience embodied and impassioned than like a pit stop before the litany of experts resumes their commentary. Placing most of the speakers in settings that evoke a carceral environment has the feel of a forced metaphor.
Skipped over is the key question of how Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and others (might I add Leader Trump?) used the code of a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs” to serve as a war on African-Americans. They did, successfully. It was a racist move in every way but accepted. What made it work? The film seems to assume that there was an equivalence between crime, drugs and race but doesn’t show how this idea was itself racist. Why sweep through black communities especially, using brutal, often murderous tactics, to root out criminals and drug dealers? Were crime rates and drug use higher there than anywhere else? Or were white collar drug use and white collar crime seen as less a threat, even though crimes in the ghetto seldom spilled beyond the ghetto? (See O.J.: Made in America for a vivid refresher course: residents in South Central L.A., destroyed their own community in the wake of the Rodney King trial and didn’t set foot in Brentwood and the other white enclaves where folk like O.J. lived.)
13th is a more flawed analysis of racial issues but it brings to light, in a focussed and compelling way, how the American prison system has perpetuated the racial biases that the 13th Amendment set out to eliminate. Jails are the new plantations. Prisoners are the new slaves, and the overwhelming preponderance of those slaves belong to minorities, most vividly African-Americans. in saying this, it sharpens the insights of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and gives racism is proper place in understanding the role of prisons today.
It is hard to envision greater progress in race relations and civil rights without a ruthless dismantling of a prison system that reinforces the underlying fears and hatreds that have nourished racist ideologies for centuries. As powerful works of social justice both films fully deserve their Oscar nominations as well a long and useful life after that particular showbiz distraction comes and goes.

Snowden the fiction film

We’ve had Citizenfour, the documentary film, and now Oliver Stone gives us the true story as a dramatic fiction.  Laura Poitras is there, as a character, filming Snowden in Hong Kong, and it is from this scene that we flashback over his life.  That concept works well; between his own recollections and what Laura draws out (which is everything of interest about his transition from gung ho CIA operative to whistle blower; the Guardian reporter and Glenn Greenwald are only interested in The Big Story, not in Snowden’s story), we get a well developed portrait of what it takes to induce repugnance and indignation in someone who wants to serve his country.

As far as I can make out, the only real justification for the surveillance is that the enema is everywhere, security is paramount, and secrecy is vital to security, hence spying on everyone all the time. That’s what Snowden’s CIA mentor tells us and it feels like a half-baked half-truth; in  other words, as Stone tells it the whole program is a fantasmatic effort to find needles in haystacks that could be better spent pursuing specific leads and launching counter-offensives.  There is no discussion of how to promote democracy or how to build democratic institutions  among our middle east “allies,” or how to rely on “good” Muslims to help feret out the bad, etc.  There is a “hide inside the fortress” mentality to the CIA and NSA that makes effective action almost inconceivable.

All in all, an excellent complement to Poitras’s portrait of Snowden and a film with more suspense than I would have imagined.

Women in Abstract Painting

 

The King Is Dead (Hamilton?)

Grace Hartigan, The King Is Dead [Hartigan said The King is Picasso]

The Denver Art Museum hosts this show of over a dozen women artists, from San Francisco and New York, primarily.  Some are quite well known (Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner), others less so (Perle Fine, Mary Abbott) but all are impressive. Each gets a space of her own. Each has 4-6 paintings judiciously selected.  The placards downplay, if they mention at all, their connections with male abstract expressionists, rightly so, since the work clearly stands on its own, and may, in fact, in cases such as Frankenthaler’s Color Field paintings, have influenced other women, and men, as much as Rothko or Still influenced the women.

Of course there is a publication with all the paintings and there is a quite good 15 minute film that has interviews with the women in the show or those who knew them. The candid photos the women in their studios and at play suggest that were  “out there”: smoking, partying, working hard and having clear, engaging thoughts about their work and the work of others.  Several state that San Francisco was a far less macho, discriminatory work for women than New York City.

Perle Fine 2

Perle Fine’s small abstraction. Most of the work in the show is quite large.

It may not be possible to “pop” over to Denver but if you find yourself here, it is a terrific show. And right next store, in the Clyfford Still Museum, is a room dedicated to work he made in San Francisco while a teach at the San Francisco Institute of Art where he served as a mentor for some of the women in the show, someone to learn from but hardly imitate as these women artists found voices of their own.

Frank Gehry’s Bilbao

This is truly an impressive work. After seeing Sydney Pollack’s doc on Gehry where they mainly interact and Gehry talks about his career, I came away more convinced than ever that it is one of the great architectural achievements of modern times. And Pollack is generous enough to give screen time to Hal Foster who plays the Blue Meanie: it’s just not that good, not that important, and if it were, it’d be too important because museums are about the art. He should have told that to Frank Lloyd Wright before he built the original Guggenheim with its insane spiral gallery that has proven a wonder ever since!

But enough on Meanies. What struck me is the balance and proportionality of it, and the intricacy of the surfaces that curve, bend, fold and refuse to obey the rectilinear dictates of most architecture. In fact, a vast number of columns, including staircases and elevator shafts as well as the more thematically inspired columns that soar upward from the central open space within, are freestanding: they do not begin at the ground level or end at the ceiling but usually do just one or the other, or neither. It gives the whole thing a lightness and giddiness that belies its monumental size.

And the curves seem to mimic the enormous gallery of Richard Serra’s great freestanding steel sculptures that also appear unanchored in any traditional sense. See this photo below of Gehry’s sculpted space and compare it to the permanent installation of Serra. It’s just one of the many ways in this museum is a true gem and will remain so for a long long time.

Bilbao 45

Bilbao Serra

Enemies and Citizens: Why Are the Police Out of Control?

Anyone who recalls the violent attacks on strikers by police in the 19th century or in the Depression era ’30s knows that they are not necessarily nice guys. But there is also an image of the “cop on the beat” who knows a neighborhood and the people in it. He’s part of the landscape and he’s there [till recently “he” was all there was] to preserve the peace, often by diplomatic, thoughtful, non-violent means.

That changed after the 1960s and changed dramatically after 9/11. The police became militarized. More police got their training in a military trained to go after insurgents who often acted like civilians. More police joined SWAT teams that used military-grade weapons and overwhelming force tactics to go after drug dealers and hostage takers even when violence was only made more likely by the use of SWAT teams in the first place.

Fewer police were “cops on the beat” who got out of their cars and armored vehicles to develop real relationships with citizens. Trained to deal with insurgents as enemies to be neutralized or destroyed, they quickly came to see citizens as an enemy rather than as neighbors and citizens to be served and protected. Especially citizens who have historically been typed as “dangerous”: young black men.

Every week we see more evidence of the racism that underlies the militarization of the police and of the military policies designed to deal with enemies–who almost always of a different ethnic and religious background from the still dominant white segment of our society–when they are brought to bear at home.

The solution doesn’t require bemoaning crazed, racist cops; it requires a change in training and a demilitarization of the police. The police is not the army or special forces or the CIA. And its members far too often think they are fighting against insurgents who are the black to their white in a black and white game of kill or be killed. it is little wonder that snipers–angered, irrational, infuriated citizens–now appear to counterattack the police. Escalation is in the air when what is needed is a radical change in training and tactics.

Modern Wonders and Distant Talks

Do you ever wonder where “here” is when we say an online talk is “here”? I gave a talk in Zuruch at Do It Again, a terrific conference on Reenactment in Documentary and that was “there,” in Zurich, but now it’s “here,” but it didn’t happen “here” and yet it does. Maybe that counts as a reenactment or at least as a repetition, but it’s not purely a repetition since it’s from a singular point of view, not a filmmaker’s, maybe, but the Conference’s, which chose where to place the cameras, what lenses to use, and when to cut, and so on so that this is in a way a reenacting of a talk from a distinct pov, even it is close to the zero degree style made famous by our French theorist friends.

The link to it is here: The website for the conference is http://www.zdok.ch and the direct link to my talk is https://www.zhdk.ch/109306.

You may enjoy the linkage in the talk between thumb sucking and reenactments.