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.