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.


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.

Keith Haring at the de Young

The de Young museum has a powerful collection of Keith Haring’s more political work. His familiar style can sometimes mislead one into thinking it’s a “one look fits all” type of work but these images grab the viewer by the lapels more often than not.

One of the best known of Haring's political images

One of the best known of Haring’s political images

Striking is their scale and simplicity. Often made on tarpolins with store bought paint, and many dashed onto vacant advertising panels on New York subway trains, the images are stark and mesmerizing. Like the Aboriginal dream paintings that his repetitive use of symbols and icons resemble, the images transport us to a dream, or nightmare, world where ordinary humans are sujected to endless tortures, dismemberments and death at the hands of large, looming figures that are animalistic or machine-like more often than not.

The TV monster and the helpless man. The injunction to Kill your Television has come too late. Haring's figures are captives and victims of forces they may have created but no longer control.

The TV monster and the helpless man. The injunction to Kill your Television has come too late. Haring’s figures are captives and victims of forces they may have created but no longer control.

It can be easy to think of Haring as an “easy” artist: easy on the eyes, easy on the mind, easy, sometimes, on the pocketbook with his accessories, knockoffs and mass produced items, but a political motif runs vividly through this show, if not his oeuvre. He clearly finds little solace in the Great Society or the war in Vietnam, or Reagonomics or the continuing, and still continuing, racism, exploitation and media circus that surrounds him and that he both cultivated and subverted.

Elsewhere he associated the crown with Basquiat and here it seems to crown the central figure who leaps between a bleeding heart and headless body.

Elsewhere he associated the crown with Basquiat and here it seems to crown the central figure who leaps between a bleeding heart and headless body.

The museum gift shop is chock full of Haring-abelia for the acquisition minded, but the real gift is in the work itself. It haunts and moves and provokes and reminds us that there is a dignity in the gesture of resistance, of a great refusal of that which is everywhere celebrated and normalized… until it isn’t.

Some images are dense with iconic doodles and some have the starkness of a Philip Guston anti-KKK painting or Guernica. This is one of them.

Some images are dense with iconic doodles and some have the starkness of a Philip Guston anti-KKK painting or Guernica. This is one of them.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist: or why can’t Mira get that Bollywood Music out of her Hair?

Changez (Riz Ahmed, a handsome actor with limited range and modest charisma) is at home in Pakistan for a family celebration. Music plays, men sing, and we begin cross cutting to a kidnapping and the ransacking of an office.  The men sing more, the kidnapping goes on. The men sing louder and it goes on some more.  Louder and louder, to the same beat, without subtitles, although the close ups make it seem important and probably portentous.

And there’s the rub.  Mira Nair, a director of some achievement, just can’t stop the music.  it intrudes over and over in this tale of a Pakistani over-achiever who goes to Princeton, lands at a super charged investment firm, acts instinctively with a ruthless passion for the bottom  line, meets an almost unrecognizable Kate Hudson (it was shot in the aftermath of her second pregnancy) as a playful, formally inclined artist who’s of course the daughter of the firm’s top man, and then inevitably gets caught up in the racist hysteria of post 9/11 that targets him repeatedly as a national security threat based not on his custom made suits but his skin color. If this weren’t dramatic enough (though riddled with plot holes of every size), Nair tacks on the droning but hyperbolic music of Bollywood at its most stereotypical. It makes a decent film close to unbearable.

There is not only Erica’s (Hudson) sudden discovery of politics and the inflammatory 9/11 inspired installation work she comes up with, never mentioning it to her Pakistani boyfriend who had had harrassment aplenty by this point, and Liev Schreiber’s burnt out CIA/reporter character whose multiple identities and motives revolve like a crazy top around his loss of direction, except for finding his kidnapped buddy, an CIA case officer posing as an avuncular academic.  There is also the lame demonstration of Changez’s skill as a ruthless cost cutter with examples so obvioius, and implausible, that one imagines the other newcomers didn’t make them because they knew just how obvious or exaggerated they actually were.  And to top it all, the flashback structure, by which Changez tells his life story while we await, 24 style, the ticking time bomb of an imminent “extraction” of Changez from his university in Lahore where Liev tries to learn the whereabouts of his kidnapped buddy, creates completely fabricated suspense.  Without the flim flam of flashback, were it told chronologically, the implausibility would crush the film, if the music didn’t do it first.  Changez doesn’t know about the kidnapping but to reveal that would rob the film of its overwrought suspense.

Nair has definite talent but like Sidney Pollack she undercuts her material with sentimentality, something Katherine Bigelow learned to avoid in her quest to be even tougher and more right wing than the rest of the boys.