20 years after his death, James Baldwin’s voice, passion and insights are just as powerful as ever. Selectively using his own words (letters, uncompleted novel, Remember This House along with archival footage from lectures and television appearances), Raoul Peck has crafted a searing indictment of the epidemic of willful blindness that is still very much alive in the “Land of the free.”
Being released in the same year as 13th (cross-reference below) and Hidden Figures, will prove to the satisfaction of some, that issues of racism and oppression are in the public conversation (sadly, those who would benefit most from viewing these films never will).
One of the most telling and searing juxtapositions of many, shows lily-white Doris Day—the epitome of the American Dream woman—in all her radiant glory then cuts to a horrific montage of lynched black men. On several occasions, Baldwin points out that America’s prosperity depended in large part (most notably the South) on slave labour. For over 400 years, he continues to say, the root of much of the black population is rage while the root of the white (a.k.a. power) population is terror.
Baldwin goes on to brilliantly discuss the emotional poverty and immaturity of the U.S. majority and how so many decisions/laws/attitudes are fuelled solely by profits and personal safety. Describing his experience dating a white woman in Harlem—where she would be safer walking on the street alone than with him—is a truly pathetic reminder of how cruel and ignorant so many lovers of freedom can be. “Give me liberty, or give me death” when espoused by whites is a noble, admired phrase but if blacks make the same utterance, he concludes, ways must be found to put them down.
From the many film clips interspersed with Baldwin’s appearances and speeches, the “jump from the train” scene in The Defiant Ones (two inmates, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are inadvertently freed but chained two each other—that imagery alone speaks volumes—finally unshackled, make a desperate run for a freight train: Poitier makes it, holds out his hand for Curtis but to no avail; instead of riding the rails to the possibility of freedom, Poitier jumps off to stay with and assist Curtis) is a prime example of how one action can be viewed totally differently by different segments of the population.
The production is a masterpiece of editing (Alexandra Strauss), frequently showing Baldwin’s assertions for the visionary that he was and is. Samuel Jackson is superb as the famed author’s surrogate voice when required, readily capturing the range of consciousness and deeply felt emotions of the unforgiving prophet (“All Western nations [were] caught in the lie of pretended humanism.”). The original score from Alexi Aigui is at one with the imagery; Andry Gontcharov’s trumpet contributions are especially welcome.
Last year’s Oscars were decried for their “whiteness”. Will the Academy now have the courage to give the nod to a film that dares challenge the establishment like few others? Will anyone have the guts to answer Baldwin’s most important question: “Why did you invent the nigger?” JWR