Friday, March 3, 2017

Nosh 55: 'I Am Not Your Negro' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Review of I Am Not Your Negro
Despite its almost funereal roots – in writer James Baldwin’s proposed, never-written book about his three martyred friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. – the  documentary I Am Not Your Negro has an amazing life presence. The undertow of tragic sadness cannot depress the enduring legacy of those slain heroes. At the film’s core is another charismatic star: little Jimmy Baldwin, with his huge, sad-owl eyes, radiant smile of gapped teeth, and a voice so eloquent that we are spellbound by his sincerity.

This tribute is overdue, Baldwin having died at 63 in 1987. In 95 minutes Raoul Peck’s movie packs in the era of The Movement, when civil rights was America’s internal Vietnam. Baldwin was back from Paris, his expat refuge from the racial pressure cooker of American life. We hear his thoughts (voiced without jive by Samuel L. Jackson) gleaned from his work, including the book proposal. And we hear Baldwin speaking, as in the quiet, meditative thunder of his presentation at a Cambridge Union debate (his opponent, unseen in the clip, was William F. Buckley Jr.). There are many heroes, not only the three gunned-down leaders but also Harry Belafonte (more eloquent than I recalled), the brave teen Dorothy Counts who faced down brutal taunting, and fearless playwright Lorraine Hansberry (whose meeting with Baldwin and Robert F. Kennedy is a startling element).

Peck, a Haitian, directed Lumumba, the moving 2000 film with Eriq Ebouaney’s great performance as Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. Peck’s key collaborator is editor Alexandra Strauss, cross-pollinating clips from news shows, TV chats, race kitsch, songs, ads, forgotten movies like Dance, Fools, Dance (Joan Crawford’s sexiness dazzled young Baldwin) and They Won’t Forget (Clinton Rosemond’s terrorized black janitor became a lasting memory). It is surely time to give Stepin Fetchit a long rest, and the view of Doris Day is shallow, but there is a surreal, oddly menacing (in context) episode from The Pajama Game, of a union picnic giddy with colors and music but everyone is so cheerfully white.

This is not a Baldwin bio-pic, but we could stand to get more on the writer’s broken family, his abiding love of black church speech and music, his deep friendships with Marlon Brando and Nina Simone and his gayness (only mentioned in an FBI report). Still, we get riches. Baldwin was not a mover and shaker, but he had soul-true connections and he knew how to think, write and talk about them without losing any nuances. He felt almost crucified by his belief that black America is caught on a treadmill of white entitlement and forever fated to be Other and Under, sacrificed to a Caucasian race obsession bleached by fear and guilt. Billie Holiday’s “strange fruit” hangs on a white tree.     

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Major Documentaries About Remarkable Americans (subject, director, date), in order of their arrival: Hail, Hail, Rock ’n Roll! (rock musician Chuck Berry; Taylor Hackford 1987), Let’s Get Lost (jazzman Chet Baker; Bruce Weber 1989), When We Were Kings (boxer Muhammad Ali; Leon Gast 1996), The Cruise (brilliant guide Timothy Levitch; Bennett Miller 1997),  Frank Lloyd Wright (the architectural genius; Ken Burns, Lynn Novick 1998), Tesla: Master of Lightning (science wiz Nikola Tesla; Robert Uth 2000), My Flesh and Blood (super-mom Susan Tom; Jonathan Karsh 2003), My Architect (architect Louis Kahn; Nathaniel Kahn 2004), Buck (horse master Buck Brannaman; Cindy Meehl 2011);  The Internet’s Own Boy (computer prodigy Aaron Swartz; Brian Knappenberger 2014), Magician (film master Orson Welles; Chuck Workman 2014) and Finding Vivian Maier (the obscure photographer; John Maloof, Charlie Siskel 2014).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Biographer Charles Higham hurt Orson Welles by proposing an unconscious “fear of completion” which hobbled his career. Barbara Leaming put the opposing case well: “If indeed Orson feared completion, why would he have tried to finish It’s All True at his own expense? Why would he have subsidized his films with his own acting money? And how does one explain the struggle to finish Othello at such great personal cost?” In his late years, Welles even sought to film a new ending for The Magnificent Ambersons. Alas, no way. (Quote from Orson Welles by Barbara Leaming.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Diane Arbus had (furrier father) David’s eyes and, said her mother, ‘didn’t just look at you. She considered you.’ The cosetted girl would lament being ‘treated like a crummy Jewish princess.’ Jewish only on holy days, to please grandparents, Diane escaped anti-Semitism and in time photographed American Nazis who were ‘charmed by her’ … Her eyes equally devoured the Metropolitan’s paintings and afflicted people on the streets (but) ‘I didn’t inhabit my own kingdom for a long time.” (From the Nicole Kidman/Fur chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

Jack Nicholson and his wounded nose visit Catalina Island for Chinatown (Paramount Pictures 1974; director Roman Polanski, cinematographer John Alonzo).

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