Avon audience endorses Oscar-nominated documentary
Published 4:27 pm, Friday, March 17, 2017
Our Movie & A Martini screenings often stir up debate. There were deep disagreements over “Certain Women” and “Jackie,” among other films, but everyone at our get-together for “I Am Not Your Negro” loved the documentary about writer James Baldwin and racism in America.
This wasn’t a big surprise because the film has been almost universally praised by critics, but in the discussion afterwards it was clear the picture struck deep chords in our audience.
“I grew up in the path of civil rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, but I have a sense that we are going to have to fight this fight again,” one woman said of the way Raoul Peck’s film links the 1960s-era murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to the current #BlackLivesMatter movement that erupted in the wake of police violence against blacks over the past few years.
Peck’s film was inspired by a proposal for a book about his friendship with the three slain black leaders during the 1960s that Baldwin did not live to complete. Each man represented a different approach to the civil rights movement of that pivotal moment, but they all died for what they believed in. Through Baldwin’s correspondence with his agent, and the notes he made for his portraits of the men, the film takes us into the process of getting a book published.
Baldwin died 30 years ago at the age of 63, but the film puts his words together with images in such a vivid manner it feels like we are hearing a particularly brilliant dispatch from a contemporary writer. Samuel L. Jackson’s performance of the text adds to the illusion; we quickly forget we are listening to the great stage and film star. Peck connects then to now with montages that shift from the early ’60s to the Black Lives Matter movement, and from presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama.
One audience member expressed her fear that the recent resurgence of white supremacist organizations, and the Nazi salutes seen at right wing political gatherings last year have made the film all too relevant again.
Peck’s movie was nominated for an Academy Award last month and has made nearly $5 million in limited release, a very high gross for a nonfiction film. Barbara Sumner Harris, of Norwalk, said the film’s portrait of racial division made her appreciate the diversity and cooperation she has witnessed in her own community, but also raised concerns about changes she has seen recently.
“Everyone is there,” she said of the racial mix of the city and the way the different communities have gotten along. “But I see more fear today.”
“I Am Not Your Negro” includes several harrowing clips from “Freedom Summer” in 1964, when busloads of white northerners went South to run voter registration drives.
“I was there and saw all of those things,” one elderly man told the audience. “I was in Montgomery, Ala., and it was beyond horrible then. I never understood how you can pick out a group to hate.”
The documentary shows Baldwin viewed American racism as being a nearly impossible challenge to surmount. Although he frequently spoke on TV talk shows designed primarily for white audiences, we see extensive clips from a Dick Cavett telecast in the early 1970s. Baldwin never toned down his tough message. We hear him worrying about being “the great black hope for white people,” but his words and actions were never compromised to flatter particular listeners.
Cynthia Bowser, of Stamford, talked about the way the current economic situation in the country might be fostering racial divisions. “We need to figure a way out of the financial crisis ... with people unable to get credit to buy houses,” she said.
A few days after the screening of “I Am Not Your Negro,” Bowser was one of the supporters of Stamford’s Ferguson Library screening of Nate Parker’s film from last year, “Birth of a Nation,” about the Nat Turner slave uprising in Virginia in 1831.
“We have to move forward and have hope for more dialogue,” another audience member said.
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