“I Am Not Your Negro”

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Author James Baldwin undertook a project in 1979, to tell about the lives of three of his friends who had been assassinated in the 1960s: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. He had only written thirty pages of notes by the time he died eight years later of stomach cancer.

Raoul Peck, Haitian film-maker put together the movie I Am Not Your Negro using Baldwin’s own words (sometimes from TV talk shows, sometimes read by Samuel L. Jackson) to express what he felt about race in America. The result is powerful.

Early in the movie there is footage shot in the South in the early sixties of hate-filled white people carrying signs. One says, Miscegnation is Communism. Another says it is the Antichrist. It’s dolefully ironic that miscegnation (sexual relations between black and white) was initiated by white slaveowners who then blamed black men for wanting to rape white women, thus turning the dynamic inside-out. Black men are still blamed for their sexuality, though, just as women are blamed for tempting Adam to eat the apple. A good myth is hard to give up.

Also early in the film is a black girl walking alone to go to a white high school surrounded by whites carrying signs saying they don’t want to go to school with blacks. They’re jeering and spiting at her too. Baldwin speaks, saying that he saw this footage in France, where he was then living, and besides being enraged was filled with shame, adding, “One of us should have been there with her. ”

It’s hardly surprising he died of cancer. Cancer and heart disease are in part caused by stress, and he had the stress of being both black and gay. A recent article says it’s a shame the movie didn’t address his being gay too, because Baldwin did in his writing. The three of his novels I remember best spoke of homosexuality as well as race. Actually, I don’t think Giovanni’s Room talked about race. So sexuality was very important to Baldwin too. He comments in this movie that black men aren’t allowed to show their sexuality (that may be less true now), and that movie star John Wayne, who spent most of his time on screen admonishing Indians, had permission, because of his whiteness, not to grow up. It was okay for him to kill Indians. He didn’t have to learn to negotiate with them as equals.

Baldwin met Medgar Evers early in the 1960s and traveled with him as Evers attempted to gather evidence about voting suppression. The sixties weren’t far advanced when he was murdered himself. Baldwin says he was extremely frightened traveling through Mississippi, but also felt he needed to do that as a witness, and that he needed to travel widely as a witness. Eventually he also traveled to Georgia and Alabama where some of the famous Civil Rights protests had been. More footage of police beating defenseless men and women.

Baldwin says he watched Malcolm X and Martin Luther King come from very different positions to eventually drift into almost exactly the same position. Footage is shown of Malcolm X criticizing King for not wanting blacks to fight back when abused by whites. However understandable his feeling, it’s also obvious that taking on whites in a race war in which they would be vastly outnumbered and outgunned would be a self-defeating strategy. King replies to Malcolm X by saying that he sees love as being a powerful force rather than a cowardly surrender. Did Malcolm X come to appreciate that position before he died? Baldwin says he was in London with a friend taking a day off when he learned of Malcolm X’s assassination.

Baldwin came home from France in the later sixties. He said he missed very little about America, but missed his brother, sister, their children, and his mother. He was visiting them in 1968 when his sister was called away from the table. When she returned she said nothing, but he felt something was wrong. Then she said, “Martin Luther King was just killed. Reporters are coming to get your reaction.”

He attended the funeral, and said he tried not to cry, felt that many others were trying not to cry too, and for the same reason: they didn’t know if they could stop.

He felt he had to visit the widows and children of those leaders, also not easy. Perhaps especially because none of the three lived to be as old as forty.

I was vaguely aware of the strife of the sixties, but didn’t really feel it. I had problems of my own taking up my attention. But the sixties shaped my political views. In the 1950s we had had a comic book portraying Rosa Parks taking a white person’s seat in the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refusing to get up. That’s where I first heard of Dr. King.

In 1963 I was with my grandmother while she watched coverage of the March on Washington, and got to see in real time Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck. What the Civil Rights movement was protesting was so obviously unfair that I didn’t see any alternative to being a liberal. It seemed that all conservatives were racists, a term that has since been used too lightly for too many frivolous reasons. No one in the Civil Rights movement has had the kind of gravitas Dr, King had, which is a shame. He and the other two were murdered because they held up a mirror to show us all what we were, causing panic fear. People comfortable with segregation felt their world was coming apart, and had no answer but violence. After King was killed, many others felt THEIR world was coming apart too. If my heart was in the right place in feeling sympathy for the movement (which is debatable), I did nothing about it, to my shame.

Baldwin didn’t only report his feelings about the movement and the death of his friends (as well as many other more anonymous people), but looked at the larger picture of America, its racism and other forms of injustice. He saw white America being as entangled and imprisoned by racism as black America, and striking out in violent resentment of it. Black Americans never wanted to come here, but neither did whites, he says. Using blacks as slaves made them prisoners too.

The fact is that the American way of life hasn’t made many people happy. Satiated, in some cases, but not happy. That many of us have secure lives that most people in the world can’t even imagine, and yet are fearful of people unlike ourselves is ironic, if not paradoxical. Look at some of the things we lead the world in: numbers of prisoners, people killed by police, consumption of illegal (and legal) drugs. Those things don’t indicate a happy culture. More people have a higher standard of living than any time previous in the world, but they aren’t happy, and their standard of living comes at the price of devastation of other peoples and the waste of natural resources. They, who are WE, prefer fantasy to reality, because experiencing the reality of what WE are complicit in would mean we must experience overpowering guilt and responsibility. Nobody wants that. So we’ll have to pay in another way.

The climactic scene of the movie is footage from the Dick Cavett show. A new guest enters and says he disagrees with what he’s heard Baldwin say, and asks if there isn’t any other way for him to connect than through race? Surely he must feel more connection with a white author than with an illiterate black.

Baldwin answers that the man is invoking an idealistic vision that he has seen no evidence of. Is he to trust not only himself, but his relatives and children to an idea which he’s never seen manifest in real life? The other seems to have nothing to say–or maybe it’s just that I can’t imagine him saying anything to refute Baldwin.

The idea that racism was once a problem, but is no longer, is popular in some circles. When people complain about it, or even try to talk about it, they’re said to be “race-baiting”. I don’t suppose people with this view are even insincere–that they’re aware of. One such person friended me on Facebook during the past year or so, complimenting me on the posts I’d written on this blog, and trying to persuade me of his views. He was nice to me, never being rude when I stated my own views (which he probably saw as liberal cliches), and even defending me from some of his friends. But I couldn’t agree that racism was no longer a problem, nor could I support his candidate for president. I’m not sure if this movie would mean much to him. I’d like to think it could open his eyes, but that might be too much to expect. There are quite a few people who seem pretty sincere in their disagreement with what I believe. And I certainly am not always right.

The movie Raoul Peck has made isn’t perfect. As one writer complained in a recent article, he didn’t address Baldwin’s homosexuality, even though Baldwin wasn’t shy about that. If he had, the movie would probably have been longer, and even more powerful. As the writer pointed out, Baldwin was criminalized in two ways: not only as a black man, but as a gay man. He was doubly an outsider in ways most whites don’t experience, unless they really want to. Most of us want to be accepted, so don’t confront the injustices we see. That’s what is known as white privilege, a term some people are impatient with. They don’t see themselves as privileged. They also don’t think to ask how a black person might see them.

The movie quickly surveys several movies with themes of black vs white. One is the movie in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are handcuffed together after escaping from prison. At the end of the movie they’ve managed to get rid of the cuffs and are running to catch a train and ride in the box car. Poitier climbs onto the train, Curtis clutches at his hand, but can’t hold on, and falls down the hill. Poitier jumps back off the train. This, Baldwin says, is to reassure a white audience that black people still love them, in spite of the way whites have abused blacks. But, says Baldwin, the black audience had a completely different reaction: they said, “Fool, get back on the train!”

Do we want to know how the people we live with, who had a major role in building this country, but got very little out of it, actually feel, or do we prefer a fantasy? The answer to that question may go a long way to determining our future, as Baldwin says.

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Jackson Heights

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Jackson Heights is a community within Queens, one of the boroughs of New York City. In the documentary of the same name an official (probably the mayor) early in the film says that Jackson Heights is the most diverse community in the world. It certainly IS diverse.

One scene is Muslims in mosque listening to a speech at the beginning of Ramadan. Another is Muslim children in a madrasseh learning Arabic script. Then an LGBT support group, a synagogue in which Jewish people are performing a ritual memorializing the Holocaust, a group of Spanish speaking small business owners complaining about a group called the Business Improvement Department(?) the people think is trying to displace them in favor of national franchises, a gay pride group (complete with a very skillful gay marching band) sponsored by BID.

There’s a scene of a woman in the Housing Authority fielding a call from someone making a complaint, two groups of elderly women chatting (one group in a nursing home, another in a restaurant), a transgender support group, a committee (schoolboard?) consulting with an authority about a problem with local public schools, Muslims butchering fowls according to Islamic law, a woman telling how her sister managed to illegally cross the border and survive, a large Spanish-speaking church (maybe cathedral) filled with people, a group of Hindus performing a ritual, a farmer’s market, a gay bar….and always in the background car or train noises.

How can it be that so many different kinds of people can live so close together without serious problems all the time? Of course there are ordinary problems all the time, but if there were intractable problems between different races, religions, and orientations, one might expect perpetual war between them all, and that’s not what happens. People manage to live together.

Not because they’re all wealthy. Queens isn’t one of the really wealthy boroughs, and Jackson Heights isn’t a particularly wealthy community. It wouldn’t be inconceivable that community life in such a diverse area could turn into a zero-sum game, a war of all against all. That it hasn’t suggests that government in the area has been doing something right. Of course it’s fashionable to say that government is the problem rather than the solution, but without government how do people manage to live together? Historically, when government has been weak, anarchy is the result, which isn’t good for many people (especially ordinary people), and anarchy is often followed by totalitarianism. But the film suggests that ordinary people don’t don’t pick fights with each other much, whatever the reason.

The environment is just about all urban. Nature is present, but contained, if not overwhelmed. We see people in a bar watching a soccer match, but don’t see any athletic activity outdoors, though there must be some.

It’s not like the film tries to paint a complete picture of the community, either. That would be impossible. A Catholic service is shown, but no Protestant or Orthodox churches. We see few east Asians or Eastern Europeans, though I’d guess they were present too.

We don’t know the future of the community, but given the situation, the picture is pretty positive.

 

Two Documentaries

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Eagle Huntress takes place somewhere in the area near borders of China, Mongolia, Siberia, and Kazakhstan in the Altai mountains. It’s a Kazakh community, which I gathered was once nomadic, and still is semi-nomadic. Aisholpan, the 15 year old (approximately) main character, and her brother and sister attend school during the week (she looks after them, as she is the oldest), and go home on weekends. The school looks much like an American school, there’s TV and other western technology that the community seems to have pretty well assimilated. But the community also focuses on its own traditions, one of which is hunting with eagles.

Falconry used to be very popular in medieval and Renaissance Europe, but there’s a difference when you hunt with a bird that weighs fifteen pounds (and looks like it might weigh considerably more). Get ready for a bird that size landing on your arm.

Traditionally, only men have hunted with eagles, but Aisholpan wants to do it, and her father and grandfather don’t see any reason she shouldn’t. Her father takes her into the mountains to find an eagle’s nest. She climbs down the mountain wall to it, puts the female nestling into a sack which her father draws up, and climbs back up herself. Then her father shows her how to train the bird. She has to give it food until it can learn how to hunt.

The bird has to learn to come when it’s called and to go after prey. Aisholpan has talent in controlling the bird, and the bird seems to have talent too.

But when some of the older men find out that Aisholpan plans to compete in the annual eagle competition, they disapprove. To their credit, they don’t try to prevent her, and she and her bird win the contest.

The next step is going into the mountains again for the bird to learn to really hunt. It hunts fox, a pretty big animal, and it takes several tries for the bird to actually make the kill, but it eventually does. We don’t know where Aisholpan goes from there.

Another slightly less recent movie is set in the Himalayan mountains, quite a bit further south. The movie begins with a mother installing her nine year old son in a Buddhist monastery as a monk, telling him it’s better. Just how and why is unclear. The implication is that she can’t afford to take care of him, but she’s able to afford a television. Unfortunately, the man who bought it for her dropped it off his horse as he was bringing it, so now it’s broken. Later in the movie she’s able to send him to the town three days away to buy another.

The boy isn’t badly treated at the monastery, but wants to come home. Nine years old is a bit early for a religious vocation. Instead, he gets to go with his uncle to town to get the TV and visit his sister, who works in an office there–except that when they get there it doesn’t seem to be an office. We see a number of young women up on a stage, and though nothing definite is said, the implication seems to be that she’s a prostitute.

The boy returns to his village, and the last scene we see is his mother and a crowd of other people watching what sounds like a wrestling match. We’re left to wonder what they make of it.

Of the two movies, Eagle Huntress seems to show a community in control of the western technology it uses. We don’t know if that community is more or less isolated than the one in the Himalayas, and it may be that the movie set in the Himalayas elected to show us different things than the other. If we can judge from what is shown, though, young people from that community aren’t especially well educated, and if the boy’s sister is indeed a prostitute, that doesn’t seem like a good situation. She tells her brother that she boards at the institution where she works, which makes it seem as if she’s little better than a slave. We don’t get enough data to be sure, though. Nor do we know if her situation comes about because of collision between eastern and western cultures. That seems to be the implication, but we can’t be sure.

The first movie seems to show a balanced culture in which western technology is used, but not overused–as far as we can see. What’s the real story there? It would be nice to know.

A Documentary on Amy Winehouse

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I got to see a recent documentary on Amy Winehouse, and was very impressed–to such an extent that I started crying halfway through. I knew what the ending had been, and had begun to see it coming.
Hers was a sad, but not unusual story these days. She was just more visible than most people going down the road of excess. Prior to the film I had heard her name, and had someone explain to me that she was a singer with a bad drug problem. I don’t remember how soon it was after that she died. But until the movie, I had never seen her picture or heard any of her music.
The movie starts in exhilarating fashion: a teenage girl playing guitar and singing songs she’s written herself. The guitar playing isn’t distinguished, but the music is solid enough, the lyrics outstanding, and her singing even better. At one point she sounded like Billie Holiday to me, but I’d have to listen a lot more to tell if the resemblance is consistent.
Her musical career takes off pretty fast. We see snippets of interviews and her fronting bigger and bigger bands. She looks happy and alive.
But as her career progresses the picture turns darker. Her father, who had left her mother and her when she was nine, returns, and it seems clear that it’s because of the money she makes. Part of an interview with her mother tells us that she was strong-willed and determined to have her own way from the time her father left. Her mother also tells us she was bulimic.
Her mother apparently didn’t realize, as many parents probably don’t, what a serious problem an eating disorder can be. It was both the psychic and physical manifestation of the unsoundness of her foundation.
In her early twenties she remains relatively healthy physically. But there are psychological signs that all is not well. Her relationship with her father is one. Another is her relationship with her husband.
Before him she had been rather promiscuous, as if sex was a sort of pastry. With him, other things were happening. He goes back to his girl friend, then returns to Amy, and they get married. The movie states flatly he turned her on to cocaine, and that may not be all. A blood specimen is mentioned in which cocaine, heroin, and PCP were found. She also liked to drink.
Around 2005-6 going to rehab was suggested, but not followed up on. Her rising trajectory continued–for awhile. Her bands got bigger and better. When she was healthy she could still write and perform good songs.
Her husband was busted for obstruction of justice (I don’t recall the details) and went to prison for awhile. That might have been a good thing for her. It equally might have been a trauma. But later in the move is part of an interview with him that I think sums up how much he was worth: he says that he’s good-looking and dresses well, so he doesn’t need to waste time with Amy.
Amy, meanwhile, has begun to get erratic, but hadn’t entirely lost control. She’s been told she has to get straight before a US tour, and does so. One of the touching scenes (possibly from during that tour) was with Tony Bennett singing a duet (he was doing duets with various artists for an album). She starts out very nervous, trying to work with one of her idols, and he tries to get her to relax, almost like the father she never had. He also says to an interviewer that she’s a real jazz singer. A moment in her life I wish could have lasted longer. They made beautiful music together literally, not figuratively.
Later on she spent about six months on an island without access to drugs. She still had access to alcohol, though. As bad as illegal drugs can be, it seems the combination of bulimia and alcohol is worse.
From the island she was supposed to come back, and begin a tour in Belgrade. Maybe she had wanted the tour, maybe it was arranged with minimal input from her, but when the time came, she didn’t want to do it.
She went onstage to a real sea of faces, and refused to sing. I think music had been her healer, and now no longer was. With all the expectations from those around her (her father seemed fatter every time he appeared) music had become a burden instead.
Was it before Belgrade or after that pictures were taken of her at her house? I think before. There’s little light in the photos, and she looks almost dead, her eyes barely alive, her lips turning blue.
After Belgrade she wanted to return to her friends, and told them so. But by then she must have been both fearful and in great pain psychically, and maybe physically too. That was when she died. I think I remember that no drugs were found in her system, only alcohol. The movie explains that alcohol can cause the bulimic heart to stop. No doubt she felt she needed something to ease the pain. She had wanted to come back, but had gone too far.
This isn’t such an unusual story, but I found it poignant. One reason was her talent, which was enormous. A shame to see it snuffed out so soon. It may be unfair of me to find her case more affecting than that of someone less talented and less physically beautiful. She was gorgeous, and we (males especially) tend to be drawn more to the beautiful than the plain.
That leads to another possible reason: she closely resembles one of my friends, He (“She looked like they could have been sisters,” according to a mutual friend), and this friend encouraged me to write, for which I am grateful.
Her name is Heather Maria Ramirez, and she’s published several novels without making much money from them. Is she less talented than Amy was, or just not as fortunate to be in the right place at the right time? I can’t say.
But Heather’s road diverged sharply from Amy’s, as did my wife, Michelle Scala’s. All three had disordered childhoods, and both Heather and Michelle could have turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain they must have felt, just as Amy did. They were stronger, though, experienced the pain, took responsibility, and grew from it. If either were to become famous, they might be more capable of dealing with it than Amy was. Fame, unfortunately, destroyed the wonder Amy found in her music, becoming a burden more than a means to an end. Ultimately, she was, even with all her beauty, talent, and generosity, pathetic, and that’s a real shame. I feel sorry that she couldn’t have made better choices and learned to be happy. Her story is dramatic, but I wish it could have been less so, and that she could have survived.
There are many people who destroy themselves in similar ways, but aren’t as visible as she was. There are also many who undramatically make better choices, survive, and become a blessing to people around them. Heather and Michelle are two such people. There are many more whom we know nothing about unless we know them personally. Heroes need not be dramatic. But what a shame about Amy and so many other self-destructive people. She gave the world beauty. I wish she could have given us more of it.

Noah

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A couple of movies I’ve watched lately have been mostly silent. Little monologue, little dialogue, little voice-over. Motion pictures are, as usual, hypnotic, so I hardly notice the relative silence until later, but I still question: what were they trying to say?
The first, about a woman traveling alone through the length of Australia doesn’t need much explanation: there are rarely people to talk with, so she talks little. Noah is a different matter.
This purports to be a retelling of the Bible story, but as usual, movies always change the stories they adapt from books. In the Bible, the reason for the Flood was attributed to sin, but the Bible was remarkably unspecific as to what the sin was. The movie begins with a voice-over explaining that the descendents of Cain dominated the world. We’re shown the desolate wilderness in which the movie is set, suggesting the film is an allegory of the present.
Noah sometimes speaks (and speaks well), but is usually silent. He’s been shown visions, and so begins building the Ark. In the Bible his neighbors make fun of him. In the film things get more sinister.
This is where the movie starts diverging from the Biblical account, and I start to wonder why. Tubal Cain is Noah’s opponent here, claiming the territory where Noah is building the Ark. In the Bible, Tubal Cain is the man who first worked metal, but has nothing to do with the Flood story. Probably he is used here because his name suggests his descent from Cain.
But Noah has allies in the Watchers, who are animated stone beings, who fight against Tubal Cain’s people when they try to get in the Ark. The Watchers are in the book of Enoch, popular with early Christians, but which didn’t make the canonical Bible. I don’t recall them being turned to stone. Is there a message in this, or is the unBiblical conflict and violence just entertainment?
Noah’s son Ham is unhappy with him because Noah refused to allow the girl Ham likes on the Ark. Noah’s interpretation of his vision is that humanity must die. His mission is only to save the animals, apparently, of whom we see very little.
Tubal Cain manages to stow away on the Ark, and enlists Ham to help get rid of Noah, but Ham changes his mind and kills Tubal Cain. This also seems extraneous.
A girl Noah rescued after she was abused has gotten pregnant by Noah’s other son, Shem, and gives birth in the Ark to twin daughters. Noah thinks it’s his duty to kill them, but can’t. That may be why he gets drunk after the Flood, which actually makes better sense than the Biblical account. He passes out naked, is observed by Ham, then respectfully covered by his other sons. His wife then informs him that the Creator had left human survival for him to decide. I guess that’s a happy ending.
The movie conjures up an atmosphere that’s hypnotic, but it never seems to make a lot of sense. Conflict for no good reason doesn’t make the story more meaningful or more entertaining, as far as I’m concerned.