November 5, 2016 -- The words of long-dead writer James Baldwin, heard (spoken by actor Samuel L. Jackson) and seen in this new documentary film, reach out to us from the past to remind us that we haven't come nearly as far as we think we have, as a people, when it comes to racism and inequality. We are still, all of us, trapped in a history we don't fully understand.
Baldwin's words still have enormous power, and relevance, today as we approach yet another election where the poverty gripping much of America is barely mentioned, and one candidate's motto seems to be “Make America White Again.” Director Raoul Peck pulls no punches in this powerful film based on Baldwin's unfinished novel “Remember This House.”
Baldwin wrote, “I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” This truth is seen all through the film as images of the past mix with those of the present, protest marches, black men murdered by police -- it happened. It is still happening.
This mix of past and present images continues through the film as we hear Baldwin's compelling words, taken from numerous essays, letters and novels. Baldwin moved to France in 1948, but came back in 1957 to participate the Civil Rights movement. He interacted with a Who's Who of civil rights leaders, artists and activists, as well as prominent politicians, such as Robert Kennedy.
Prominent in the film are his complicated relationships with Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X. According to the film, King and Malcolm X, though worlds apart at the beginning, had moved very close together, philosophically, at the end. Baldwin went his own way. Being a homosexual, and non-religious, Baldwin was not a natural fit with the extremely religious civil rights leaders.
Baldwin is seen in video and film footage, explaining his views of America and debating other intellectuals. He once debated, and soundly defeated William F. Buckley. In one encounter with an Ivy League philosophy professor on the Dick Cavett Show, included in the film, he demolished the assertion that he was spending too much time and energy on the subject of race in America.
The profound sorrow and pain caused by the murders of Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X, and so many others is well conveyed by the haunting words and images in the film. Those images are intercut with the images of recent murder victims like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. With these chilling images, we hear Baldwin's words, “You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves.”
I'd like to end this review with a quote from the very quotable James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” He will never rest in peace, and he won't let the rest of us, rest easy, either. That is the function, Baldwin said, of an artist, “to disturb the peace.” This film rates an A.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.