The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. And it is not a pretty story.
I first encountered the incredible fire that is James Baldwin and his work a few years ago when I read a Library of America volume dedicated to his non-fiction; it included the entirety of five of his non-fiction books and a smattering of other essays. I found myself absolutely floored by the visceral impact of this writing that came from the sixties & seventies but still seemed to resonate with the power of a passionate sermon when it came to the issues of today. Peck’s tribute to Baldwin is nothing less than worthy. Peck bases the movie around Baldwin’s words, both written and spoken, and the result is less a documentary film and more of a filmed essay. But if “filmed essay” sounds dull to you, you couldn’t be more wrong. This movie explores issues of race and culture in American society with that same visceral impact I remember from Baldwin’s books. To say the writing is sharp would be an understatement; to call it insightful would be to damn with faint praise. This movie burns with passion and the text is something like holy writ, a kind of racial, American scripture that sees clearly through the nonsense and pointless debate that so paralyzes and clouds American society today. This isn’t to say that the film is simple minded; it’s almost painfully nuanced at times, but nuanced with real emotion and real truth, not the false nuance of deception and deflection that so often enters our discussions about race in America. It’s a movie that held me absolutely captivated. I left the film with my mind racing. I wanted to turn right around and see it again, right then, before I left the theater; there had been too much, too much thoughtful discussion, too much righteous indignation and too much powerful, insightful language. I knew there was no way I could even remember a fraction and my mind was whirling with ideas and thoughts related to the issues discussed in the film. It is, dare I say it, the best examination of racial tension, prejudice and oppression released in the world of film in a decade or more. It feels at once timeless and utterly of the moment. It’s a movie that has been needed for decades, but could somehow only be made now. It’s astonishing and challenging and disturbing and brilliant. One final, somewhat trivial note: Samuel L. Jackson, reading Baldwin’s written words and serving as narrator, is perfectly restrained and yet evocative, absolutely on-point; it’s the best, most nuanced performance he’s given since the nineties. 4 stars.
tl;dr – filmed essay crafted out of James Baldwin’s beautiful, insightful, fiery words is astonishing exploration of race in America; thoughtful, passionate, troubling & impactful; a masterwork. 4 stars.