HOLLYWOOD—James Baldwin stands as one of the towering figures of American literature. A brilliant novelist and essayist, his words have only proved more pertinent in the years since his death. Director Raoul Peck has done us the service of bringing some of his final writings a superb cinematic treatment. Baldwin’s words, given fabulous visualization and context by Peck, have proven deserving of their Academy Award nomination.
The documentary brings to life Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House.” The center of the narrative is a meditation on the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcom X.
“Not one of these three lived to be 40,” Baldwin says sadly.
In exploring their lives, Baldwin delves into everything from pop culture, to his childhood and schooling, to the underlying causes of racism in America.
Peck does an outstanding job. He shows incredible restraint in allowing Baldwin’s words to speak for themselves. He gives the audience just enough to help us better understand what we’re hearing. Much of the context we are given comes in the form of debates and talk show appearances that Baldwin participated in. Allowing Baldwin himself to give context, his own words from the manuscript was a wise choice. A lesser director may have wanted to add to much of his own voice, and Peck must be applauded for avoiding this temptation.
Add to this Samuel L. Jackson’s outstanding narration, plus a great deal of terrific music from Baldwin’s time and we get a tremendously well put together film.
The context Peck does give us is imagery that traces the history of racism in America. From lynchings to Ferguson, we receive a sobering lesson. Disturbing stills, old newsreels, and modern day footage drive home the brutality and urgency of the problems Baldwin addresses.
A few times we are given beautiful shots of moving through the modern-day countryside. They are a testament to the wonderful cinematography. The natural beauty of the country serves as a strong juxtaposition against the long history of racist barbarity we see throughout the film. This is a trend in recent movies such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Free State of Jones.” It worked in those films, and it works here.
As the film is mostly Baldwin’s words and ideas, I find it hard to critique. How does one critique one of the greatest writers in history? All I can say is his words are lyrical and insightful. Baldwin is deeply personal here. He recounts his love for his late friends, including Lorraine Hansberry, and his sadness at outliving them despite being older. His accounts of learning of their deaths and attending their funerals is heartbreaking.
Baldwin’s skills, as a movie and cultural critic are on full display here. Everything connects. Culture, advertising, history, world events, his personal life. He uses them all to explain and examine the underlying assumptions and causes of racism. He deftly shows its consequences, and it is both profoundly enlightening and moving.
Peck has done moviegoers a great service with this tremendous documentary. It offers a lot to think about. I feel I could watch it several more times and learn something new. In a stacked documentary category at this year’s Academy Awards, this is a strong entry.
Although much of the film is depressing Baldwin leaves us with a glimmer of hope. He challenges us to see our history and society as it truly is, and leaves us with these important words.
“Nothing can be changed until it is faced.”