Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lean In When It Gets Uncomfortable

If Martians were to drop in on Richmond lately, they could be forgiven for thinking of our film scene as diverse.

Never in my life can I recall so many films by and about the black experience. Just in the past couple of months, I've seen "Moonlight," "Fences," and "Hidden Figures" and I added two more over the past 48 hours.

For an overview of the country's racial conversation, Saturday Mac and I went to see Ava DuVernay's "13th," which VCU was screening as part of their Common Book program that has the entire campus reading and discussing the same book, Bryan Stevenson's "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption."

Everyone was instructed to take a copy of the book, but Mac and I decided to take just one and share, a good call because she's already halfway though it.

She'd conveniently shown up with a small copy of the Constitution, which we used to clarify what we knew about the 13th amendment.

"Notice anything wrong with that?" she asked. Um, yea. Basically, slavery was abolished for everyone except criminals, making the mass incarceration that followed effectively the new Jim Crow.

Besides horrific and telling statistics - 1 in 3 black men will go to jail, while only 1 in 17 white men will - the documentary made the case for how every President since Nixon has furthered an agenda that involves mass incarceration of blacks. How that happened was laid out for us.

We've got 5% of the world's population but 25% of its prisoners.

If that isn't enough to get your blood boiling, how about this? Before "Birth of a Nation," burning crosses had never been part of the KKK's M.O., but when director D.W. Griffith used it for its striking cinematic value, the KKK adopted it as part of their insanity.

Oh, and just to add insult to injury in the film, the evil black man who eyes the young woman with bad intentions was played by a white man in blackface.

One of the documentary's strength was the well-chosen talking heads from author Bryan Stevenson to Angela Davis to Newt Gingrich to Henry Louis Gates, with one of the most compelling being author Michelle Alexander, who wrote "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of Colorblindness," a reality that began with convict leasing after emancipation.

Laying out the case for how capitalism factors into this (companies like Verizon and Aramark make ridiculous amounts of money by servicing prisons), as does politics (look up ALEC to find out how politicians and corporations are in bed writing legislative bills that perpetuate the prison industrial complex) and, let's be real, racism.

It was impossible not to cry during a segment about a young man who was wrongly accused of a crime and deliberately chose not to take a plea because he wasn't guilty and wanted to make a stand. He spent three years in prison enduring beatings before being released due to lack of evidence.

On camera, he looked sweet and shaken by what he'd endured, all of it unnecessary. But it's when the voice-over says that a couple years later, he committed suicide that tears and sniffles began in the auditorium. Absolutely heartbreaking and not even all that unusual.

Mac and I walked out of there shaken and disturbed, as we should have been, by what we'd seen.  So naturally, tonight we headed to Criterion to see "I Am Not Your Negro," a look at race relations by way of one of the most literate black men of the 20th century on the subject.

Using the first 30 pages of a book playwright, poet, novelist and social critic James Baldwin began and didn't finish before he died, the film uses words from that manuscript read by Samuel L. Jackson to frame a look at race relations using TV and film footage from the Civil Rights era, along with footage of Baldwin on Dick Cavett's TV show and at lectures and debates at various universities.

Listening to him make a case for how the races were portrayed by Hollywood (black men like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were not allowed to appear sexy so as not to offend white sensibilities), in government films, ads and training films while watching such things was both revelatory and upsetting.

What was striking was how Baldwin's words transcended time and sound just as applicable to today's race conversation as they did then. "The world was never white," he says, reminding me of a cartoon I'd seen on Facebook earlier.

A white man and a Native American are listening as the radio announces that for the first time, non-white baby births have exceeded white baby births in the U.S. "Second time," the Native American says. Boom.

Tonight's film ended with Baldwin making the case that as a nation, we'll never get our act together until we deal with race and inequality, a fact of life that's not going to go away until we have hard talk and changed behavior.

Over Garnett's coconut cake with chocolate frosting, Mac and I agreed that between Baldwin's words and Haitian director Raoul Peck's chosen visuals, it was too much to process in one viewing.

That's undoubtedly a good thing because it provides incentive to experience it again and reconsider the talking points Baldwin so eloquently stated throughout the film.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Truth in a time when we couldn't need it more.


  1. Impossible to say what Mr. Baldwin would say about America today...how much we've gained, how much we've lost over the last few decades. Surely he would not be satisfied with how things have turned out...but who is? I mean that from all points of view --- the Left, the Right, democrat, republican. America from the era of James Baldwin's time until 2017 has been a mishmash of mismanagement, broken dreams, unrealistic expectations and the rapid rise of technology that has left many behind. Yet considering this it is still a land of opportunity compared to most. Maybe like individuals our nation will never quite get it's act together but hopefully we're all constantly working at it...


  2. Yankee-Doodle Dandy?


  3. It would be great to think that we're all constantly working on it, but I'm not convinced that's the case in 2017.

    Still, we can only do what each of us is willing to do to further the cause. Electing a black President aside, I fear James Baldwin would be unimpressed with our progress.

  4. I'm sure he (J. Baldwin) would say we have lost a lot of ground recently.