Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. France/USA, 2016. Velvet Film. Screenplay by James Baldwin. Cinematography by Henry Adebonojo, Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross. Produced by Remi Grellety, Hebert Peck, Raoul Peck. Music by Alexei Aigui. Film Editing by Alexandra Strauss. Academy Awards 2016. Gotham Awards 2016. Independent Spirit Awards 2016. Toronto International Film Festival 2016. Washington Film Critics Awards 2016.
Celebrated author and civil rights activist James Baldwin worked on a book meant to cover the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom he knew personally before they were assassinated, but never got past fifty pages of notes. These writings form the skeletal basis of this elegant, moving documentary in which Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s text while Raoul Peck expertly compiles footage without any additional commentary. We see Baldwin’s consciousness form as a member of an oppressed population in America, his sharp observations contrasted with the entertainment he was taking in at his local movie theatre (the footage of which is expertly chosen and looks gorgeous here). As an adult, his fame as a writer meant he was called upon to give speeches or interviews on national talk shows, expressing his views in that wonderfully performative but also sincere manner of his, all the while Jackson’s narration maintains the experiences of the deceased mens as fascinating counterpoint. Peck avoids conventional biography and so will likely inspire some disappointment for keeping details of Baldwin’s life mostly obscure; his being gay is mentioned only in passing but is not really explored, as it is never a part of the author’s public presentation of himself (at least not in the footage included here). A great example of the personal as political and a tribute to a great artist (one who was too harsh on Doris Day, mind you, but a great artist all the same).