I Am Not Your Negro: stepping back in the wrong direction with a narrow focus on black-white relations

Raoul Peck, “I Am Not Your Negro” (2017)

Initially an expose of the modern history of the United States as seen from the viewpoint of black US author and activist James Baldwin (1924 – 1987) and serving as a personal memoir of his early experiences and meetings with black activist leaders Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, this film becomes an exploration and critique of American culture and values generally. Director Raoul Peck based the film on Baldwin’s unfinished work “Remember This House” and extends the work to the present day to demonstrate that the pervasive racial discrimination of white people against black people back in Baldwin’s time continues – as does also black people’s resistance against that discrimination, as exemplified by (in Peck’s view) the Black Lives Matter movement.

With voiceover narration from actor Samuel L Jackson, who reads from Baldwin’s work, the film moves back and forth in time, which can make following it hard, but there is a general chronological order and structure shaped around Evers, Malcolm X and King. Baldwin remembers early childhood experiences of watching Hollywood Western films and identifying with the “good guy” cowboys, not realising that the Injuns being shot could just as easily have been replaced by upstart black people. He later comes to see how much Hollywood brainwashes people to see the world in terms of, well, black and white, and how Hollywood films serve to inculcate a particular paradigm of how the world supposedly operates. There is nothing in the film though how that paradigm influences not just black people like himself to accept their place in US society but also brainwashes white people to believe they are special and to believe in violence as the only acceptable tool to confront and solve problems.

With archival film footage, the film shows Baldwin advocating on behalf of black people in talk shows, arguing why racism continues in spite of the apparent social and economic progress black people were making in the 1960s. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King loom large as two leaders whose opinions and leadership styles were as polarised as could be, to the extent of Malcolm X accusing King of being an Uncle Tom for adopting a non-violent approach emphasising love and compassion.

Where the film really could have taken off and become something very special is in moments where Baldwin criticises American society generally for its materialism and consumerism which cover over its soullessness and an unwillingness to confront and own up to the brutality and psychological violence meted out to black people over 200 years of its history. There could have been an exploration of how the US controls its people through a mix of both hard power (such as genocide, the use of police and discriminatory laws to keep minority groups in positions of inferiority) and soft power (through culture and education) which also serve to divide and rule people on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion and other categories; but perhaps this was going too far for Peck who keeps the discussion within a narrow framework of whites-versus-blacks.

Unfortunately from this film, excellent in parts though it might be for showing rare archived film footage about the black American struggle for social, political and economic equality, and for detailing how Hollywood reflected and upheld racial inequality, I get no indication that either Baldwin or Peck sees beyond the white-black racial divide to realise that both white and black people – and plenty of other groups in US society – are being crushed alike by capitalist ideology and the systems and institutions that support it. Discrimination on the basis of race among other artificial categories is just one method of keeping people weak and divided – and set against each other – so that the elites who control them can continue to exploit them.

At a time when both white and black people, and others as well, most need to unite and recognise their common oppressors, “I Am Not Your Negro”, by allying itself to the Black Lives Matter movement – known to be infiltrated by US billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundation – is actually a step backwards in the wrong direction.

 

The Battle of Algiers: excellent and powerful film dramatisation of the Algerian drive for independence

Gillo Pontecorvo, “The Battle of Algiers / La Bataille d’Alger / La Battaglia di Algeri” (1965)

Filmed 50 years ago, this Italian film drama of the Algerian independence struggle against France in the late 1950s remains as relevant today in the post-9/11 world as it did for audiences living during the decline and end of the colonial era when Britain and France gave up their empires in Africa and Asia. The film, influenced by the Italian neo-realism pioneered by Roberto Rossellini and other directors in the 1950s, combines crisp, matter-of-fact drama, imaginative and brilliantly shot cinematography, excellent acting, a highly evocative music soundtrack and a plot left deliberately sketchy to emphasise the film’s messages, of which the most important is that a people’s desire for liberation and independence will always succeed in spite of the repression it is subjected to.

The bulk of the film follows a young man, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), from his early life as street thief who becomes radicalised as a freedom fighter when as a prisoner he witnesses the guillotining execution of a political prisoner. After being released, he applies to join the National Liberation Front (hereafter referred to as the FLN, its abbreviation in French) and is given a test by FLN leader Jaffar. The test confirms Ali’s commitment and from then on he is part of a clandestine network of cells in which each member knows only three others: the person who recruited him and the two people he is required to recruit.

The film does not dwell much on Ali’s advancement to the topmost level but instead follows various resistance fighters who kill police officers as part of a general protest against the forces of law and order who are the front-line of the colonial society that treats the Algerian people as serfs and denies them access to their own lands and resources. The film clearly shows the segregated nature of the city of Algiers: Europeans live in one part which revels in wealth and leisure while the majority Arabs and Berbers are forced to live in crowded labyrinthine conditions in old buildings with primitive infrastructure and transport. The French drive cars while the Arabs and Berbers must still use animals for transport. The murders of the police officers lead to greater repression and the police themselves resort to bombing a section of the Muslim quarter. People die and from then on, the FLN uses terrorism, encapsulated in a section of the film where three Muslim women doll themselves up in Western clothes and carry bombs into cafes and an Air France office, to protest the continuing brutality. Violence from one side begets violence from the other until Paris sends in Colonel Matthieu (Jean Martin) to impose martial law on the suffering Algerians. Determined to wipe out the FLN, Matthieu resorts to arresting and torturing people to gather information about the FLN, and systematically hunts down its members until he and Ali La Pointe finally confront each other in a chilling and cold-blooded climax.

The contrast between the Algerians’ poverty and the colonialists’ lavish lifestyle is highlighted by the cinematography which captures the paranoia and terror the Algerians feel as French rule becomes ever more violent and intrusive. The music, composed jointly by Pontecorvo himself and renowned composer Ennio Morricone, also captures the terror and drama of the film. Scenes of torture are filmed in a sensitive manner that demonstrates the victim’s suffering without dwelling too much on the violence and gore.

While Pontecorvo is sympathetic towards the Algerians, the film shows both oppressors and oppressed as humans with all their flaws and good qualities. Ali, Jaffar and the other leaders of the FLN stubbornly hold out to the very end and Matthieu, for all his admiration of them, is steely in his determination to eradicate them. Surprisingly, Matthieu has the clearest understanding of the conflict between France and Algeria: the French are hell-bent on keeping Algeria as their colony and denying the Arabs and Berbers a share in the colony’s wealth. As long as this situation lasts, there will always be conflict and suppression. One would think that, having fought in the Resistance against Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Matthieu might sympathise with the Algerians’ desire for liberty; yet he puts his loyalty to France ahead of any feelings he may have for the Algerian cause or the admiration he has for individuals like Ben M’hidi, one of the FLN leaders, for his moral stance. As the only actor in a cast of non-actors, Martin makes his colonel stand out as a man who suppresses his humanity and compassion for evil disguised as unquestioning loyalty to the State.

One aspect of the film that is not too clear is the role of the media in changing public opinion in France to favour and support Algerian independence which eventually pressured Paris to grant Algeria its freedom in 1962. Apart from that, the film shows how the colonial authorities use propaganda to try to break the spirit of the Algerians. After destroying the FLN, the authorities obviously believe they have broken the back of the independence movement; unfortunately the film does not go on to say (and this is a major weakness of “The Battle …” and the structure of its plot) what the authorities did next, that might have resulted in a resurgence in the Algerians’ cry for  freedom and independence. One assumes that the French colonial authorities did not do much to give Algerians a greater say in their governance and control of their land and resources, but continued to harass them with police state brutality and petty bureaucratic regulations, and that the French living in Algeria continued to live in blithe ignorance of the tensions simmering even more among the people they treated as their servants.

The film’s complexity in its themes and technical values has stood the test of time, even if the actual visuals look dated. It has been used as a manual by both terrorist groups and governments alike, not always in the way that Pontecorvo and his cast would approve. Violence and brutality always beget more violence and brutality, and both bully and victim end up more traumatised and psychopathic in their natures. The film still has power to move contemporary audiences into sympathising with ordinary people’s desire to control their own lives and resources, and not to live as slaves.