Day 5 – The 23rd Sedona International Film Festival: I Am Not Your Negro

Festival audiences have proven in the past that Sedona loves good shorts. Day 5 of the 23rd Sedona International Film Festival introduces the popular short film, beginning this evening at 6:00pm at Harkins Sedona 6 – Theatre 1 with a 99 minute program titled simply Shorts Program 1: Just Great Shorts. This evening’s schedule consists of 7 short films ranging in length from 6 minutes up to 28 minutes. For more details of titles and countries of origin, CLICK HERE to access further information regarding this evening’s shorts performances.

The subject for today’s Filmmaker Conversation at Mary D. Fisher Theatre is Producing and Directing. You can join festival filmmakers this morning at 9:00am for a lively discussion on what it takes to be either a producer or a director. This program gives you the ability to learn from those who have been right there in the trenches as you discover the trials and tribulations of assembling a crew, a cast, and the difficulties associated with trying to get a project off the ground.

Day 5 also brings more live entertainment to Sedona. Appearing in a special musical tribute to the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, former member of the two-time Grammy Award winning group Chanticleer, American Countertenor Terry Barber will perform selections from ten of the composer’s hit shows on the stage at Sedona Performing Arts Center, 6pm. Barber will be accompanied by a musical cast of 7 musicians, plus 3 other singers as he performs songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and many others. For tickets to this evening’s live performance, CLICK HERE.

The powerful, Academy Award nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, had it’s first festival showing this past Sunday. Day 5 offers a second chance to see this challenging new film with a performance at Mary D. Fisher Theatre today at 12:00pm. Here’s a look at why this film is ultimately of great importance.

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James Baldwin was a black American playwright, novelist and social critic. He was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York. When he was 24, he left America and moved to Paris, France. For awhile, he also lived in Switzerland, then in Turkey, but for most of his later life, he remained in France until 1957; that’s when he returned to America. His move coincided with the time the Civil Rights Act was in the process of being debated in Congress. He died of stomach cancer December 1, 1987 in France. He was 63.

In the potent new documentary from director Raul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro, most of the above is never mentioned. The film is certainly a journey through the persuasive beliefs and writings of Baldwin, but it’s not a film that documents his life. To find out more regarding facts, figures, times, dates and geographical locations, you’ll have to search elsewhere. To discover his inner thoughts and feelings in a uniquely cinematic way that brings you far closer to the man James Baldwin really was, then this is where you need to be.

Bladwin’s manuscript called Remember This House was meant to be a memoir. They were recollections and observations of three civil rights leaders he personally knew; Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, but it was never finished. There were only thirty completed pages. Director Peck has re-crafted those pages as the basis for a screenplay while using archival footage, newsreels, movie clips, TV clips, newspaper cuttings, and excerpts from TV interviews to highlight an examination of race in America; an examination that feels just as vital today as it was when Baldwin was writing, particularly at a new time in our lives when the American political landscape appears to be dismantling progressions made.

The words you hear are Baldwin’s. The voice you hear is Samuel L. Jackson. He doesn’t sound like Baldwin, but then he doesn’t sound like Jackson, either; at least, not the customary, in-your-face, delivery you might ordinarily associate with Samuel L. Jackson. The sound is low, hypnotic; each word, deliberate, as if he’s thinking as he speaks. “The story of the negro in America is the story of America,” Jackson narrates. “It is not a pretty story.”

In an early segment where we see Baldwin as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett asks, with obvious hesitation as if he’s not sure how to properly phrase what he wants to say, whether Baldwin was hopeful for the future of ‘the Negro.’ It’s such an uncomfortable moment; you shift uneasily in your seat. When Baldwin smiles, you can see the relief on Cavett’s face. When Baldwin responds, what he says is precise, intelligent, refreshingly honest and articulate, though it’s hardly positive. It’s one of several TV interview clips you’ll see throughout the film, and it’s this amazing propensity for clear and honest responses while looking at something familiar but seen from a completely different perspective that should continually earn our admiration.

American television and its images of race becomes a subject of which Baldwin shows clear criticism. With fast-paced clips of famous images, such as Let’s Make A Deal, The Price is Right, sitcoms, and even The Gong Show, he writes (and delivered in Jackson’s voice); “The industry is compelled, given the way it is built, to present to the American people a self perpetuating fantasy of American life.” He goes on to say, “To watch the TV screen is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.”

Early American cinema is also under examination in its portrayal of blacks in narrative entertainment. While watching Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier duke it out in Stanley Kramer’s 1958 The Defiant Ones, Baldwin states: “It is impossible to accept the premise of the story, a premise based on the profound American misunderstanding of the nature of the hatred between black and white.” He goes on to explain what he means with example as Curtis and Poitier continue to fight on screen. “The root of the black man’s hatred is rage, and he does not so much hate white men as simply wants them out of his way. And more than that, he wants them out of his children’s way. The root of the white man’s hatred is terror; a bottomless and endless terror which focuses on this dread figure and entity which lives only in his mind.”

Baldwin talks of the successive assassinations and of his personal relationships with fresh insight of Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and of his memories of talking as a young man with Medgar Evans. “He wore his weariness like his skin,” Baldwin observes, and further relates how Medgar would tell him of what it was like to walk to school everyday. “He told me of how the tatters of clothes of a lynched body hung, flapping in the wind for days, and how he had to pass that tree every day.”

Ugly images from newsreel clips of race riots and unrest that occurred throughout the country during the sixties continually pop up like those unwanted ads on a computer monitor that you’d rather not see. Your only sense of comfort comes from telling yourself that they’re not of today but of an earlier, unenlightened time; and then you see the beating of Rodney King or a picture of Trayvon Martin and you can’t help but reflect on how far we have or have not really come. “White people are astounded by Birmingham,” Baldwin writes. “Black people are not. White people are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don’t want to believe, still less act on the belief that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country.”

By giving voice to Baldwin’s unpublished words, backed with images that often shocks – there’s a shot of a woman holding up a homemade placard in a crowd, proclaiming: Nigger? Don’t You Wish You Were White? – director Peck has made what may possibly be the most important documentary of the year and one that could never lose its importance in any year. This should not be missed.

I Am Not Your Negro will have its final regular festival performance today at Mary D. Fisher Theatre, 12:00 pm.

Posted in 2017 Sedona International Film Festival Reports

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