Required Viewing: I Am Not Your Negro

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Just came from seeing I Am Not Your Negro… Feeling simultaneously inspired and depressed, moved and immobilized, and wondering what more I can be doing to facilitate the kinds of discussions James Baldwin was talking about, where we as Americans look at ourselves and our history – not as separate histories of different groups of people, but as a collective history, taking the blame for all of it, acknowledging the pain and suffering we’ve inflicted and/or benefited from, and really looking for ways to become different people.

The film is based on an unfinished work Baldwin had been writing, structured around the significance of three leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s an essay documentary, not a conveniently digestible narrative-arc type of film, and as such it gets at the larger truths and deeper connections within Baldwin’s work decades ago, but visually and contextually intrinsically connected to the events of the current decade. Baldwin wrote and spoke about the intricacies of race relations in America not as a “race issue” or a “Black issue” or even as a “white issue,” but rather as an issue of immense importance for the entire American population – THE issue in America then, and sadly, now.

Even the inclusion of clips from Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show were revealing in that they showcased a talk show that actually had guests with ideas that mattered, not just movies to sell or gossip to relate. I think this is required viewing for all Americans. It’s sad that as a documentary, it too will be marginalized, but please spread the word and see it wherever you can. I drop 35 miles today to go see it and I don’t regret one second of that.

[I apologize for this brief review. This film deserves a much longer look, which I hope to give it in the future, but in the interest of getting the word out now, I post these thoughts for you.]

The Personal is Political in Jeff Nichols’ “Loving”

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Ruth Negga (left) stars as Mildred and Joel Edgerton (right) stars as Richard in Jeff Nichols LOVING, a Focus Features release. Credit : Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

With the recent election, the BlackLivesMatter movement, and increased awareness of the lingering racism that underlies so many aspects of contemporary life, it makes sense to revisit the Civil Rights Era.  But so often, in their celebration of the admittedly great strides made by the Civil Rights Movement, films about that period miss the fundamental point that the famous slogan “the personal is political” underlines for us. In Jeff Nichols’ new film Loving, which stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple who brought down our country’s anti-miscegenation laws in a 1967 Supreme Court victory, there are no grand sweeping images of thousands marching on Washington. Neither are the court cases themselves portrayed in any detail. Instead, Nichols focuses the camera and our attention on what is most important: the relationship between two human beings and the power of their love to conquer ignorance, hate, and stupidity.

From the beginning of the film, Nichols keeps the camera focused on the couple, their friends, and their families. We see Richard (Edgerton) working on cars and watching informal races in a multiracial environment. We notice the tensions of his world when the camera briefly shows a group of hostile white onlookers, but the moment is brief. We hear television news reports in the background giving some sense of context, but always it is in the background. What emerges from this strategy is interesting not only for its insistence on this couple’s apolitical nature, but also for its portrayal of marital love. Once they do marry and ultimately have children, the stresses of life are clearly upon them, just as they are with any married couple. The added stress of day to day racism, their forced exile from their families in Virginia, and, ultimately, a drawn out legal battle that puts them in the public eye, must have been excruciating. We see this pressure, but at their core, they are in love, and their respect, compassion, and desire for one another always push through the external forces of ignorance.

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Joel Edgerton stars as Richard Loving in Jeff Nichols LOVING, a Focus Features release. Credit : Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

The performances in Loving are subtle and nuanced, with Edgerton giving us a down-to-earth “regular’ guy from the country and Negga offering a strong, silent wife and mother whose connection to Richard and to her family are paramount in everything she does. There are no histrionics and no melodramatic exchanges, which is remarkable considering the simmering tension that permeates the script. Our investment in this couple’s battle is such that we are tense all the way until the end, when the results that we always knew happened, do come to pass. And yet that tension does reveal itself in subtle ways.

For example there is a scene when the family are in their home in Virginia, despite a court order that they not be in that state at the same time, as a condition of their release. Richard is working on the house and Mildred is caring for the children. Suddenly, Richard hears a speeding car coming down the road. He turns to look and we see that it is a friend of theirs driving toward the house. We don’t know what is going to happen, but decades of reflection upon what did happen in the 1960s and before have us immediately understand why Richard hurries down off the ladder, tells his son to grab the rifle for him, and has everyone else get inside the house. He doesn’t scream or cry or articulate anything specific, but we know he is afraid that there is about to be some sort of attack from local racists, or a police raid, or some other disruption of all that he loves. Edgerton brilliantly encapsulates all of this history and fear and love in his performance.

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Ruth Negga stars as Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols LOVING, a Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Likewise, Negga is able to articulate her own stress, tensions, and fears non-verbally. Hers is a face that would have been remarkable in the Silent Era for its pure expressiveness. Here, that ability to describe a complicated state of mind with a simple glance is just uncanny.

Loving is not like Selma or 12 years a Slave—remarkable films in their own rights— because it is not about social upheaval. Loving is about the personal upheaval that is caused by an unjust system. It makes us reflect upon how our laws, policies, and systems impact ordinary people just trying to get by in life, just wanting to have and protect their families, just wanting to be with the ones they love.

 

Update on Southwest of Salem

SOUTHWESTOFSALEM_ESQUENAZI_DEBORAH_2-2Earlier this year, I wrote a piece in Provincetown Magazine about the documentary Southwest of Salem, which followed the case of four San Antonio lesbians who were imprisoned on suspect charges in the 1990s. Their case was taken up by the Texas Innocence Project, who also took part in the film. I had the opportunity to interview all of the women and the film’s director and producer. I am happy to report a good news update on their cases: all four were exonerated. Here is the press release on this huge victory, not only for these women, but also for LGBTQ rights:

 

AWARD WINNING DOCUMENTARY FILM

“SOUTHWEST OF SALEM – THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR”

CITED IN COURT DECISION

CLIP OF SAN ANTONIO FOUR’S RELEASE FROM PRISON THREE YEARS AGO:

https://discovery.box.com/s/ew2xyd3bs54ruvnhr0m1q25iv5cipvym

Wednesday, November 23, 2016, Austin, TX – Filmmaker Deborah S. Esquenazi woke up to a phone call from attorney Mike Ware of The Innocent Project of Texas telling her the great news that “The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Wednesday that the women known as the “San Antonio 4” be declared innocent and exonerated.” This sentence was stated exactly in the court decision this morning.

The San Antonio 4 – Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez – four Latina lesbians wrongfully convicted of gang-raping two little girls in San Antonio, Texas over 20 years ago during the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s-1990s are the subject of Esquenazi’s award winning documentary film, “SOUTHWEST OF SALEM – THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR.” Despite flawed medical evidence and convictions based solely on testimony of two young girls, the women always maintained their innocence. The film chronicles their story and their fight for justice over the past two decades.

The film weaves together emotional interviews with the women and their families with actual news footage and home videos, equally showcasing the injustice of the situation and the families that were torn apart as a result. Unique to the San Antonio Four case, none of the four women ever took a plea bargain or even considered it, despite serving their time in separate prisons. While the state offered deferred adjudication, requiring no time in prison but probation for ten years, the women turned down the offer, maintaining their innocence and faith in truth and justice. And now they are totally exonerated and declared innocent.

The documentary, along with articles written in Rolling Stone, The Texas Observer, and the New York Times, was cited in the opinion section of the court’s decision.

“This is a stunning victory, not only for the San Antonio Four, but for gay rights,” states director Esquenazi. “I couldn’t have imagined that six years ago, with nothing more than a camera and shoe-leather journalistic persistence, that this day would come. It shows the power of art. It shows that even with no cultural capital, power, or resources, we can make great change.”

“SOUTHWEST OF SALEM” has won numerous awards at festivals across the globe and has come away with great reviews.  It was recently honored by the Broadcast Film Critics Association with the Critic’s Choice Award for Best First Feature. It is also one of the 145 films that has qualified for this year’s Best Documentary Feature Academy Award®.

“A big congratulations to the extraordinary Innocence Project of Texas, whose singular commitment to truth was part of this great victory,” adds Esquenazi. “It really is a great day for justice in Texas—and a magical Thanksgiving for all of us.”

Moonlight

MoonlightImpressionistic, poetic cinema is rarely set in the gritty reality of life in America’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods. But the new film Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins perfectly captures the loneliness of being in a very different kind of closet than the one we’re used to seeing gay characters step triumphantly out of. Here, the rosy optimism of suburbia’s relative affluence doesn’t exist —not even as a reference point. Here, we look at poverty (always intertwined with race in America), and homophobia within the lives of characters who are rough around the edges but not caricatures or stereotypes.

In Moonlight, we meet Chiron, a young black boy who is teased and bullied by other boys in his Miami ghetto circa mid-1980s amidst America’s War on Drugs and crack epidemic. School-aged Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), nicknamed “Little” by the others, is quiet, intelligent, and sensitive—all things seen as weird, unnatural, and undesirable, even by his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), who loves him fiercely, but cannot express it. He is taken in by the local drug dealer and his girlfriend  who give him a refuge when things get to rough. He also has one friend, Kevin, a boy who is also sensitive and intelligent, but not quiet or introverted, and certainly better equipped to fit in with the crowd, for better or worse. These are the people who care about Little.

In part two of this three-part film, we meet Little again, only now he is in high school and people call him by his real name Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Many of his problems remain, and his burgeoning homosexuality becomes more apparent, but the socio-economincs of his life and the fear and  weakness of those around him lead him into the system that so many young black men end up in. When he comes our on the other end, we are in part three and his new persona is “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), himself a drug dealer who even looks similar to the one who took him in in his youth. We are full circle.

Moonlight belongs to a new category of cinema that includes films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Below Dreams (which I wrote about in my coverage of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festvail here). I don’t know what to call this yet, but it is a category that is defined by its otherness. The characters in these films are not archetypes representing some subsection of American society, nor are they simple victims of circumstance. The filmmaking style is loose, instinctual, and economical. The films take place outside of the usual settings for American movies, like New York, L.A., or some unnamed, generic suburb. These are places cameras don’t often go, where stories go untold. The filmmakers themselves are concerned with poverty as well as with glimpses of beauty that can occur, even in an impoverished life.

As someone with little obviously in common with Chiron (I am a straight, white woman living on Cape Cod), it is remarkable how strongly connected to him I felt, a marking of the director’s skills in building empathy. Moonlight takes this intense experience and shares it with us in a unique form with expressive acting, sound design, and cinematography, as well as an editing strategy that is directed by the emotions of the main character. I haven’t seen this before, and that in and of itself separates it from most of what comes out in theaters today. So many movies, however different their basic plots, are so similar in approach and formal language that I can barely remember them a week later. Not so with Moonlight, which is a beautiful, tragic film that stays with you. In fact, I look forward to seeing it again to relive that experience of cinematic discovery.

There is a deep sadness throughout all three parts, and the dominant feeling is one of loneliness and isolation, which speaks to the real-life invisibility of gay, black men. We have seen them here and there (notably in the character of Omar in the brilliant cable series The Wire some years back), but it is a largely ignored subset of both the African-American experience and that of the LGBTQ community.

I hope Moonlight will not be pigeonholed into the usual distribution patterns where films with black characters only show in areas with larger black populations and films with gay characters are only aimed at gay audiences. I hope to see it for my second viewing right here on Cape Cod… at a theater near you.