“PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV, Ep. 15.: Focus on Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” (podcast)

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“I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO” (PG-13)
WHAT:
Documentary about writer and social critic James Baldwin; Raoul Peck directs, Samuel L. Jackson stars
WHEN: Opens Fri. (Feb. 3)
WHERE: Broad Theater, 636 N Broad St.
MORE INFO: Visit the Broad Theater website

UPDATE: The podcast is up! Listen to the complete show, and individual segments, below …

I’m very excited to announce Saturday’s episode of “PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM) focused exclusively on the Academy Award-nominated James Baldwin documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” which premiered in New Orleans at the Broad Theater on Friday (Feb. 3).

The episode will be presented in two segments — the first one featuring perspectives from those familiar with Baldwin’s work as an essayist and social critic, and the second one focusing on “I Am Not Your Negro” from a more cinematic perspective in a year when the Best Documentary category in the Academy Awards is dominated by works about (and by) people of color. And so we’ll welcome:

Jarvis DeBerry, deputy opinions editor and columnist for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. DeBerry wrote a fascinating piece during last year’s protests against police violence, referencing the 50th anniversary of Baldwin’s essay in The Nation, “A Report From the Occupied Territory.”

Felipe Smith, associate professor in the Department of English at Tulane University, and one of the founders and a past director of the Program in Africana Studies at Tulane. His 1998 book, “American Body Politics: Race, Gender, and Black Literary Renaissance (University of Georgia Press), addresses the cultural politics of the racial and gender classification of American bodies as a shaping influence in the development of writers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Charles W. Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, and James Weldon Johnson around the turn of the last century.

Angela Tucker, an Emmy-nominated producer, writer and director. Her directorial work includes “(A)sexual,” a feature-length documentary available on Netflix and iTunes; “Black Folk Don’t,” a documentary web series filming its fourth season featured in Time Magazine’s “10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life”; “The Older Fish,” a short documentary for TIME Inc.; and “Just the Three of Us,” a short fiction film starring Leslie Uggams. Tucker is the Series Producer for the PBS documentary series, “AfroPop,” and a Co-Producer on “The New Black.” She is currently directing and producing “Paper Chase,” a feature-length comedy written by Tucker and collaborator Lauren Domino. She received her MFA in Film from Columbia University. Continue reading

With “I Am Not Your Negro,” a look at James Baldwin looking back at us

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“I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO” (PG-13)
WHAT:
Documentary about writer and social critic James Baldwin; Raoul Peck directs, Samuel L. Jackson stars
WHEN: Opens Fri. (Feb. 3)
WHERE: Broad Theater, 636 N Broad St.
MORE INFO: Visit the Broad Theater website

“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
— James Baldwin, “Remember This House”

Raoul Peck tries to frame his Academy Award-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” as essayist and culture critic James Baldwin tried to frame his (unfinished) work, “Remember This House” — as a memoir about his personal remembrances of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (None of them survived the 1960s, and none of them, as Baldwin notes, made it to 40 years old.) While the documentary, like the manuscript, never quite gets there in terms of its structure, it gets just about everywhere else — including our current national mood.

If “I Am Not Your Negro” accomplishes anything else, it’s in showing the timelessness and relevance of Baldwin’s cutting commentary about the state of racial relations in the United States, and how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Peck (“Lumumba”) lays Baldwin’s crystal-clear observations against the backdrop of both myriad pop-culture references and juxtapositions of unforgettable imagery. One moment we could be watching fire hoses and police batons being turned on protesters from the turbulent ’60s, sure, but the next we’re watching the demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., which became a flashpoint for protesting the treatment by police officers of an under-served, and predominantly African-American, community.

Too often, he saw a white nation in denial, and one in turn that saw the legacy of slavery as a pointless burden and not a challenge to evolve as a culture. “I’m terrified at the moral apathy” of the nation, he frets at one point. “… White people don’t know our lives. It’s apathy and ignorance.”

Peck presents Baldwin in two settings: in person, in archival TV interviews and lectures, and in somber, understated voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson, reading ostensibly from “Remember This House.” Baldwin pitched the memoir to his agent as a way to frame his life through his observations and the lives of the three civil rights leaders, and at times “I Am Not Your Negro” interconnects Baldwin with the work of Evers, Malcolm X and King. It’s a complicated structure which brings its own set of truths; at one point we’re painfully reminded of how critical Malcolm X was of King — as witnessed in their joint appearance with Baldwin in the PBS special “The Negro and the American Promise” in 1963. (You can watch the Malcolm X segment here; King’s segment here; and James Baldwin’s segment here.)

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James Baldwin. (Photo by Bob Adelman, courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

The leaders’ three respective assassinations — Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and King in 1968 — serve as almost succinct end chapters of the 95-minute film, and each time Baldwin laments the pain those deaths inflict on his soul. Baldwin died of stomach cancer in 1987 at the age of 63, and so “I Am Not Your Negro” serves as the best representation of his memoir.

There are times when you want to know even more about Baldwin and not just his words, although one could argue his words were his life. But one thing becomes clear in his reflections in “Remember This House,” and that’s his place as an outsider. Baldwin also was gay, a status his FBI was sure to point out (as well as his being a “dangerous individual”). Even as he explained his motives for his memoir, he wrote how he was neither this nor that: “The line that separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line, indeed,” Baldwin says through Jackson. “Nevertheless, the line is real.”

And so the non-joiner — who wasn’t a Muslim or a Black Panther, who wasn’t a Christian or a member of the NAACP — tries to tap into the lives of his more famous contemporaries and offer a civil rights-era history lesson along the way. Louisianians will recognize familiar imagery — including the Plaquemines Parish political boss and staunch segregationist Leander Perez, and reminders of New Orleans’ role as a center of the slave trade.

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