“Death,” wrote Leonard Pitts, the brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Hearld, “has this way of making truth tellers seem harmless.”
But the three truth tellers James Baldwin set out to write about — Martin, Malcolm and Medger — are anything but harmless in this brilliant cinematic work; and neither is the author whose mission it was to define their lives … and thereby define America though the eyes of her most famous black activists.
The documentary pieces together archival footage (much of it previously unseen) of the lives of the three most dynamic civil rights leaders of that tumultuous era and mixes in footage of Baldwin’s speeches — particularly the debate he engaged in with conservative icon William F. Buckley at Cambridge Union on the campus of Cambridge University in 1965 on the topic of “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?”
Expect some whites to question why Raoul Peck, the talented filmmaker who produced this work, revisited this ugly period of America’s past. Yes, I realize that it’s extremely uncomfortable to deal with the facts presented. But even after the Bobby Kennedy-prophesized presidency of Barack Obama, much has not changed in America, and indeed in many respects, white racism is retrenching by doing what it has always proven to be so very good at doing: Morphing into other guises, wearing other masks, telling other lies.
Peck skillfully weaves images of conflict between blacks and law enforcement — from the Rodney King beating and the more recent uprisings against police brutality in Baltimore, Ferguson and other cities — to amply demonstrate the connection to the past and indeed how little has changed in this country over the last half century.
Of course some whites will — without seeing the film — dismiss it as yet another example of blacks playing the race card, but truth be told, we blacks could never play the race card if white Americans didn’t continue to deal it to us over and over and over.
James Baldwin possessed one of the most brilliant minds in the history of America; no other writer of essays even comes close, let alone surpasses his body of work. That’s why Ta-Nehisi Coates furiously back-pedals from the notion that some foolishly put forth calling him the “new” Baldwin. Coates is so talented a wordsmith and so bright a man that he knows that no one is comparable — indeed not even comes close — to the master.
Indeed, Baldwin himself once lamented that had not his nose been kept so close to the grindstone of racism, he might have been able to write brilliantly on other subjects that interested him, such as music or art. But alas, America’s preoccupation with pigmentation robs so many of her darker children of their god-given talents and limits us in so many ways that we have little option but to stay in a state closely approximating perpetual rage. And it’s so grossly unfair.
From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.com