With social unrest rising in the media and in our public spaces, it’s been a tough few weeks for America, but for our Black community it’s more of the same. It’s why this week, we feel that it’s important to bring you films that speak of the racial inequity that has plagued our communities for centuries. Thanks to our friends at Magnolia Pictures, we are offering you three documentaries that speak to injustice, all which previously played at the Michigan Theater and our Cinetopia Film Festival, and that can now be owned by you as an important educational resource that may be shared with your friends and family in perpetuity. This week we choose to focus our attention on these films, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM, and WHOSE STREETS?, and we hope you will too. We will also be donating half the proceeds from our entire run of these films to the ACLU of Michigan.
These three documentaries specifically find the power in the voices of the poets that echo in the movement you currently see in the media, or maybe outside your front window. These films offer us insight into the experience of authors Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, as well as those that made their voices heard in the turmoil of Ferguson, with the words “we only lose when we stop fighting.”
In TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM, the 2019 documentary from Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, we are given an intimate portrait of the author in her own words. Morrison, who passed away in 2019, was the voice of the female African-American experience with popular works such as The Bluest Eye and her Pulitzer Prize winning Beloved.
The film is special because not only does Greenfield let Toni speak for herself, but he provides space for prominent authors and media personalities, such as Angela Davis and Oprah Winfrey, to express how they were inspired by her. When Greenfield draws a picture of the world Morrison lived in, where her work was banned in schools, and even prisons, across America, and then uses that against the admiration of those that she inspired, you can see the real strength of her literature and what that kind of power can provide to oppressed and marginalized communities.
Morrison’s experiences and poetic language gave her one of the most unique voices of the literary scene at the time, but as you will see in the documentary, many believed her concentrated focus on the Black experience was “limiting”, as even the most liberal readers and critics, who had been predisposed to language of prominently white authors, could not empathize with stories. But it was Morrison’s resilience to continue and write about her experiences that made her work meaningful to readers that had not seen themselves in literary characters before. And as viewers, we can understand that change is made by listening to those from within the struggle.
In I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, the 2016 documentary from Raoul Peck, it’s the experiences and struggles of James Baldwin that give us context of what it was like being a Black man in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary gives us Baldwin’s words from an unfinished manuscript titled Remember This House. The manuscript, which was a 30-page collection of notes and letters written by Baldwin in 1979, “Tell his story of America through the lives of three of his murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X.”
The documentary begins with archival footage of a slightly uncomfortable interview Baldwin had with Dick Cavett on his show in 1968, discussing what was seen as the “progress” of African Americans at the time. Baldwin provides a delicate response, “I don’t think there’s much hope for it, to tell you the truth, as long as people are using this peculiar language… the real question is what’s going to happen to this country?” The film then cuts and bursts with sound and energy to images of the current unrest, using photos of protests and violence across the country (current at least for 2016, because in the past four years we’ve seen even more devastating images that could be added to this sequence).
The film reminds us how progress of the 1960s is outdated, and though it has been made in some sense of the word, change has not been achieved as there is still so much more that needs to be done. Dick Cavett speaks uncomfortably in this first segment of the film and is given an answer that still speaks to us today, and this is precisely what still needs to happen, especially on mainstream platforms. White people must be uncomfortable and ask themselves, and others, difficult questions to receive answers that can make a change.
Not only does WHOSE STREETS? ask these questions and supply images to make audiences properly uncomfortable, it gives us the illustration of America that Baldwin was precisely concerned about, proving a cycle of American violence. We’re familiar with the words of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, but in this documentary, we hear the unexplored voices of Tory Russell, Brittany Ferrell, David Whitt, and others that fought in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, for justice in the murder of Michael Brown in 2014.
This documentary speaks most to what is happening today, and hopefully inspires you to step out your front door and provide your hand and voice to the movement. From Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, the film juxtaposes and connects the powerful words of Black abolitionists and Civil Rights leaders such as Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr. who said “A riot is the language of the unheard”, with the shouts of protestors that plead of “No justice, no freedom” and “Don’t shoot.” It’s the most appropriate connection that can made to contextualize the fight for freedom that has been waging for over 400 years. As we learn about the lives of our subjects, who left their families to take to the streets and petition for justice, the directors remind us that the voices of these prominent writers and poets still speak in the movement today. You just have to listen carefully and connect the dots.
Ironically, it’s the words of Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers that wrote the Declaration of Independence that linger in the finale which speak best to the current movement: “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
And that is what must be protected and understood today. This is not a political movement you are seeing, though many will try to spin it that way, this is a social and morale movement. This is a fight for justice and to find good in our community. These films send an urgent plea to us all and describe what we, as a nation, need to do in this moment and whose voices we should be listening to right now. So, buy these films, show them to others, and contribute what you can, because not only will you be supporting the Michigan and State Theatre, you’ll be contributing to a good cause that is protecting everything at stake.