Black History. Films reviewed: A United Kingdom, I Am Not Your Negro

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Africa, African-Americans, Apartheid, documentary, Drama, France, Gay, Racism, Romance, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on February 24, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s Black History Month, so I’m looking at some historical movies that fit the profile. There’s a British drama about forbidden love and a united kingdom, and a French documentary about a writer’s look at African Americans in the divided United States.

A UNITED KINGDOMA United Kingdom

Dir: Amma Asante

It’s London in the 1950s. Ruth (Rosamund Pike) is an attractive, professional woman who lives with her parents. One night she meets a handsome student from Oxford at a dance. After a few dates he reveals he’s a prince, destined to become the king of a far off country called Bechuanaland. They fall in love, decide to marry, and move there… it’s like a fairy tale. But they face one problem. Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is black, and Ruth is white. This doesn’t A UNITED KINGDOMmatter much to them, but it does to the people around them.

Ruth’s parents are dead set against it, and as a mixed race couple they face abuse and even violence from strangers on the streets of London. In Bechuanaland, a British protectorate in Southern Africa, Seretse also faces trouble. He’s going against tradition by not choosing a wife from his own tribe. His uncle, the current Regent, objects strongly. And then there’s Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a highly-placed diplomat in the foreign service. He’s condescending, snotty, racist and sexist – he A UNITED KINGDOMassumes Ruth works in a typing pool (because she’s a woman) when she’s actually an underwriter at Lloyds of London. And he has ulterior motives.

Bechuanaland (now Botswana) is a British protectorate completely surrounded by Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South Africa and South-West Africa (Namibia). Since 1948, South Africa has been under apartheid rules which make it illegal for whites and blacks to marry. For the king of Bechuanaland to openly flout these racist laws might undermine South A UNITED KINGDOMAfrica’s legitimacy. South Africa is a commonwealth member and the region is a huge source of mineral wealth for multinationals. Under current laws, Seretse and Ruth are not legally permitted to share a drink in a restaurant… in the land he’s supposed to rule!

Politics is strange. Seretse is forced into exile, while Ruth – and their new baby – remain in Africa. Can Ruth and Seretse win the trust of their countrymen? Can they win the sympathy of the British public? Can they bring justice and prosperity to a remote arid country? And can love hold a separated family together?

A United Kingdom is a historical drama, with equal helpings of romance and British parliamentary politics. It’s based on a true story I knew nothing about. Although it ends abruptly, it has a surprisingly fascinating story. I liked this movie.

3ea9d0fe-c6c6-4980-9ef1-727cc28d7b96I Am Not Your Negro

Dir: Raoul Peck (Written by James Baldwin)

James Baldwin was an African American writer, the author of Notes of a Native Son, and novels like Giovanni’s Room. Born in Harlem he took part in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. But because of the racism and potential violence he faced in America he left for Paris where he spent most of his life. He joined the expat community there, including Nina Simone and Josephine Baker. He wanted to be known not as a black writer,  not as a gay writer, but 6bbac4d9-bdd8-4d22-aae4-fa76fe7ab6a0as a writer.

This film follows Baldwin’s writings on three important figures in the struggle for civil rights: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,

They represented, respectively, the NAACP, Black Muslims, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. All three were spied on and harassed by the FBI and labeled “dangerous”, and all three were assassinated before the age of 40.

Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Baldwin looks back at their stories and his encounters with them, but also sets himself apart. He’s not a Muslim, not a Christian, not a member of the NAACP or the Black Panther Party.

The title, I Am Not Your Negro, is Baldwin’s central point. The story of the Negro in America, he says, is the story of America, and it’s not a pretty story. It’s a history of violence and racism.There is no difference between the North and South, Baldwin says, just the way you castrate us. He covers slavery, lynching, segregation, and incarceration. And the film neatly connects the slaying of Medgar Evers by a white supremacist with current racist murders, like the deaths of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin

4357c413-cb69-4edf-841e-9d3ce1e5660b Samuel L Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s prophetic words alternates with Baldwin’s own voice: on the Dick Cavett show and at the Cambridge Debates. Baldwin – and director Peck — tells his story with a barrage of Hollywood images. From the pink-scrubbed face of a dancing Doris Day, to John Wayne’s 7f8cc584-e699-49bc-ba66-791cb899b7f5confidence in killing native Americans. Baldwin recalls his childhood shock at a John Wayne Western when he realized he’s not the “cowboy”, he’s the “Indian”.

I Am Not Your Negro is about the fear and violence faced by African Americans. It’s a terrific documentary, a cinematic essay told through the masterful use of period still images. These are not the photos and clips you’re used to but jaw-dropping, newfound pictures. There’s lush nighttime footage and a fantastic juxtapositions of words and images. (The film reminds me of the work Adam Curtis.) It’s nominated for an Oscar for best documentary.

A United Kingdom and I Am Not Your Negro both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening this weekend: if you’re a cat person, there’s Kedi, about the street cats of Istanbul; or if you’re a zombie or a zombie-lover, there’s the wonderful horror movie The Girl with all the Gifts (read the review here).

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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