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

Whence America? Films reviewed: Paterson, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Posted in African-Americans, College, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Racism, Slavery, US by CulturalMining.com on February 10, 2017

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

The recent executive order known as the Muslim Ban has made the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens and residents uncertain. So uncertain that some refugee claimants are fleeing the Land of the Free, seeking sanctuary across the frozen border in Canada.

Whence America? Where is that country heading?

This week, I’m looking at two movies that give a more optimistic look at life in the United States. There’s a new documentary about Historically Black Colleges, and a quirky drama about the state of life in a post-industrial town.

spelman-college-1964Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Dir: Stanley Nelson

Did you know that under slavery, it was actually illegal for African Americans to learn to read and write? And that even slave owners – who could beat, sexually assault or even murder their slaves with impunity — were legally forbidden from educating them? It was in the best interest of the Government and slave owner to keep black Americans ignorant, docile, and illiterate.

To counter this, after emancipation and the civil war, African Americans realized education was the most important way to rise up from slavery. The first colleges were opened based on the writings of scholars like Frederick hbcu-students-from-c-1900-graduates-of-atlanta-baptist-college-and-spelman-seminary-from-the-institutions-that-were-later-known-as-morehouse-college-and-spelman-collegeDouglas. And like Douglas, the first students were born into slavery. Early education efforts were aimed at skilled trades or religion, but as the movement grew it shifted to academic subjects.

Two schools of thought emerged. Southerner Booker T. Washington believed in a business-oriented outlook, centred on entrepreneurship but was opposed to any protests or political action confronting the status quo. W.E.B. Du Bois took the opposite stance, and led the movement toward equal rights.

Many of the early colleges were run by whites, who imposed harsher disciplinary policies on black students students.

bp_standingfedbldg_seattle-e1401981658505Fisk University harshly segregated the students by sex and forbade social interaction. This led to a protest and an organized walkout until the school President resigned.

By the 1930s and 40s, the teachers and administration positions were increasingly filled by blacks, many of whom had been educated at these same colleges and universities. The US was still strictly segregated under so-called separate but equal laws. So all the best and the brightest students flocked to these schools, becoming the new black middle class. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers and judges all passed through these schools, including renowned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Howard University Law School).

By the the 1950s and ’60s these schools also became a hotbed of black-led political movements. Civil rights tell_them_we_are_rising_the_story_of_black_colleges_and_universities_xlgactions — like sit-ins at segregated lunch counters — were spearheaded by students at black universities..

100 years after it was a crime for blacks to read or write, the Brown v Board of Education decision promised to end segregation in schools. But this had an unexpected negative impact on black colleges. With white universities now open to black students, there was a brain drain of top applicants to ivy league schools.

Today there are still over 100 black colleges and universities, some thriving, but others crumbling for lack of funds.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is the first documentary to tell the full history of this important but not-widely-known institution. It’s narrated by voiceovers and talking heads: historians and former students and professors from these schools. It’s beautifully illustrated with period photos and film clips touching all aspects of black college life, including educational,  political movements and social: fraternities, and sororities, sports and music.

It’s by director Stanley Nelson who also made the excellent The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

04e8c932-9d19-4a19-8e05-12ebd8db89f2Paterson

Dir: Jim Jarmusch

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver who lives with his girlfriend, Laura, in a small house in Paterson, NJ. He lives a routine life. He carries a lunchpail to work each morning, and a notebook to write down any poems that might occur to him. He eats lunch in a tiny national park. After work he talks with Laura over dinner. And each night he walks his dog to a neighbourhood bar and stays PATERSON_D25_0077.ARWfor a drink or two, chewing the fat.

Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is an artist who remembers her dreams. She covers everything around her in rough swaths of black and white. Clothes, chairs, curtains, cupcakes… their home is her canvas. Except for his basement where he goes to tinker with things and think. The two of them have a symbiotic relationship. he is the observer, passively PATERSON_D19_0011.ARWtaking in what he sees and hears around him. She is the dynamic one, planning their future, and launching business projects that may or may not succeed.

The town of Paterson serves as the third character in the movie. It’s the first city in North America designed as an industrial centre powered by a series of 18th century canals and mills. It has become an artistic hub for New Yorkers who can’t afford the high rents of that city. Jarmusch includes these brick factories and waterfalls in all his outdoor shots. What he doesn’t show is the parts of town with a large and vibrant middle eastern community there. Instead they’re represented by Laura, played by a Persian American actor. (Paterson is also the place where Trump falsely claimed Muslims were dancing on their rooftops during 9-11.) Maybe it’s because I’ve visited Paterson the town, but I was really tickled by this movie.

Paterson is a richly minimalist film that leaves you feeling good about the state of the world.

Paterson opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is playing on February 15th at the opening night of the Toronto Black Film Festival. Go to torontoblackfilm.com for more information.

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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