Raoul Peck | France, USA | 2016 | English | Documentary
Advanced screening @ Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), 11 September 2017
ACMI. A giant screen. A glass of red in hand. Drawn in at the beginning and let go only at the end. The story of James Baldwin. James Baldwin the writer, the visionary. He who dared to challenge racial divisions. Institutionally inbuilt racial discrimination. Along with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X. One by one, we are presented with the stories of these assassinated men. We learn that James was not aligned to Black Panther ideology. He didn’t hate whites. He had a white teacher as a child who he talks fondly of. Nor was he with the black church. Who didn’t condemn racist acts against their people. James and the words from the 30 pages of his unfinished manuscript Remember This House are our window into the continuation of white supremacy and racism in the USA. This film is a blaring reminder of how art can reflect and propel attitudes and norms. With the series of historical clips it shows. From films, cleverly, eloquently selected and cut to pinpoint the sociopolitical climate of the day. From footage of direct state suppression where black people are injured and killed in various protests around the country over the decades. Racism distinguished articulately in the open forum afterwards. Interpersonal in the overt everyday and the historically created institutional racism that is structural. That pervades the systems under which we live. Baldwin articulates down forms of institutionalised racism on stage. At one point, we are shown an interview with Baldwin who is joined by a white philosophy professor from one of the ivy league institutions. The professor argues that we should be concerned about other categories rather than race, like the fact that as an academic he connects more with fellow academics than other people. Baldwin points out the race discrimination within institutions, for example the church being segregated into white and black, blacks not being part of unions, the way schools are run, the way history is taught. In Australia too. On this night, Nayuka Gorrie and vocal members of the audience raised that they should not have to give examples of experiences of interpersonal racism so that whites to believe it exists. Also how seemingly innocent images are given a depth in this documentary in terms of what they reinforce. Thin white women smiling and prancing around. The ‘perfect’ white family with their house, garden and picket fence. Because historical segregation has resulted in a gigantic ignorance. I am reminded of older generation white people of this country who tell me ‘we didn’t know’. And apathy. I agree, that it’s sad to think that it is necessary. To show images of hanging black bodies, as this documentary does in its final stages. In order to push a predominantly white audience into a silence of shame. That a display of such violence may be required. To reach people. But I guess if it does. If this time, whites talk to whites about it. People find words to explore these realities and the conversation really flows. Then art here is not to reinforce. To romanticise already indoctrinated ideas. It becomes about making change. So that we cannot dismiss it at the level of ‘oooo…ahhhh. That’s happening over there (but not here). How horrible, atrocious, shameful.’ But rather. Look deeply into our own backyard. And see how. And why. It is happening here. Very different historical events. But parallel underlying issues. How many more times will we hear the excuse, ‘but I am not a racist’. Well you are. We all are in a sense. As long as racial demarcation exists I see the inevitability there. And it’s not just about you. Or me. But what we as a collective say and do (the interpersonal). But besides that. What we do about the structures. The structures on which our nation has been established (the institutional). And how we can question them. How we challenge them. And ultimately change them. And we can start by facing up – as James says – to our history. Talking openly about our past and learning from it. In order to make a future to the benefit of fellow humans, the diversity of peoples in this country and especially the First Peoples, who continue to bear the brunt of the fact that we still have a long way to go.