The Persistence of Memory…
I Am Not Your Negro (Dir.: Raoul Peck) (National release)
There are films that are very good, and there are films that grab you by the throat and simply refuse to release their grip. I Am Not Your Negro is all of that and more. I saw it weeks ago and admit it remains stubbornly in memory.
It has newly raised the profile of James Baldwin (whose unfinished proposal for a book about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medger Evers the film is based on) and made a grand slam for Raoul Peck, whose string of narrative features and documentaries can be described as past is prologue. Timed to open at the beginning of Black History Month, it is still going strong in national release and is, no matter what’s coming down the pike, an absolute must.
Much of its still-riveting archival footage has been seen before, but never has it been so blazingly defined as by Baldwin’s steely nouns and verbs—either in his clips or in voiceovers by Samuel Jackson. Baldwin’s fury still penetrates as he are reminded of our recent history; the assassinations, the National Guard protecting young black students whose only crime was pursuing an education, while white protesters scream and wave signs with swastikas. The ugliness that is part of our heritage drove Baldwin to France, where he never missed American culture, his family, his society. But it was the perfect writer’s room for him to think up and think through his projects.
Peck’s skill and dedication have made I Am Not Your Negro feel like the film that Baldwin himself might have made. It is white hot and searing and cuts deep; not only as a notable addition to the best examples of race-centered cinema, but as an axis on which that cinema will continue to spin for a very long time. And judging from the tenacity of racial bias in the United States (read: current Voter Registration laws), it demands and deserves immortality. (Currently at Film Forum, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, and Drafthouse Cinema.)
Kedi (Dir.: Ceyda Torun) (National release)
This lovely essay on the cats of Istanbul is another keeper, but for entirely different reasons. An overflowing oasis of calm and kindness, it pays tribute to the survival of an ancient race (cats) and their effect on the people they thrive among. These are street cats, most of whom live near the city’s waterfront, where fishmongers, grocers, and cafe owners are grateful for both their vermin-snuffing skills and the affection they offer most of the time. And, of course, the cats know a good thing when they have it; the handouts are generous, providing a rich and varied diet bursting with animal protein. Whatever their names and colors, these cats have made relationships with their benefactors, who relish the cuddling, scratching, and playful ways of their charges as they make their daily rounds throughout the market quarter like so many furry therapists, without prejudice.
Two strands run throughout Kedi: surprisingly, most of the cat enthusiasts are men. And it becomes clear that the market quarter is part of Old Istanbul. Changes are coming that will soon gentrify the area into yet another neighborhood of high-rises (a bulldozer resting in the background is visible at lunchtime)–there will be no space for the men, the cats, or the therapy.
Kedi makes a strong case for reflection and the kind of low-key filmmaking that is as endangered as the urban history it caresses. Whether or not you love cats, you will love the pulsing life of the market and the glory of the Bosphorus that DPs Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann make shine. And—trust me on this—you are likely to really fall for the cuddly cast once you realize how very special they are and what you’ve been missing.
Closet Monster (Dir.: Stephen Dunn) (Amazon Video)
Dunn’s first feature (after nine shorts and toiling at every production role known to indie film) is a strikingly original gay coming-of-age film that just won’t go away. You’ve viewed many of its elements before (except perhaps the hero’s pet hamster, voiced by Isabella Rosselini, and a tree house that you’d love to live in). But you haven’t seen them as Stephen Dunn puts them together in his very own order, nor in his native locations. Nor as acted out by Connor Jessup, Dunn’s fictional alter ego.
Unlike most Canadian films, Closet Monster breaks the Vancouver/Toronto/Montreal nexus and celebrates the rocky glories of Newfoundland. The ways in which they have shaped Dunn’s own character can only be guessed at, but they were his choice for the film’s setting and they pique your interest from the first scene. What remains after you’ve seen it (for me, six months ago, and I find myself still pondering its amazing package) is the wit, the sorrow, the jumping-off-a-cliff flirtations with disaster, and yet the abiding sweetness and emotional generosity that color Dunn’s work. He’s someone you’d like to know, whose work you want to follow. Can anybody tell me what he’s got up his sleeve next time around? I’d like to be there when it opens.