Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.
~ James Baldwin
On two successive evenings, two particular films displayed themselves as bookends holding in between a message both racially charged and politically prescient to American society. The message that sadly still needs to be repeated. Let us pay heed to where we came from and how far we still have yet to go. Friday night, we witnessed the firebrand “Whose Streets?” which presented several local residents during the 2014 Ferguson Missouri protests and its aftermath. Saturday night we viewed the James Baldwin treatise “I Am Not Your Negro” in which the words and interviews of Baldwin, many that have never been released until now, are intertwined with the historical and recent events towards the seemingly endless road to racial equality. Both approach their subjects in diverse ways, but hold close their anger and frustration with a society that remains unchanged and unmoved by injustice. Both of these films received thunderous standing ovations during their end credits.
One one bookend stands Sabaah Folayan’s “Whose Streets?”; a fierce portrait of the actual residents of Ferguson Missouri which inspired a 2014 movement (the development of Black Lives Matter) after the killing of 18 year old Michael Brown by a local police officer which, to this day, still sparks controversy and high emotions on all sides. Folayan thankfully pushes aside the outside professional activists that swooped in and took advantage of a situation for media attention. Instead, she rightfully trains her eye on certain locals that took up an activist role for their community with inspiring results amidst the gray muddle of headline news. Regardless of your perception of those events blaringly broadcast nightly in 2014, “Whose Streets?” asks you what is justice? What lengths would you go when all other avenues have failed? Where is the line drawn from peaceful protest to a searingly emotional outcry? How can a voice be heard, when martial law drives a foot into that voice to subdue it? Any personal recollection of those events are reexamined with untold stories of the lives affected which are brutally honest and reveal ugly truths about this country. There are no innocents in this story, only individuals honestly trying to make a difference. There has not been a film in recent memory that strikes at the heart of prejudice within all of us with such outrage and anger and surprisingly…hope. As a viewer, it is difficult to truly ascertain all the gamut of experiences, the lack of privilege many of us take for granted, comprehend being treated as second class citizens with no real voice, but restless with a fire inside thirsting for justice. We can only watch and ask ourselves why does this continue? We all have a stake in this. “Whose Streets?” does not have the answers. It has more questions for everyone. It asks for you to make a stand, no matter how small or large, because it is the right thing to do. It is the only thing to do.
On the other end of this is the bookend of a more historical spectrum in Raoul Peck’s astoundingly masterful “I Am Not Your Negro” which is entirely written in his usual shining brilliance by James Baldwin. Director Peck spent years amassing the writings (letters, speeches, essays) of Baldwin, a personal hero of Peck, into a phantasmagorical examination of this country’s issue with race and equality. With the archival footage chosen for this film, it is quite hard to stomach the absolute hard-line racism that was publicly rampant only a few short years ago. Then couple that with today’s rising tide of that same type of public racism and one realizes Baldwin was right in stating that history is literally present in all that we do. We can look at the past as the past, but it is still around us in our actions today. It begs to be seen if this nation has learned anything from protests both peaceful and violent. The narration of Baldwin’s pointed words, voiced by a terrifically nuanced Samuel L. Jackson, lends the historical images with freshness and a knowing eye how absurd and destructive the institution of racism is to all of us. Do we need to be constantly reminded of these images, these dark memories of our country’s past? Indeed we do and no better guide than with the eloquent voice of James Baldwin to take our hand with a torch to cast these continual monstrous acts with a blazing logical light. “I Am Not Your Negro” has since become one of the highest grossing films in documentary history. Raoul Peck has crafted a miraculous film from elements seen before and never presented in such a prescient angry voice that says we have such a long road still to travel. We, and our children, need to be reminded of this.
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
Rating: Absolutely Run, Do Not Walk To These Films (it is imperative as human beings to seek out and experience these films for one will not soon forget them)
“Whose Streets?” [2017} directed by Sabaah Folayan
“I Am Not Your Negro”  directed by Raoul Peck