Weekend Reading: December 23, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

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In the 1970s, James Baldwin started working on a book about his three friends who had been martyred for the civil rights cause: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The book was never finished. The spectacular and burningly relevant new documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, threads the pieces of that elegy through a skein of dramatic footage.

I Am Not Your Negro is opening this weekin limited release, followed by a full roll-out in February. My review is at PopMatters:

An elliptical film, I Am Not Your Negro is partially a history of the Civil Rights struggle from 1955 to 1968, framed by these three men. It’s also an unpacking of Baldwin’s take on white America’s inability to come to terms with race and racism, with which it remains obsessed but also, of which it remains ignorant. There is anger aplenty in the film, but Baldwin’s observations indicate the confusion that might be inevitable in trying to understand the “vast, unthinking cruel white majority”…

The trailer is here.

Reader’s Corner: What the President Read

the_power_broker_book_coverRecently, Barry told Wired about the books that have shaped him over the years. They broke down his syllabus in typical efficient-nerd fashion, by how long it would take to read. Predicting one could get through Robert Moses’s 1,300-odd page The Power Broker in 19 hours seems dubious unless you’re a speedreader.

Still, this list is nonetheless a fascinatingly mixed one, jumping from fiction (a surprising Steinbeck selection) to urban studies (Caro, the book that explains New York City) and environmentalism (Kolbert’s terrifying study of climate change and mankind-caused extinctions):

  • The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63, Taylor Branch
  • The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  • Andy Grove, The Life and Times of an American, Richard S. Tedlow
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kaheman
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert
  • In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo

Writer’s Corner: Finding Out What You Don’t Want to Know

jamesbaldwin1By the time James Baldwin gave this interview to The Paris Review in 1984, his time was past as one of the writers whose voice was loudest in the great postwar arguments over what America would and should be. He was living in semi-exile in France at the time of the interview, heading into his 60s, but still full of burnt truths and hard-fought advice. Such as:

  • “The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”
  • “Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”
  • [On starting out reviewing books for small change] “I had to read everything and had to write all the time, and that’s a great apprenticeship.”
  • “I doubt whether anyone—myself at least—knows how to talk about writing.”
  • “I do a lot of rewriting. It’s very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it.”

Screening Room: ‘The Exorcist’ and True Evil

Turns out that besides being a young preacher, scourge of the empowered classes, and essayist whose words could scorch the hair right off your head, James Baldwin was also a crack film critic, when he wanted to be.

devilfindswork1In The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky pulls out a choice quote of Baldwin’s from his mostly ignored 1976 book The Devil Finds Work. Here, he writes about one of the decade’s two most influential horror films (the other being Halloween, just as trashy but not given as much critical deference at the time):

The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children— can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.

It’s one of the reasons people hate critics, and why at least some critics (of a level with Baldwin) can actually be construed as necessary to the culture. Few people want to think about the evil that surrounds them every day; they’d rather go to the cinema and be treated the indulgent thrills of imaginary threats (demons, and the like).

The critic who reminds us of our short-sightedness is rarely rewarded for doing so.

Writers’ Corner: James Baldwin and Preaching

baldwin1James Baldwin didn’t start out as a writer; but then, none of us do. Before he put pen to paper, he had a different calling: preacher.

In this interview from The Paris Review, he explains the difference:

When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

It’s all communication, one way or the other.