FRESH AIR: The late James Baldwin was one of the most influential African-American writers to emerge during the civil rights era. During the late 1950s and 1960s, he traveled through the South and addressed racial issues head on. In the course of his work, Baldwin got to know the civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. He was devastated when each man was assassinated, and planned, later in life, to write a book about all three of them. Though Baldwin died in 1987 before that book could be written, the new Oscar-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, draws on his notes for the book, as well as from other of Baldwin’s writings. Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck, who directed I Am Not Your Negro, tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that working on the film allowed him to learn more about an author who had influenced him greatly.”James Baldwin was one of the first authors ever where I felt not only at home, but he was speaking directly to me,” Peck says. “He gave me very early on the instruments I needed to understand and to even deconstruct the world around me.” The audio link above features a 1986 interview with Baldwin, followed by a recent conversation with Peck. MORE
BY JAMES M. DAVIS Retired DEA Special Agents Steve Murphy and Javier Pena were central players in the takedown of Pablo Escobar, the notorious King Of Cocaine, one of the most ruthless and murderous drug lords of all time. Their white-knuckle on-the-job adventures are the inspiration for Narcos, Netflix’s hugely popular crimes series detailing the rise and fall and ultra-violent demise of Escobar. Murphy [pictured below, in red with the corpse of Pablo Escobar] joined the DEA in 1987 and cut his teeth Miami, where the cocaine trade was metastasizing into a billion dollar industry, leaving a trail of murder and mayhem in its wake. In 1991, Murphy was transferred to Bogota, Colombia, the front line of America’s declared war on drugs. It was there that Murphy and his partner, Special Agent Javier Pena, spent their days tracking the whereabouts of Escobar who was shot to death fleeing across the rooftops of a Medellin barrio in 1993. With its leadership decapitated, the Medellin Cartel, which at the height of its powers was raking in $70 million a day, was dismantled soon thereafter. In advance of the eagerly awaited third season of Narcos, expected later this year, Murphy and Pena are in the midst of a speaking tour that brings them to the Keswick Theater on Saturday. Yesterday, we got Murphy on the phone to talk about taking out Escobar, Miami Vice, legalization, Trump’s wall and what it feels like to kill a man.
PHAWKER: A lot of people from organized crime circles have successfully monetized their life stories, but they are often criticized for being disloyal to the dead and disrespectful of the truth. How much of a concern was this for you?
STEVE MURPHY: Well, I mean we really didn’t make that much money. We were hired by Netflix as consultants for the first two seasons. Basically we just told them our story. But we turned two producers down. One guy wanted to make political thing out of it, and I’m not sure what the other guy wanted. But we basically gave up until Eric called us. I mean initially we blew him off as well. But eventually we met up with a bunch of the writers, and at the end of evening we got along really well and I said I would talk to Javier and recommend we move forward. He said, “Can I just ask you, what’s your biggest concern here? Why are you so hesitant?” And I said, “The last thing we want is for Pablo Escobar to be glorified in any way, because he’s nothing more than a mass murderer. He was the world’s first domestic terrorist He introduced terroristic activity into the narcotics trade. So that was new. But Eric right off the bat said, “I promise you, we will not glorify the man.” Now some people say that watching the show they almost felt sorry for him. But I attribute that to the actor, Wagner Moura, he is that good of an actor. So our loyalties have always been to law enforcement, but also to all the families of innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when a car bomb went off.
PHAWKER: Yeah, it was an amazing performance. But I think the show makes it clear that all of his Robin Hood type activities weren’t simply for the good of the people, but rather increasing his power over them.
STEVE MURPHY: I’m glad you said that, we do a lot of Q&As and interviews, about 70 last year and it looks like even more this year – so that question comes up a lot: “Ya know, he’s got this Robin Hood persona, didn’t he actually do good things for people?” Well, you know what, yes he did. He went into a homeless area in Medellin where people were literally living on the edge of a trash dump. That’s where they got their food, their clothes, building materials for shelter to love in, were all gotten out of that pile. And he went in and he built housing for free, clinics, soccer fields, money to the church and homeless, passed out food. But you’re absolutely right, he wanted something in return. So when he needed new assassins, he would just go in and say “I need a hundred people to work for me and do whatever I tell you.” There might be three or four hundred people that step up. These are teenagers, people in their early twenties. So what we refer to Pablo as is, he’s not a Robin Hood, he’s a master manipulator. Because he manipulated those people into doing his evil deeds and giving up their lives for him.
PHAWKER: Watching the show it seems a large part of your job was that of an intelligence operative. Cultivating informants and conducting surveillance, is that accurate?
STEVE MURPHY: It was a combined effort between intelligence gathering, analysis, and then conducting tactical operations. So we wore several different hats then. One thing we did, “we” meaning us in conjunction with Colombian National Police force, was we initiated an 800 number where people could call in with tips. And when they called in they didn’t want to talk to Colombians, they wanted to talk to Gringos. Plus we were offering a cash reward for information that would help us catch Pablo. So everybody wanted that, it wound up being like five million dollars. That right there had a lot to do with the intelligence gathering. But when the tips came in we would have to follow up, in person with these people to see if it was usable. It wasn’t safe for us to go out by ourselves so the Colombian police would come out with us, all of us in plain clothes. They were our protection. We had weapons, but we wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for the Colombian National Police.
PHAWKER: What was the most terrifying thing you ever had to do? [pictured below, Boyd Holbrook, who plays Steve Murphy, and Pedro Pascal, who plays Javier Pena, on the set of Narcos]
STEVE MURPHY: Well, there’s a couple things. What Javier says is the thing he feared most was the car bombs. Because if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you had no recourse, it was gonna kill you. So that was his big thing. But I mean, we were all going out on helicopters on operations, going out to raid places. But honestly that was more exciting than it was scary. You had rounds come up to the helicopter that could get you a little concerned. This is gonna sound silly but one of the things that made me most nervous was, OK you flew into the airport at Medellin, outside of the city. Now Medellin is built into a bowl between two mountains, and the airport is built into one of the mountains. So normally they would bring a gunship over to fly you into the city to the police base. But if all the Helos are out on operations they would send plainclothes guys in three cars, and you had to drive with them on this curvy mountainous road. And I mean riding with these Colombian police officers on that road, they drove like a bat out of hell. They passed on curves they passed going over the tops of hills. Reason being it was so dangerous at that time. But we were in those cars, you would take your weapon out and carry it over your chest to be ready to engage targets if they tried to intercept you. The favorite method of assassination was two guys on a motorcycle. Guy on the front would drive, guy on the back would have a machine gun or a pistol. And they’d shoot you as they drove by. So that was probably the scariest part of being down there. The rest was really exciting, it was a great adrenaline rush.
PHAWKER: Well, that leads us to the next question which is: in the show there’s a part where you’re in Miami and it’s the first time you shoot someone, and there’s sort of a moment of reflection…
STEVE MURPHY: That was Hollywood. I mean, I don’t mean to sound cold or anything. And I’m not an overly brave person, I think I’m just a normal person that might have had a bit of an adrenaline jones at one point when I was much younger, but things like that have never bothered me. I mean, you feel bad for people when they die but you know, if they were bad guys I had no remorse for them whatsoever. They got what they deserved.
PHAWKER:Miami Vice was the biggest show on TV around the time you joined the DEA. Is that just a coincidence?
STEVE MURPHY: I was a cop for 12 years before I joined the DEA. And I watched Miami Vice on TV — my favorite shows were that and Hill Street Blues. I mean, you know how Miami Vice is, it was exciting and I’d always been interested in drug work, I’d done a couple just very small cases when I was a city cop and it just always seemed intriguing because you were given opportunities to try to outsmart these guys. You knew what they were doing, and guys who had been doing it for so long got comfortable doing it. And guys like that, the ego thing kicks in and greed kicks in, and all of a sudden they think they’re invincible. So if you’re able to infiltrate that organization working undercover or you’re able to build a case on them when they don’t even know you’re looking at them- I just loved it when you just surprised them and and you’re just there to arrest them whether it’s peacefully or forcefully. I mean, I’m not bragging but my conviction rate was about maybe 96%. I mean, if I was coming for you, I got you. And all the people that ever got off was on plea deals. We were working a case in Miami one time where we seized 500 kilos of cocaine from this Haitian organization, and they were storing cocaine they had offloaded from a coastal freighter into a house. When they brought it out of the house for distribution is when we started arresting people. When we finally went into the house, they had put the 500 kilos of cocaine in a baby’s room. And so one of the traffickers wives who was living in that house, we arrested her because it was obvious she had knowledge of what was going on, and part of the plea bargain for her husband was that charges against her were dismissed. I know she was a very small player, and that’s why I didn’t fight it. But that’s the only individuals that I lost to prosecution, so I don’t feel too bad about that.
PHAWKER: There’s a growing trend in America towards legalization, and a growing sense that prohibition is not working. How do you feel about that? [Below, Steve Murphy and Javier Pena today]
STEVE MURPHY: That’s another question we’ve gotten a lot, both in the states and overseas. But my response is always the same. The reason we talk about this, going all over the world to talk about it and so on is to give a lesson in history. What happens whens someone is allowed to illegally amass that much wealth and then gain so much power and control over a country. The man declared war on his own country twice. So we present this as a lesson in history. Why do we study history? Well, we try to learn from our mistakes. Sad truth is, we don’t learn from our mistakes. So, let’s look at legalization. It has been tried in the United States, you know, with the opium dens back in the Wild Wild West, creating the trans-something or other railroad. Trans whatever it was. You look at other countries it’s been tried, everything from weed to heroin and it has never worked. So why is it we think we’re gonna do it better? I mean the other thing nobody wants to talk about is, there are reports that say marijuana changes, over a period of time, effects on the brain. It turns you into a stoner, like we see in the movies that are funny, but can’t function, can’t do anything. The other thing is, you’re inhaling smoke into your lungs. That can cause respiratory problems. So, you take all of that and say, ‘Are we gonna end up with a group of citizens who can’t function properly, can’t take care of themselves, can’t hold a job, so you and me the hardworking taxpayers, should we be held responsible for these people who smoke marijuana and can no longer take care of themselves?’
PHAWKER: Health effects aside, what about the fact that if cocaine had been legal, there would have been no Pablo Escobar?
STEVE MURPHY: Well, I mean aren’t there still moonshiners? I mean, there’s a TV show about moonshiners now that shows them doing it. I mean people still smuggle cigarettes. So even though it’s legal people still want to stop the government from getting their share. I mean, even if you made things legal, people would still do things illegally, because there’s money to be made there. And I mean other than that I think it’s just lowering our morals and our standards to an unacceptable level.
PHAWKER: OK one last one. Trump’s wall. Any thoughts?
STEVE MURPHY: [laughs for a good thirty seconds] I mean, I’m just laughing because when I heard it, I mean it’s just so ridiculous. I mean whatever thoughts you have on our president, I mean he is the president, he is the commander in chief. But, yeah, I’ve been down there. I mean they have a fence between Juarez and El Paso that I’ve seen. But they have to have officers down by the fence anyway, because anywhere it’s not guarded they tunnel underneath, they have special ladders to go over top, they built machines that will throw bundles of drugs over the fence. I mean in some places I’ve even seen, like, they cut holes in the steel links and put in their own doors they can open up whenever they want. I mean it’s just insanity. So no, I don’t not think the idea of a wall is very effective.
Rickrolling was reported to have begun as a variant of an earlier prank from the imageboard4chan known as duckrolling. The director of the site, who went by the name “moot”, started replacing occurrences of the word “egg” on the site with the word “duck”. When the word “eggroll” was turned into “duckroll”, other users started changing innocent looking links going somewhere (such as to a specific picture or news item) to redirect readers to a thread or site containing an edited picture of a duck with wheels. The user at that point is said to have been “duckrolled”.
The first known instance of a rickroll occurred in May 2007 on /v/, 4chan‘s video game board, where a link to the Rick Astley video was claimed to be a mirror of the first trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV (which was unavailable due to heavy traffic). The joke was confined to 4chan for a very brief period.
By May 2008, the practice had spread beyond 4chan and became an Internet phenomenon, eventually attracting coverage in the mainstream media. An April 2008 poll by SurveyUSA estimated that at least 18 million American adults had been rickrolled. In September 2009, Wired magazine published a guide to modern hoaxes which listed rickrolling as one of the better known beginner-level hoaxes, alongside the fake e-mail chain letter. The term has been extended to simple hidden use of the song’s lyrics.
The term rickrolling was in the news again in July 2016, after presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump‘s wife Melania Trump gave a speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention that had verbiage similar to the lyrics of the Astley song “Never Gonna Give You Up'”, suggesting that the speechwriter had rickrolled the audience.
We have a pair of tickets to see Rick Astley at the Electric Factory on Saturday. To qualify to win them, all you have to do is sign up for our mailing list (see right, below the masthead). Trust us, this is something you want to do. In addition to breaking news alerts and Phawker updates, you also get advanced warning about groovy concert ticket giveaways, advance movie screenings and other free swag opportunities like this one! After signing up, send us an email at PHAWKER66@gmail.com telling us a much, with the words Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in the subject line. If you are already on our mailing list, just send us an email saying as much. Either way, please include your full name and a mobile number for confirmation. First come, first serve. Good luck and godspeed!
FRESH AIR: In August 1966, a student and former Marine ascended to the top of the tower that housed the University of Texas’ main library and began shooting at people below. He killed 14 people on the campus and wounded 31 more. Hours earlier, Whitman had killed his wife and mother in their homes. He was eventually shot to death by police. A 15th victim died in 2001, from injuries sustained in the attack. Now the new documentary Tower recreates that 96-minute-long massacre in an original way, using archival film and new interviews with an animated portrayal of the events. Keith Maitland, who directed the film, interviewed hundreds of people who were on campus that day to learn more about the incident.
“One of the things they always want to make clear is how unprecedented this was … ” Maitland tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies. “We live in a world today where you hear a loud sound that sounds like a gunshot in a public space and it doesn’t take long to kind of assume that there’s something happening that you don’t want to be a part of … to run and hide. But in 1966, on this hot Monday morning here in Austin, people were surprised, they were confused, and so it made the sniper’s job a lot easier to catch people unaware.” Claire Wilson James, a pregnant, 18-year-old incoming freshman, was the first person the gunman shot from the tower. In a separate interview, she tells Davies she believes the shooter was aiming at the baby.
She survived the incident, but lost both her unborn baby and her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, who died instantly after being shot. In the years that followed, she avoiding speaking about the massacre. At the University of Texas, classes were canceled for just one day to allow for clean-up, and then business resumed as usual. There was no mention of the shooting at that year’s graduation, or in the school yearbook. “It really was pushed aside. … People were encouraged to move forward and not linger in the terrible tragedy of that day,” Maitland says. “Looking back, I think that was a mistake, and I think that cost people, people who were there that day, people who were traumatized by the event, it cost them an opportunity to deal with that trauma.” MORE
AEG LIVE: Blondie & Garbage today announced a co-headline North American tour that will kick off on July 5th in Saratoga, CA with a stop in Philadelphia at the Mann on August 2nd before wrapping up on August 12th in Dallas, TX. John Doe & Exene Cervenka will provide support on the first leg of the tour and Deap Vally for the second leg. Tickets for the Rage and Rapture tour go on sale starting Friday, February 17 at 10:00am local time (please check venue websites for most up to date on sale information). Fans can also access a ticket pre-sale now HERE using the password RAGEANDRAPTURE (pre-sale not available in all markets). A complete list of live dates can be found below. More dates to be added soon.
Tickets for Philadelphia’s August 2nd date at the Mann with Deap Vally go on sale to the general public Friday, February 17th at 10AM online at Manncenter.org, Ticketmaster.com, and at the Mann box office located at 52nd and Parkside Avenue.
Garbage is Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Butch Vig. After forming in Madison, WI, Garbage released their self-titled debut album in 1995. The band’s unique sound and provocative visual aesthetic, inspired massive worldwide attention and success. Their follow up album, Version 2.0, released in 1998, topped charts all over the world and garnered multiple Grammy Award nominations including Album Of The Year. Garbage went on to release two more albums: 2001’s Beautiful Garbage and 2005’s Bleed Like Me, the latter of which earned the band its highest chart position with a No. 4 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart. After a 7-year hiatus, the band released their fifth studio album Not Your Kind of People in 2012 on their independent record label, STUNVOLUME. The album was named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 50 Albums of 2012 and was hailed as the “alternative to everything,” by Pitchfork. Garbage has sold over 15 million albums worldwide and performed in over thirty-five countries. In 2015, the band celebrated its 20th anniversary with their SOLD OUT ’20 Years Queer’ world tour and the release of a special 20th anniversary edition of their debut album, re-mastered and featuring previously unreleased material. Last year, Garbage released Strange Little Birds, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums and Alternative Albums chart, and arrived at No. 14 overall on the Billboard 200 chart. This summer, Garbage will be releasing an autobiographical coffee table book, This Is The Noise That Keeps Me Awake, currently available for preorder HERE.
For the last four decades, Blondie has become and still remains a true national treasure; one whose influence both shaped and continues to inform the worlds of music, fashion and art. From an irreverent Lower East Side punk outfit to bona fide international ambassadors of New York cool, Blondie will forever be synonymous with that punk spirit that lives somewhere in all of us. Comprised of singer-songwriter Debbie Harry, guitarist and co-writer Chris Stein, powerhouse drummer Clem Burke, and long-time band members bassist Leigh Foxx, guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen, Blondie’s chart-topping success, fearless spirit and rare longevity led to an induction into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, a NME Godlike Genius Award in 2014, a Q Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music in 2016, and more than 40 million albums sold worldwide to date. Debbie’s persona and the band’s boundary-pushing pop have shaped the look and sound of many chart-topping female artists who followed in the last three decades. And their newest album, Pollinator (out May 5th via BMG), delves even deeper into this idea: inspiration from Blondie’s action-packed, cross-pollinating past shaping the sound of our collective future. PRESS HERE to listen to “Fun”, the first song off this release, and PRESS HEREto pre-order Pollinator, which features songwriting from Sia, Blood Orange frontman Dev Hynes, British singer Charli XCX, Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio), Nick Valensi (The Strokes), Johnny Marr (The Smiths) and more.
WASHINGTON POST: Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., urged Congress in a letter to block the 1986 nomination of Jeff Sessions for federal judge, saying that allowing him to join the federal bench would “irreparably damage the work of my husband.” The letter, previously unavailable publicly, was obtained on Tuesday by The Washington Post.
“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts,” King wrote in the cover page of her nine-page letter opposing Sessions’s nomination, which failed. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
In the letter, King writes that Sessions’s ascension to the federal bench “simply cannot be allowed to happen,” arguing that as a U.S. attorney, the Alabama lawmaker pursued “politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions” and that he “lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.” She said Sessions’s conduct in prosecuting civil rights leaders in a voting-fraud case “raises serious questions about his commitment to the protection of the voting rights of all American citizens.”
“The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods,” she wrote, later adding, “I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made toward fulfilling my husband’s dream.” MORE
RELATED: Melania Trump said a journalist barraged with anti-Semitic death threats had “provoked” Trump supporters by writing a controversial profile of her. “I don’t control my fans, but I don’t agree with what they’re doing. I understand what you mean, but there are people out there who maybe went too far. She provoked them,” Melania told DuJour magazine. Julia Ioffe filed a police report last month when Donald Trump supporters flooded her with neo-Nazi death threats following the publication of her profile of Melania. Trump backers sent Ioffe, who is Jewish, images showing her face superimposed onto that of an Auschwitz prisoner [PICTURED, ABOVE] and a cartoon of a Jew being shot in the head. MORE
FOREIGN POLICY: Even during the darkest days of the Bush administration […] I didn’t doubt that senior U.S. officials would generally act in good faith. I raised these questions not because I could truly imagine a U.S. president targeting journalists or political critics for detention or death but simply to highlight how dangerous it was to create a system in which the wisdom and integrity of senior officials are our sole protection against abuse. What happens if one day you get a leader with neither wisdom nor integrity? What happens if you get a sadist or a madman? This, after all, is why the founders of the Republic demanded a “government of laws and not of men.”
Today, these no longer seem like purely rhetorical questions. Steve Bannon, who once described Breitbart as a “platform for the alt-right,” is now sitting on Trump’s National Security Council, and we have a president whose vindictiveness is legendary, as is his penchant for threats and snap decisions made without consultation. We have a president who doesn’t hesitate to use his bully pulpit to bully those who cross him, from college students to foreignleaders to federal judges. And we have a president who unapologetically admires murderous strongmen like the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. (In a Super Bowl Sunday interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, Trump shrugged off O’Reilly’s comment that Putin is a “killer”: “There are a lot of killers,” Trump said. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”)
For decades, we’ve had the luxury of assuming that the United States would always have a professional, nonpartisan civil service. We’ve had the luxury of assuming that the fearsome coercive powers of the federal government would be exercised responsibly and constitutionally. For those of us who often find ourselves criticizing government actions, that has been a vital assumption: For the most part, we’ve been able to take for granted that notwithstanding occasional mistakes, the FBI and Secret Service will focus on genuine threats and won’t target journalists, NGO advocates, or other critics.
Looking ahead, I’m not sure we will continue to have that luxury.
I’m not suggesting that Trump’s next move will be drone strikes targeting his journalist critics. But I am suggesting that we are no longer living in a time of normal politics. Trump and Bannon have told us as much. This makes it more important than ever for the rest of us to keep asking hard questions and having uncomfortable conversations, no matter how many filthy and threatening emails and tweets we get. The alternative is worse: If journalists and commentators let themselves be intimidated into silence; if Trump’s attacks on judges and civil servants lead them to back away from their commitment to the rule of law; if the FBI and Secret Service become tools of executive vengeance rather than impartial instruments of justice; if military leaders become too cowed to recall that their most fundamental duty is to the U.S. Constitution, not to Donald Trump….
Well, then Trump will be right that America is no better than Putin’s Russia. MORE
ACTION NEWS4 PITTSBURGH: It may be the most controversial commercial to air during Super Bowl LI comes from a western Pennsylvania company, 84 Lumber, and its Pittsburgh-based ad agency, Brunner — but the ending is banned by Fox, and viewers will have to see the end online.That ending apparently touches upon President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
At halftime of the game Sunday, a space in Brunner’s downtown office will be used as a “war room” for staffers to monitor social-media response to the message 84 Lumber will be sending.In the TV ad, viewers will see a child and her mother apparently making their way across Mexico to the United States. The landscape is bleak and sometimes menacing, showing coyotes on a desert hill overlooking the mother and child.
“The ad that will air on the Super Bowl — 90 seconds long — is really the first part of the story,” said Rob Schapiro, the Brunner chief creative officer who led the team that created the ad. The TV version will end with on words on the screen telling people they can see rest of the story at Journey84.com. Asked if the ad is about the wall, Schapiro answered, “No, the ad isn’t about the wall, it’s about opportunity.” MORE
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It looks like President Trump is going to follow the recent tradition and forgo a State of the Union speech as his first term begins, but with an eerie ambiance of resurrection, Raoul Peck has brought to life the fiery spirit of the late writer/intellectual James Baldwin to deliver the address. Hearing that Baldwin is at the center of the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro might lead you to expect your basic talking heads interviews about the man life and work. Instead, the film is a visual essay about the African American social critic’s lifelong subject, the United States’ long and unresolved relationship with race in this country.
The film is built around the opening 30 pages of an unpublished manuscript of the writer’s personal reflections on three civil rights martyrs that Baldwin knew personally Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. While the battles of the 60s civil rights era give a framework to the conversation, it’s Baldwin analysis and observations about race, and the questions that linger, that make the film seem so urgently of our times.
Stitched together from a number of Baldwin’s writings and read by a sober Samuel L. Jackson, Peck’s film gets to the ugly heart of racism in America, specifically why was the category of a sub-human homo sapien, “The Nigger” was ever invented? And doesn’t it’s creation say more about the creator than the people labeled by the term?
Jackson imbues what gravitas he can to Baldwin’s words, but Baldwin himself, seen on Dick Cavett’s talk show and in other ’60s TV and speaking appearances, is truly mesmerizing as only those speaking about freedom and injustice in the prophetic voice can be. A dramatic speaker with a continental accent that did nor betray his Harlem roots, Baldwin’s pregnant pauses followed by flowing language and ideas that strike like lightning, work together to push white audiences to consider how even good liberals have rested too comfortably with racist societal institutions that dole out unfairness by design.
But Baldwin is not just a speechmaker, he’s a poet and novelist too. Sometimes it’s the film’s quiet moments that impact, like when he shares the experience he had as a young man, knowing that his white girlfriend was safer walking alone across the city at night than with him. They’d leave the nightclub five minutes apart and stand silently next to each other on the subway platform, a galling example of how the political can be personal in the most intimate of ways.
I was left with a bit of nostalgia for the late sixties, not for the music or my lost youth but for a time when James Baldwin and his ideas were given a full hearing on prime time television in a time when that might’ve meant a third of the eyeballs watching TV were tuned in. Baldwin’s name and ideas have been sadly absent in conversation in recent years and a full-blown career-spanning documentary would be welcome. What is front in center in I Am Not your Negro is Baldwin’s scathing indictment of our national injustices and his case so undeniable that it easy sustains the galvanizing feature by itself.
DAILY MAIL: Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court, pick founded and led club called ‘Fascism Forever’ at his elite all-boys Washington prep school. MORE
SNOPES: However, we contacted Georgetown Preparatory School to verify whether a “Fascism Forever” club operated in or around that school in 1985, and director of communications Patrick Coyle told us that “no such club ever existed” there. MORE
RELATED: A curious choice of a quote for his Columbia year book photo, wouldn’t you say?