I’ve watched two movies in the last couple of weeks that have directed my reading and thinking. I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished work, Remember This House. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this documentary narrates the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s accounts of his interactions with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This was a compelling movie and one that caused me to examine my own beliefs and prejudices about racism and the development of African-American culture in the United States.
The other movie was Paris After Midnight, a Woody Allen romantic comedy that is set in Paris. Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a writer who is working on a novel. His materialistic fiancee, Inez, ridicules this project and wants him to stick to screenwriting. This conflict becomes more pronounced during the film while Pender considers moving to Paris. While on his way home from a night of drinking and dancing, Pender gets lost and a vehicle picks him up and takes him back to the Jazz Age. Each night at midnight, he is able to revisit the Paris of the twenties, meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and other luminaries from this period. Through traveling back in time, Pended gains the courage to finish his novel and to break off the relationship with his fiancee.
At first glance, it appears that these films have little in common. What stands out to me about both is the question of the “thickness” of one’s tradition. One of the questions that I asked after watching I Am Not Your Negro was, “is the American tradition of social justice “thick” enough to bring about a better future for African Americans? Can Americans overcome race-based slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration to create a more just society for African Americans? Are there people who will express the way forward for justice whom both African Americans and whites will listen to?
Allen’s film also implies a question concerning the thickness of tradition. Gil Pender was not able to find enough thickness in the tradition of his own day to produce serious art. Where do we find the resources to produce serious art? Such resources are not going to be found on Google, in popular music, or Direct TV. There’s a sense in which we must recover resources from our past and give a fresh voice to them.