When I wrote my recent post on the best documentaries of 2016, I hadn’t yet seen three films that I thought would have made my list based on what I’d heard about them.: Fire at Sea, I Am Not Your Negro, and O.J.: Made in America. I’ve since seen them, and was duly provoked and amazed. Here are some of my thoughts.
Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, director) Thousands of people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean from African nations in recent years. Many of those who survived were brought to the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Fire at Sea is an impressionistic account of this situation. It’s definitely not a conventional documentary. Except for brief on-screen details about Lampedusa at the beginning, the film provides no information about what it shows us, other than to show it. There are no voice-overs or interviews. It’s interesting that I have no problem with this approach when it’s a Frederick Wiseman film, but with this one I did at first. However, it differs sharply from the Wiseman approach in that shots are artfully composed and even staged at times. This is not exactly cinéma vérité. I’m not saying this style can’t work, because in this case I think it does. I’d heard about Fire at Sea for months, but had passed up numerous opportunities to attend press screenings. When I finally saw it two weeks ago, I had an ambivalent reaction. I didn’t like it, but felt I should. It’s stayed with me; there are scenes that are hard to shake. The interview below with the director at the New York Film Festival has made me more open to the film as well.
Fire at Sea has been critically well-received; it won the Golden Bear — the top prize — at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival and is up for an Academy Award this Sunday in the Best Documentary Feature category. Meryl Streep, who chaired the Berlin Festival jury, described Fire at Sea as “…a daring hybrid of captured footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do. It is urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking.” Who am I to argue with Meryl Streep?
Here is a post-screening interview with Gianfranco Rosi at last year’s New York Film Festival, moderated by Dennis Lim.
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, director) Haitian director Raoul Peck has fashioned an extremely important, necessary piece of work, a document that’s just as timely today as it was when James Baldwin was writing the powerful words we hear throughout much of the film. After we saw it, I watched the Civil Rights Roundtable again, which had been broadcast the same day as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Baldwin was a participant in that program, and I remembered how strong his voice had been. The words we hear in I Am Not Your Negro are taken from an unfinished work by Baldwin titled Remember This House, and are spoken by Samuel L. Jackson. There is also archival footage of Baldwin on talk shows, speaking at colleges, and elsewhere, along with news footage of the Civil Rights struggle. He speaks as honestly and directly on race as anyone I’ve heard. He puts it right in your face. Baldwin closed out the Civil Rights Roundtable with this stunning statement: “The nature of the problem is so complex that one can’t simply say ‘jobs’ or ‘schools’ or ‘houses.’ It’s a whole complex of things. Jobs alone won’t solve it; schools alone won’t solve it. It’s in the social fabric. It isn’t anything, it’s everything. The first step has to be somewhere in the American conscience. The American white republic has to ask itself why it was necessary for them to invent the nigger. I am not a nigger. I have never called myself one. The world decides that you are this…for its own reasons. It is very important for the American that he face this question… that he needed the nigger for something.” This is from 1963. I mentioned how timely Peck’s film is, over 50 years later, which is somewhat depressing, though in the film Baldwin says he has hope.
I Am Not Your Negro was shown at last year’s Toronto and New York Film festivals. It had an Oscar-qualifying release last December, and officially opened on February 3, 2017. It’s still playing here in New York City at Film Forum and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. It broke house records at both theaters on opening weekend and continues to do sell-out business. I was at Film Forum a week ago to see another film. The lobby was crowded with what I assumed were high school students. They were there on a class trip to see I Am Not Your Negro. I thought this was great. A film like this can start a dialogue or continue one, which can only be good. It’s extraordinary that three of the five films nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category of this year’s Academy Awards have race as their subject: 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and O.J.: Made in America. I’d like to see all three win, but that can’t happen, so I’ll be happy if just one of them does.
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, director) We saw this two weeks ago in a single eight-hour screening with two intermissions, in at 11:00 am, out at 8:00 pm. It was shown last year on ESPN in five parts, which is probably a more civilized way to view it, but I liked the idea of total immersion. It’s a monumental achievement. If it was just about the O.J. trial, that would be one thing, but it uses O.J. and the trial as a springboard to examine issues of race then and now. It’s of a piece with 13th and I Am Not Your Negro.
Having watched The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story mini-series last year, the story of the crime and the trial was fairly fresh. What was new to me in O.J.: Made in America was the story of O.J. Simpson before and after that trial. I’ve never followed sports, so the footage of Simpson in action during his football career was jaw-dropping. His skills were supernatural. I probably knew him more from his Hertz commercials and his role as the hapless Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies. His life after the acquittal becomes increasingly tawdry, culminating with his arrest and conviction in Las Vegas following an attempt to retrieve at gunpoint memorabilia he said had been stolen from him.
O.J.: Made in America interweaves archival footage and new interviews with most of the surviving participants, including Marcia Clark, Gil Garcetti, F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck, Mark Fuhrman, and many others. The Rodney King beating and subsequent acquittal of the police officers involved provide background to the mood of the African-American community during the O.J. trial. A huge amount of material is edited together to give a coherent picture of all that happened. The resonance with current events is unmistakable.
Here is Ezra Edelman talking about O.J.: Made in America in a directors’ roundtable discussion hosted by The Hollywood Reporter.
Fire at Sea is available for streaming from Amazon. I Am Not Your Negro is still playing in theaters and will be available on home video on June 13th. O.J.: Made in America is available for streaming from Amazon and Hulu. – Ted Hicks