Book review: Notes of a Native Son

Baldwin’s collection of essays is a foray into a different world and time. Perhaps it is not so different from now, but several layers of glass separate his experiences from mine. In some places the separation is less distinct—such as his reflections about life as an ex-pat—but in other cases the separation more striking.

The work is an autobiographical account of Baldwin’s life experiences as a black man in the US and then in Europe in the mid 20th century. The West, he points out, is not his heritage, but he has no other; the history of slavery robbed him of that. He sets out to assess Western heritage in relation to black people.

His essays are divided into three sections: reviews on writings and movies about blacks, reflections on life as a black man in the US, and reflections on life as a black man in Europe. Baldwin’s perspectives are illuminating. His perspectives let me see through the eyes of someone who experienced life quite differently than I.

Baldwin reviews what I can only assume are seminal depictions of blacks in books and movies at the time: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son, and Carmen Jones. I have read or seen none of these works. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read the famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but then as I read his review I quickly felt embarrassed that the book was written. His assessment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is as a protest book that aimed at making us feel good. As usual with Baldwin, his quick insight cuts through the ways that things aren’t always what they seem and that people are not always depicted realistically.

He continues with reviews of Native Son, a novel written by an African American about African Americans. However, this novel fares no better, also relying on stereotypes and views of blacks created by whites and perpetuated thanks to their co-option by blacks. “The American image of the Negro lives also in the Negro’s heart; and when he has surrendered to this image life has no other possible reality.” (page 38)

Carmen Jones was a movie with an all-black cast, an interpretation of Bizet’s Carmen. Unfortunately, it too falls short. Made by Hollywood, it shows a depiction of blacks through white eyes, thereby perpetuating an incorrect image of blacks to both black and white audiences.

In the second section of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin shares thoughts and perspectives about black experiences in the US. The first two essays center on geographical locations, the third essay on his father and his father’s death. I was struck by the strand of bitterness and hatred that flow underneath, surfacing again and again. Perhaps I was sensitive to it because bitterness and hatred of whites featured prominently in his depiction of his father in Go Tell It on the Mountain. And perhaps because I am unaware of this bitterness and hatred towards me in my interactions with blacks.

In any case, Baldwin depicts these currents in the world that blacks occupy in the US. Churches in Harlem preach punishment of whites. They hide the bitterness and hatred they feel towards Jews and white Gentiles. Given their shared experience of oppression, blacks and Jews he points out should be common allies against whites in the US. But there is too much distrust. Fueled by whites perhaps?

His depiction of his father mirrors the depiction of him in his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin reveals some of his own bitterness and hatred too. One cannot blame him and again I was left wondering if my relations with blacks are as free from similar feelings as I naively assume they are. As usual, Baldwin shares gems of his own reflections. “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” (page 101).

In 1948, Baldwin left the US for Europe, only to return when the civil rights movement became too heated or painful to view from afar. He discusses the black musicians and entertainers who graced Paris and the flux of GIs studying in Paris after the war. (I found the latter fascinating given a recent book I read; at least in the US, the GI Bill, which helped so many WWII veterans gain an education, was often closed to black veterans and yet Baldwin points to black GI using the bill to study in France.)

His last two essays are the ones that spoke to me the most, perhaps because they were descriptions of his personal experience living in Europe. The last spoke to me because of my own time living abroad. I could relate to some of what he experienced as a person of a particular race in a sea of Others. In my case, it was as a white person in a sea of Asians.

He recounts a harrowing experience of being arrested, imprisoned, and on trial in a country whose customs and language he didn’t really know. He escapes the limbo he is in through the largesse of a fellow inmate gaining his release and seeking out an American lawyer in Paris that Baldwin knew. Baldwin left the US to be free from the horror of being black in the US but it ultimately found him in Paris. When he finally attained a trial and was able to explain what happened, he was quickly released but not before the courtyard erupted in laughter over his plight. The laughter was the same sort of laughter that he thought he left behind in the US—the laughter at the plight of African Americans. “This laughter is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of the living is not real.” (page 158). I winced at the realization he had.

His last essay described his experiences in a remote Swiss village, a village so remote that it hadn’t seen a black person before. Some of his experiences I could not directly relate to, such as the tradition that the villagers “bought” Africans to convert them. (I assume this was the practice of donating money to send missionaries to Africa to save souls.) Or the common ways children referred to him, innocent enough in this context but that resonated with the racist context of slurs in the US.

Notes of a Native Son collects Baldwin’s essays on race in the US and its reverberations in Europe. Although a slim volume, the book packs many punches and provides commentary on American society, white supremacy, and its continued oppression of blacks through their depiction and characterization by whites and adoption by blacks. Sadly, Baldwin seems to suggest that freedom from other’s views of what it means to be black cannot be escaped by leaving the US.

Movie review: Keep Quiet (2016)

As I left the movie, I realized that the last film that I saw for the 25th Heartland Film Festival left me in a bit of a funk. Keep Quiet is not an uplifting movie. The movie is a bit disturbing given the elements coming to the forefront of the political scene in the US.

Keep Quiet is explicitly about one man, Csanád Szegedi. But the film also reveals the depth of the extreme right popularism in different countries. I find the rise of hatred, racism, and physical assault that seem to go hand-in-hand with the rise of the extreme right disturbing to watch.

Keep Quiet interviews Csanád Szegedi, who explains that he was raised in a Nationalist family and read extreme right views when he was a teenager. These views helped shape and mold his identity.

In 2006, he was elected the vice president of Jobbik, the extreme right political party in Hungary. In 2007, Szededi founded the Hungarian Guard. (Think of Hitler’s brownshirts and you may not be far off.) From 2009 to 2014, he served in the European Parliament.

Jobbik really appears to be an umbrella political organization for numerous right-wing groups who coalesce around anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-global beliefs. These groups do not entirely get along but fight among themselves. Their hatred and tactics are not reserved for their common enemies, but also used on one another.

From this wellspring of hatred in Jobbik came attacks on Szededi. One Jobbik member confronted Szededi about his past, a past that he didn’t know about. The accuser revealed that Szededi’s grandmother was Jewish. And that makes Szededi Jewish as well.

The rest of the film deals with Szededi confronting this issue. He was deemed a liability to Jobbik, attacked, and resigned from the party in 2012. After living his whole life spouting anti-Semitic remarks in a Nationalist milieu, he found himself adrift without an identity or clan.

Szededi turns immediately to embracing his new identity as a Jew, reaching out to a rabbi who views Judaism as requiring the acceptance those who repent. However, Szededi is often rejected, or at least kept at arm’s length, by other Jews around the world. They are skeptical of a man who was known for his vehement anti-Semitic remarks suddenly wanting to be Jewish and accepted by the Jewish community.

The film shows Szededi interviewing his grandmother about her Jewish background. It seems unreal that he didn’t realize his grandmother was Jewish or know of the tattoo on her arm that she received in Auschwitz, but sometimes family secrets can be amazingly well kept.

Why did she never speak up? Why did she never share her past? It seems that it was method of self-preservation: deny, blend in, keep quiet. Szededi found his great grandmother’s grave, overturned and overgrown with trees. His grandmother finally agreed to accompany him to the gravesite but urged him not to restore the grave. Best to forget and move on…and not be associated with Jews. Szededi ignored her wishes and restored the grave, an act that his grandmother thanked him for on her deathbed.

The film seems to ignore the rest of his family and any social connections. He was raised in a family that held strong Nationalist beliefs and ran with people who held similar beliefs. What happened to these family relationships? What happened to the friendships he had?

As was mentioned in passing but not explored, he was rejected by his group of people (the Jobbik political party) and suddenly tried to join another group (Jews). I would have liked to see the film explore this point a bit. What was his motivation for turning so decisively and quickly to accepting his Jewish heritage and practicing it (group prayer, eating kosher, etc.)? How did the authoritarian bent of members of right wing political organizations play a role in his quick transformation? How much is the need to belong and the importance of symbols that pervades right wing organizations behind his quick transformation?

In the end, no one except the initial rabbi he approached seems to stand by him. The film shows a sanitized transformation but one removed from the personal. We don’t see him grabble with fundamental beliefs that were the core of his identity. This makes it hard for us to understand, process, and believe his transformation.

In the end, Szededi is asked if he will always embrace being Jewish. His answer, although honest because no one knows the future, is a bit unsettling without being witness to his internal transformation. He tells us: I don’t know.

Movie review: Lucy (2014)

Lucy follows the surreal day of a woman studying in Taiwan. One of numerous ex-pats in Taipei, Lucy is looking only to go home and study for exams. But her short-term ex-pat boyfriend forcibly ropes her into a courier role that quickly goes south.

She had only to deliver a briefcase that her boyfriend handcuffed to her. But she ends up being dragged into the middle of multiple murders. With death surrounding her, she is “offered” a job and then finds herself waking up with a large packet of CPH4, the latest hip drug, sewn into her abdomen.

Along with three others, she is being sent home where people will meet her to remove the packet of drugs. Any betrayal of discretion will result in the death of her extended family. But it didn’t come to that.

Lucy finds herself in a cell, rebuffing the molestations of one of the Chinese men holding her in the cell. He beats her which results in the packet rupturing in her abdomen and the drug flooding her body. She becomes superhuman, accessing cognitive abilities that mere mortals do not have.

A parallel storyline unfolds of a professor who has long theorized about the abilities humans would have if only they could use more than 10% of their cerebral cortex. Lucy is actually proving his theory with her drug-induced transformation.

She tracks down the three other drug mules to gather their packets of drugs and rendezvous with the professor. The professor has gathered other experts in the field to meet with Lucy. The whole point of life, according to the professor, is to pass on knowledge.

Lucy struggles to do just that before she expires. Lucy morphs into a computer, which hands over her knowledge in the form of a flash drive. Lucy is no more in our limited human sense, but indicates that she is everywhere.

Lucy is an odd film, based on the theory that we only use a small portion of our brains. The film focuses on the idea that life has two aims: immortality and reproduction. We are limited by our paltry use of our cognitive functions. If we were set free of our limitations, we would be able to manipulate others, matter, and time itself.

Movie review: The Third Man (1949)

Considered one of the best film noir, The Third Man is set in the ideal film noir location: post-World War II Vienna. With its cobblestone streets and bombed buildings lying in rubbles, Vienna was the perfect backdrop for such a movie.

Famous author Graham Greene initially visited Vienna to conjure up ideas for a film. In Vienna, he heard tales about post-WW II deprivation, the flourishing black market, and the sewer system that allowed one to move from sector to sector without showing papers. (Vienna was divided into four quadrants—British, American, French, and Russian—as well as a shared international sector.) He was told tales of racketeering and stories about men who inspired two of his characters.

From his experiences in Vienna, the story of The Third Man was born. Holly Martins, an American author, arrives in Vienna, invited by a friend for a job. At it turns out, he arrives just in time for the end of his friend’s funeral. Harry Lime died under mysterious circumstances and Holly digs around to try to understand the contradictions in the stories he hears.

Like most film noir of the time period, The Third Man contains some witty repartee.

“I was going to stay with [Harry Lime] but he died.” “Oh dear, that’s awkward.”

“It’s a shame.” “What?” “Him dying like that.” “Best thing that ever happened to him.”

The policeman to Holly, warning him to be careful, “I don’t want another murder. And you were born to be murdered.”

Many of the actors in the movie are Austrian who knew and spoke little or no English. Many scenes are spoken in German without subtitles, an intentional tactic to recreate what the scene must have felt like to the American Holly Martins who knew no German.

The leading lady, Alida Valli, distinctly reminds me of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Or perhaps her acting and manner of speaking are just stereotypical of women in film noir.

Orson Welles, who plays Harry Lime—the third man at the scene of his “death”—first appears two-thirds of the way through the movie. His character is discussed at length up to that point, building suspense about who this elusive Harry Lime is.

In some scenes, Orson Welles is only visible by his (or more aptly, his stunt double’s) shadow in the dark Vienna streets due to the fact that Welles arrived several weeks late for the filming. However, viewing the character only as a shadow increases the film noir-ness of the movie and heightens the sense of intrigue.

Now I feel the urge to see film noir movies that I haven’t seen and to revisit ones I have seen to discover what bits and pieces may have influenced The Third Man…and what bits of The Third Man influenced later film noir.

Movie review: Before Sunrise (1995)

I recently heard about the newly released film Before Midnight, the third in a series of films that deal with the intersection of two lives over many years. Intrigued, I sought out the first in the trilogy, Before Sunrise.

The 1995 movie is a sort of coming of age story, of two young twentysomethings that briefly cross paths on a train in Europe. She is from France. He is from the US. He is set to fly out of Vienna in the morning and convinces her, who was bound for Paris, to continue the conversation they started by getting off of the train and joining him to spend the rest of the day and night in Vienna. Only ending when he flies out of Vienna in the morning.

It is a touching film, full of dialogue and the type of musings that surround those starting out in life. Their lives are blank slates. No major life choices have been made. Yet. Their conversations take them through different topics…the nature of happy relationships, the type of parenting they endured, personal fears, memories from childhood, speculation on relationships, and living a life devoted to a career as opposed to a relationship. I found myself mulling over their conversations. Knowing how I would have responded at that same time in my life. And how I would respond now with the passage of time and perspective.

They have only this night together, wandering the streets and cafes of Vienna. They decide to be adult, which to them means not trying to prolong the relationship beyond this one night. An understandable but futile gesture in my eyes—I remember my twenties and would likely have not acted differently. In the end, they half renounce this so-called rational decision. They will not contact one another, but meet again in six months.

And I am filled with sadness. From my vantage point in life, they made the wrong decision. I found myself silently urging them to shed their notions of what being an adult means, to realize that relationships matter…and to continue what started during that night in Vienna. But they are young. Anything could still happen in their lives.

It was a bittersweet movie, opening one to the past, one’s own past…to reflect, to reminisce, to relate…on that time of uncertainty, of promise, of hope, of loss. To what might have been. To all of the forks in the road between then and now. All of the twists and turns. Would a different decision, a different direction at a particular fork in the road have meant a different life? More happiness? More sadness? Or simply different happy and sad experiences?

I am eager to see the next film, the next stage in their lives and how their choices, the decisions to turn left or right along the path of life would lead them to the mixed bag of happiness and regret, joy and sadness that they would experience. In part because this movie seems to be a mirror that allows the viewer to see one’s own self. How will the next movie speak to me and show me bits and pieces of my life?