Cinema: Personal recollections

I Am Not Your Negro
I Am Not Your Negro

Remember This House is an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, a memoir of his personal recollections of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Its words form the text of a new documentary out this week – I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck. The combination of Baldwin’s poetic essays, and the documentary footage creates an incredibly powerful film. It challenges expectations, prompts thought and debate.

It is, by far, the best documentary I have had the pleasure to watch this year. When film and literature combine, the results can sometimes disappoint lovers of the source material. At other times, the moving image can transform the words and give new meanings.

Film has the potential to stretch the solo experience of reading outwards to a communal cinema experience, reaching a larger audience who might not be previously familiar with the work.

The use of archive film to illustrate the text is particularly potent.

At once a piece about American history, the civil rights movement, and the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers; I Am Not Your Negro is also a comment on the American present and the complex and often contradictory relationship between race, history, literature and politics.

James Baldwin is not the only literary giant on cinema screens this week, Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion from British director Terence Davies is too.

This film tells the story of Dickinson’s poetic life through her own words via a career-best performance from Cynthia Nixon. Her poems come to life when seen alongside her experiences and are even more impactful when considering the struggles and inequalities she faced and illuminates one of America’s best loved poets, whose voice, in a similar way to Baldwin, is vital when considered in contemporary circumstances.

Pablo Neruda, Chile’s legendary poet and politician is also brought to life in Neruda from director Pablo Larraín. Following his Oscar-nominated Jackie, Larraín returns to Chilean history placing Neruda in a fantasy imagining of his investigation by the police following the outlawing of the communist party in Chile in 1948.

It is clear to see the relationship between literature and film is still thriving, both in terms of interesting and challenging interpretations and adaptations; and also a continuing interest in the lives of writers. That all this week’s literary films are about writers of great influence and campaigners is a strong endorsement of the ability of cinema to reinvigorate words of the past with the passion of contemporary filmmakers.