Caribbean Screenshots (January/February 2017) | Film Reviews

This month’s film-watching picks

  • Still from I Am Not Your Negro
  • Still from The House on Coco Road
  • Still from Jeffery

I Am Not Your Negro

Directed by Raoul Peck, 2016, 93 minutes

Raoul Peck is not one to shy away from tackling major historical figures in his films. Both Patrice Lumumba and Jean-Bertrand Aristide have been subjects of his camera’s unflinching gaze, and he’s just now wrapping up a drama about the young Karl Marx. His current film, I Am Not Your Negro, sees Peck — Haiti’s most celebrated (and provocative) director — attempting to get to grips with James Baldwin, the United States’ most celebrated (and provocative) black writer: a perfect artistic match.

I Am Not Your Negro has its origins in a book about various civil rights leaders that Baldwin — most famous for The Fire Next Time, his incendiary 1963 treatise on race and racism in the US — began working on in 1979, called Remember This House. He died after making only thirty pages of notes, and the manuscript was eventually entrusted to Peck by the writer’s estate.

Spurning conventions of the biographical documentary such as chronological storytelling and interviews, and instead exclusively employing archival footage and Baldwin’s words (intoned with an almost mournful authority by Samuel L. Jackson), Peck has constructed a stirringly complex visual essay. The film masterfully delineates the social, political, and cultural strands — the movies of a certain Caribbean actor named Sidney Poitier are key — that came together in the creation of a towering intellectual, as much as it paints a resonant portrait of the African-American experience.

The greatest achievement of I Am Not Your Negro, however, is its indirect exhortation to the viewer to return to and re-engage with James Baldwin’s work — his books, essays, speeches, and interviews, as potent and as necessary today as they ever were. As Peck himself instructed the audience at the world premiere of the film last September at the Toronto International Film Festival: “Go back to Baldwin.”

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The House on Coco Road

Directed by Damani Baker, 2016, 79 minutes 

More than thirty years after its tragic conclusion, the Grenada Revolution remains an unresolved affair, many of its stories still untold. Packing upwards of half a century of history into its slender running time, The House on Coco Road, while having no pretensions to being a definitive account, is a welcome, if at times idealised, addition to the annals of that eventful era.

The documentary takes as its starting point the experience of its director, Damani Baker, whose mother Fannie Haughton — a former assistant to civil rights icon Angela Davis — moved her family from California to Grenada in 1983 to join the island’s socialist experiment. Baker then dials back to the family’s beginnings in the segregated American South, impressively juggling home-movie footage, archival material, vérité footage, and interviews to create a testimony to the pioneering activism of a succession of black women. Meshell Ndegeocello’s redoubtable score rounds out a moving experience.

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Directed by Yanillys Perez, 2016, 78 minutes

An affecting portrait of stolen childhood and life below the poverty line is painted in Jeffrey, the debut feature by the Dominican Republic’s Yanillys Perez. Jeffrey (Joselito de la Cruz) — a non-actor playing a dramatised version of his actual self — is a twelve-year-old in Santo Domingo who is made to quit school to help support his family. Earning a meagre living on the streets washing windshields, he wants to become a reggaeton singer, and his dogged attempts to find success give the film its narrative impetus.

Her filmmaking style a world away from the slick triumphalism of something like Slumdog Millionaire, Perez works modestly in what could be called a Caribbean neorealist mode, unfussily observing her memorable protagonist and those around him as they go about the remarkably unremarkable business of survival. And while Jeffrey ends with Jeffrey’s future very much uncertain, the film offers the salutary reminder that poverty does not necessarily negate love.

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Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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