The truth is, I will not do a better job telling you about this movie than did A.O. Scott. I strongly recommend watching the movie, and I think that Scott’s review is also worth reading (though considerably less important than the film itself).
But there are elements which I want to share with you, thoughts that I have had in reaction to the movie which seem compelling. Baldwin is astute, observant, painfully accurate in his descriptions, eloquent in his description of the monstrosity involved in thinking that it is acceptable to murder or subjugate another human being and feel good about yourself. And he pulls up an uncanny moment experienced in two very different ways by those who are black and those who are white. He describes the empty sensation of a young black person discovering that the country they call their home and to which they belong has no place for them, and certainly no place amongst its heroes; and calls on white people to recognize that their country, as they have likely experienced it and been told of it, does not exist for blacks. It is, on both sides, a realization that the vision of ‘home’ is a lie. But it is often forced upon non-whites, while whites are permitted to carry on dreaming until some other confrontation occurs.
It’s the kind of thing that makes me struggle with my own desire to write and tell stories.
I feel irresponsible to not take broader action, to not expose these issues. Writing seems inadequate. I admit that these issues in some way inspire me, by encouraging me to tell stories which deal with these realities. But I also fear that any attempt I make may do greater damage than good, or that whatever I do will be insufficient. And I worry that my decision to write fantastical stories, stories about alternate realities which do not immediately impinge upon ours, is in some way unhelpful escapism. Or I consider myself to be a distraction from others whose voices deserve to be heard.
And sometimes I remind myself that not every story can be that particular form of activism. Some stories need to be fun. But I hope that, in some of those things I write which you find fun, I can offer a vision of a world that doesn’t cling to our own world’s prejudices. And when I do draw those elements in, I hope that I can include them in ways which simultaneously allow us to enjoy the story and to see (perhaps for the first time, if I’m so lucky as to have an uninformed reader) the parallels between the problems I include and the world in which we live.
Okay. Enough of me blathering my thoughts. Go watch the damn movie. It’s painful and still remarkably topical, and somehow I found it inspired hope. It’s really good.
p.s. Here’s another good link to someone’s experience of being exposed to James Baldwin’s work.