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Posts Tagged ‘Raoul Peck’

Vicky Krieps, August Diehl, Stefan Konarske

“THE YOUNG KARL MARX” My rating: C+

118 minutes | No MPAA rating

Few things are as noncinematic as a bunch of intellectuals arguing economic theory — which puts the makers of “The Young Karl Marx” on the defensive from the get-go.

Their solution is a sort of mutation on “Shakespeare in Love” in which Marx and his cohort Friedrich Engels rail at the status quo while outrunning the police and creditors, finding time to vigorously roger their ladyfolk. Along the way they establish the international Communist movement and get to work writing Capital.

Raoul Peck’s film (his last outing was the excellent James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”) begins in the early 1840s with unfortunate peasants being routed by cudgel-waving horsemen for having the effrontery to pick  up fallen tree limbs for firewood on a private estate.

Then we cut to young Marx (August Diehl) arguing with the writers and editors of their recently-banned newspaper; he criticizes his colleagues both for intellectual laziness and for a lack of resolve in opposing the establishment. (The film finds  Marx often insufferably arrogant…but he’s arrogant because he’s right.)

The scene ends with the entire newspaper staff hauled off to prison.

Meanwhile in Manchester England Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) is appalled at the inhuman conditions imposed by his father on workers at the family’s textile mill. When the proles protest by damaging a loom, Engels Pere fumes that “Machines are expensive…not like labor.”  His son leaves in disgust.

“The Young Karl Marx” is about how these two giants of economic reasoning got together, discovering their shared styles and common interests.  We also meet Marx’s wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day Lewis’ love interest in “Phantom Thread”), a member of the French aristocracy who gave it all up for love and the workers of the world.  Then there’s Engel’s squeeze Mary (Hannah Steele), an Irish factory lass who takes no guff from anyone.

There are, of course, endless discussions of Marxist theory.  Some of these get heated when the talk turns to the boys’  sincere belief in  violent revolution.

“The Young Karl Marx” is about as well acted as it can be…it’s just that it plays more like a history lesson than a viable drama.  Good production values, though…even if most of what we see are gloomy garrets, dirty factory floors and dimly-lit taverns.

| Robert W. Butler

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James Baldwin

James Baldwin

“I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO”  My rating:  A-

95  minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“I Am Not Your Negro” is among the most powerful documentaries ever made about race in America.

Much of that power is to be found in the eloquent voice of the late James Baldwin. When the author died in 1987, he had completed only 30 pages of a proposed book about his relationships with three martyred civil rights icons: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has taken those 30 pages and fleshed them out with archival photos and footage, vintage and contemporary music, clips of Baldwin’s many TV appearances, scenes from Hollywood movies and visually stunning original footage employed for transitional passages.

Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s words.

The results are transformative.

Early on there’s an old clip from the Dick Cavett TV show.  Baldwin is asked if he has much hope for the Negro’s future in America. Not much, he replies. Then the screen fills with still photos of the recent Ferguson protests.

Despite that, he seems to have been a pessimist who could not entirely tamp down his sense of hope.

Baldwin writes (and Jackson reads) of being in France and seeing photographs of a black teenage girl, surrounded by screaming whites, as she walked to her first day of class at a formerly segregated high school in the American South.

“Everybody was paying their dues,” he recalled. “It was time I went home and paid mine.”

His years in tolerant France, though, had lulled Baldwin into a comfortable place.  Back in the USA he experienced a rude awakening. Racism was everywhere, no less in the North than in the South.

This is very much a personal story.  Baldwin describes a childhood in which he simply assumed that all heroes were white, and then extrapolates what that meant for an entire race of people.

Never a joiner, he saw his role as that of a witness, bringing to the world the thoughts and emotions triggered by what he had seen and heard. Happily, he had the mournful/incendiary prose to get the job done.

“There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and your future in it…I’m terrified of the moral apathy, at the death of the heart that is happening in my country.”

By refusing to face up to racial injustice, America was becoming “a nation of moral monsters.”

And in limning his friendships with Evers, King and Malcolm, Baldwin reveals how despite their initial antagonism (Malcolm found King’s nonviolence to be contemptible),  these men all slowly mutated in the same direction.

Buoyed by masterful editing and brilliant sound design, “I Am Not Your Negro” unfolds less as a history lesson than as one man’s fiercely-felt ruminations.

It’s hard to imagine anyone — right, left, whatever — walking away unchanged by this Oscar-nominated triumph.

| Robert W. Butler

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