from Woody to Cuomo

With the news of Governor Cuomo resigning after nearly a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment, I’ve been thinking about my Woody Allen boycott.  For just a few moments this week I felt that same ache I felt back in the 90s when Allen fell off the pedestal I had made for him. 

By the 90s, Woody Allen movies had long since become one of my annual traditions as Allen makes a film every year. I know what you’re thinking – they have not all been great works – some have been real stinkers. But in my childhood and early teens films like Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, Sleepers and Love and Death were formative in teaching me about life – the societal hypocrisies and the need for psychotherapy.

As Allen films became more sophisticated with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Zelig, I began to appreciate a well-written script, and that lead to my discovering Woody Allen the writer of short stories and essays (mostly in The New Yorker). Allen’s world was funny and cerebral, self-effacing and philosophical. I don’t know what this says about my younger self, but I relished in his misanthropic humour. Among my favourite Allen quotables are: ‘Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.’ And ‘If my films make one more person miserable, I have done my job.’

Then there was the downfall. Soon-Yi Previn, Allen’s adopted daughter became his romantic partner in 1991 when she was 22. At first it was just weird. For the love of Woody, I shrugged it off, convincing myself that it was okay since Soon-Yi was an adult and of the legal age of consent. Moreover, Woody Allen was more like a step-adoptive father to Soon-Yi (the first adoptive father being Andre Previn). Downfall part two – in 1992, Allen was accused of sexually abusing his other adopted daughter, Dylan, when she was seven-years old. It was easy at the time to place this accusation in the category ‘ex-partner gets her revenge,’ the ex-partner being actress Mia Farrow. While Allen falling in love with his other adopted daughter gave him an air of guilt, he was never convicted. To this day, I’m still on the fence about his culpability.

When Woody and Soon-Yi married some five years later, I felt more justified in my acceptance of this relationship. Between the announcement of their being in love and the marriage, Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite came out – two of the best films of the 90s.  But as the years passed, I came to realise that issues of consent are not so straight forward. With Woody Allen, the complication arises from his changing roles from father to lover to husband, where the first role was one of familial power followed by roles that by definition involve sexual relationships. For me, the age of consent laws and marriage certificate no longer legitimise this creepy coupledom.

On top of that, I was growing uneasy with his films – he might give actresses some strong parts, but Allen has also made otherwise intelligent women characters weak in the face of compliments about their looks. I mean weak to the point of falling for the bespectacled, maladroit played by Allen himself. It’s in several Allen films, including Annie Hall.

My boycott of Allen films started in 2011 and has continued to this day, with an exception made in 2014 for Colin Firth in Magic in the Moonlight – Firth and the French Riviera was too much to pass up. The boycott is my way of saying that I object Allen’s use of power, and I am not going to continue to support it by contributing to the offender’s income, however small my contribution may be.

In the case of Cuomo, again I’m looking at a man in a position of power changing that role to one of sexual intimate, regardless of the other person wanting that relationship. But in this case, there’s nothing to boycott. The Democratic party, to their credit, have done that for voters by pushing him to resign. Of course, they’re doing this for political reasons, but I’m glad that our post #metoo society has helped to create that political environment. That just leaves me being miffed that someone I had admired for his support for women’s issues – calling himself a ‘feminist’ – and his anti-Trump handling of the pandemic could plunge so disgracefully.

His Octopus Teacher

Craig Foster’s Oscar-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, did everything a documentary should do. Beautifully filmed, it followed a clear narrative and gave a generalist audience scientific information mixed alongside a real-life character arch. How could anyone object to such a film? Pippa Bailey in The New Statesman does just that.

She starts by mocking Foster’s friendship with the octopus: ‘“I remember that day when it all started…” Foster intones, as though it’s the start of a romcom; the music swells when she reaches for his hand.’ Bailey fails to point out that he never gave the octopus a name and throughout the film elucidates the biology and behaviour of the octopus in ways that obviously distinguish it from human. Example: he informs us that most of the octopus’s cognition is in their arms.

Bailey goes on the attack of Foster’s approach to his subject: ‘Foster imagines the octopus as being like “a human friend”, waving to say, “Hi, I’m excited to see you”; he can feel her trust for him, he says, her invitation into her world. He wonders what she’s thinking, what she dreams about.’

Reading this, I couldn’t help but to think about the way people interact with their dogs and cats, treating them very much like human friends. When dogs behave in ways akin to the human for ‘excited to see you’ it’s because we have trained them to behave like that with stimuli of food, petting and playful exercise. As for cats, who display limited understanding of humans, we talk to them as if they care and when it’s bleeding obvious that they don’t care, we praise them for their independence. Furthermore, the therapeutic value of having pets is well documented. According to QI, the act of cuddling a dog can relieve stress for up to six months after the cuddle. Given that Foster points out at the start of the film that he was at a crossroads, unproductive as a film-maker and troubled by this in a way that sounded like a mid-life crisis wrapped in depression, this therapy was needed.

Having said all of this, I do think Bailey makes some cogent points. She notes: ‘There are, to my mind, two extremes in documentaries about animals: those that present the animal kingdom as separate from people, their only human presence David Attenborough’s narration (other presenters are available); and those, such as Tiger King or the masterful Blackfish, that document an overly close relationship between humans and animals: obsessive, intrusive. My Octopus Teacher doesn’t go that far…’ Bailey goes on to say, ‘Animals are not there for us, to be treated as commodities or companions as we see fit; to be reduced to their usefulness to us. Nature does not exist to alleviate our restless emptiness, much as it may do so.’ I agree with that, and Tiger King was at times hard watching for these reasons – profit motive and self-aggrandisement reigned supreme (pun intended). But I don’t think that Foster’s documentary erred in these ways. In the end it was clear that animals have their own, often cruel, life cycles that we humans need to give space for by not continuing to destroy our natural environment.

Bailey’s conclusion: ‘Must we view an octopus as a friend, a saviour, a teacher? Couldn’t we simply settle for not eating them?’

My conclusion: An octopus can be a friend, a saviour, a teacher, or simply something of the natural world to marvel at. But whatever you do, don’t eat them. 

Election Day 2020

With fears of election-day violence, America has joined corrupt and disreputable countries around the world. Thank you, Mr President – this is on your watch.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this presidential election might be the most important one of our lifetimes. How so? I’ve narrowed this down to two reasons, both of which have been touted by political pundits, newspaper columnists and the like. This is my take in the context of the films and books that influence my thinking.

Reason 1 – democracy is at stake. Over the past four years, the world has watched a wannabe autocrat in the Whitehouse fight against the institutions of American governance and the freedom of the press. Among the many examples of this, what first comes to mind are Tr**p’s public criticisms of the FBI, the CIA and most recently and most alarmingly the Centers for Disease Control. Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk has been one of several books to expose of the Tr**p transition team and the way this president set up his antigovernmental administration, a  heady mix of inexperienced individuals and those with a grudge against certain branches of government.

And the media has had it worse. On top of frequent references to the media as ‘fake’ and ‘public enemies,’ let’s not forget the many instances of reporters being targeted and arrested while trying to report on demonstrations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Netflix has recently produced The Chicago Seven, about the kangaroo trial of seven anti-war protesters during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. From aggressive policing to an openly racist and bias judicial system, echoes of Tr**p’s treatment of the media resound.

Reason 2 – the planet is at stake. Not only has the 45th president of the US started the process of pulling America out of the Paris Climate Accord, he’s a supporter of the fossil fuel industry, a climate change denier and has reversed over one hundred acts of legislation by the EPA during Obama’s presidency. A couple of good books I’ve read recently that cover this president’s treatment of the environment include Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and David Wallace-Well’s The Uninhabitable Earth.

There is perhaps a third reason why this is such an important election. But I’ve changed my mind a few times about the real importance of this. Okay, here goes. America’s reputation is at stake. As I would like to see a more balanced world, with a more equitable distribution of wealth, the US doesn’t need to keep its position as an economic superpower. I would be even happier still if it were not a military superpower. Despite these misgivings, I’d like to see America retain some of its influence in the world as a source for good. (Hard to imagine at times, I know. Sorry if I sound like Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington.) Voting Tr**p back into office is at the very least condoning criminality at the highest level of government. With all of the noise and distractions to come from this Whitehouse, it’s easy to forget that Tr**p was impeached by The House of Representatives for trying to bribe a foreign government. Even Tr**p’s lawyers admitted that this is what he did, but argued to the Senate that this was not an impeachable offence. There is also the matter of Tr**p’s tax records, the cases of fraud against his businesses and the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse.  A Tr**p win tonight (or tomorrow, depending on your time zone) tells the rest of the world that America wants to be represented by a man clearly unfit for the job, in addition to of course his being a vulgarian, a defender of white supremacists, an habitual liar… I’ll stop myself there – you’ve heard it all before.

I’ve realised that I’ve only made reference to non-fiction books and a film based on true events. Let’s not forget the importance of fiction and poetry at times like this. I’ll close with a quote within a quote from Emily Nemens, the editor of the Paris Review, commenting yesterday on election eve: ‘As Manuel Puig put it, “I like to re-create reality in order to understand it better.” May we all understand the world a bit better once this week is through.’

Divine Decadence

Every five years or so, I watch it again. I never seem to tire of it. Each viewing is like the pencil scratching on a door frame that indicate a child growing.

When Cabaret first came out, I was a ten-year-old, self-proclaimed connoisseur of 40s and 50s movie musicals. In those days, I liked Cabaret for its burlesque sketches and music, inspired by the rhythms of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. I was old enough to understand bisexuality and I knew about World War II, though perhaps both in superficial ways. Those plotlines were distractions from the cabaret performances. I so wanted to be in an adult world where people could sing and dance in a Bob Fosse style with slouched shoulders.

A few years later, this became a film about open sexuality and debauchery, the lifeblood of any teenager. I had discovered David Bowie and glam rock. Women having sex with men who are just friends and men having sex with each other were exciting and liberating after the constraints of a Disney childhood. Though set in the 30s, Cabaret’s sexual triangle of Sally, Brian and Max, seemed of the moment. As for the pop-rock of my teens, Cabaret may not have been of that musical genre, but Sally Bowles’ green-painted finger nails, men in make-up and cross-dressing fitted well into that milieu. The film, like my daydreams and aspirations, was in the words of Sally, ‘divine decadence.’

As an older teen starting university, I came across Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin. In both novel and film Sally is flamboyant and self-absorbed. But in the novel she’s British and doesn’t have a very good singing voice – certainly, no Liza Minnelli – nor does she have a sexual relationship with Brian, who is only interested in men. The first adaptation of the original novel was actually a stage play version in 1951, I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, followed by the stage musical in 1966 called Cabaret, written by Joe Masteroff. I could understand an obligation to a musical-loving audience to have more than a mediocre voice leading the story. But somewhere between the stage play and the musical, Brian was given a bout of heterosexuality. My beloved musical, the main form of my childhood entertainment, had let me down. Unlike theatre and pop culture, the musical was still promoting the world of boy-meets-girl. I had to reconcile myself with the novel and the film being two different sources of pleasure – something I would do the rest of my life with any film adaptation.

At university I encountered my first arthouse film and those became my new cinematic addiction. With its montages juxtaposing violence with musical glee, its tableau-like pan shots and subtle moments of foreshadowing, Cabaret in my reckoning was a film d’auteur that went mainstream. I still feel that way today, even if the awe of discovery has evaporated.

While I grew up in the anti-establishment 60s, critical of the US government and the Vietnam War, the Second World War was still regarded as an indisputable holy war – bad guys and good guys clearly delineated. In the Kit Kat Club, the world isn’t so black and white. The Nazis, Hitler and the Jews are all equally the butt of jokes. Younger, I saw this as part of the amusement of the film, but by my early thirties, Cabaret, full of political and social contradictions and nuance became a revisionist history.  

In mid-life, I find myself watching Cabaret with a sense of nostalgia for the 1970s. Though it was set in the 1930s, I saw it through the lens of the 1970s – a film that could include a woman having an abortion without being about the moral rights or wrongs of abortion. During the 1980s, the US went backwards. With President Reagan and The Moral Majority, abortion rights became highly politicized and still are today. That ten-year-old staring at the large screen in the 70s naively thought she was living in a society that was becoming more liberal with time.

After so many viewings, I don’t need to watch the film to think about it. Today, I’m thinking about one of the most iconic scenes of the film. Travelling by car, Max and Brian stop for a drink at a traditional biergarten. A young man in Nazi uniform starts singing ‘tomorrow belongs to me.’ Soon he is joined by the other beer garden patrons, except for one old man. The young people sing robustly, full of enthusiasm. To a modern film audience, knowing about the war that follows, this scene is poignant and chilling.

It’s hard to watch Cabaret today without thinking about the rise of the far right in countries like the US and Britain. I see myself like the old man in the beer garden, bewildered and out of sorts with it all.

Dipping into British Herstory

In Bloody Brilliant Women Cathy Newman writes about one of my heroines, Gertrude Bell, with a couple of lively examples exposing male perspectives that has kept Bell out of the history books. In the film version of Michael Ondaatje’s fabulous The English Patient, there is a scene where British soldiers are examining a map, trying to find a way through the mountains. One says, ‘The Bell map shows the way,’ and the other replies, ‘Let’s hope he’s right.’ Newman remarks on this unconscious bias, the assumption that a map maker must be male, behind this scriptwriting. For me, the more astounding point is that this error went unnoticed and unchecked by the script editor and the director’s assistant as well and made it to the screen.

Having read some of Gertrude Bell’s travelogues and letters and having seen an excellent documentary-cum-docudrama about her, Letters from Baghdad , I was pleased by Newman’s find of a letter from Sir Mark Sykes (he of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up parts of the former Ottoman Empire for the likes of Britain, France and Russia). Sykes wrote to his wife describing Bell as ‘a silly chattering windbag of a conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blithering ass.’ No need to deconstruct the misogyny here. Newman follows this quote with a simple ‘Wow!’ An example of the laid back journalistic style used throughout the book.

Newman’s version of herstory covers some familiar territory with Emmeline Parkhurst, Millicent Fawcett and accounts of women impersonating men in order to fight in wars. But it is well worth a read as the book explains the significance of these pioneering women in their pursuit for justice and equality given the socio-political and legal contexts of their time.

As much of my understanding of herstory is of a more international variety, I’m grateful to Newman for introducing me to a few personages that I would have otherwise missed, and who I now feel compelled to read or read about. There’s Dora Russell who championed contraception, recognising that childbearing wasn’t only controlling women’s lives, but also shortening them. Dora is otherwise known as the second wife of Bertrand Russell. And there is Claudia Jones, a journalist and activist, who founded the Notting Hill Carnival. I close with one of Jones’s most quoted remarks: ‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.’

The Exonerated Five

Like millions across the world, I’ve recently seen the Netflix programme When They See Us, a dramatization of the ‘Central Park Five’ story.

The four-part series has not been easy to watch. Even though I knew the five – teenaged boys at the time – were eventually exonerated, it was still painful viewing. This is more than just a story of African-American and Latino teenagers being interrogated by white police to the point of signing false confessions. The story follows the five convicted men and their families during the periods of incarceration (6-12 years) and their lives after prison before their verdicts were changed.

While the programme is being applauded for its accuracy, its verisimilitude, it’s important not to forget that this is drama. I don’t say that as a criticism – in fact, just the opposite.  As a work of dramatic art, it sometimes plays with the timeline, jumping back and forth to isolate each man’s story as a mixture of conviction and so-called ‘freedom’ once they were released with criminal records. And like any good dramatic script, the worst case was saved for last – one of the men, Cory Wise, was 16 at the time and was sent to Richter’s Prison for adult men, where the treatment by his fellow inmates was so excruciating he opted for years of solitary confinement. These renderings that truncate the years and reorder and select their most emotive moments for maximum effect are clearly features of art. In my eyes, the director/co-writer, Ava DuVerney is an artist of the highest calibre in creating these effects.

I also know that this is art because I enjoyed it so much and bring it to the attention of anyone I know who watches Netflix. True, it’s painful and sad and evokes a sense of fear. It’s what Aristotle called the paradox of negative emotions. We enjoy pity and fear in tragic drama even though we would not in real life. The fact that this drama was based on real life didn’t take away from that. If anything, the work blurred the lines of emotional responses as it blurred the lines of dramatization and reality.

And yet another emotion emerged from watching When They See Us – a palpable sense of shame. I remember when the story first broke. It was April of 1989 and I was still living in Edinburgh. The news story came to me as one of a woman jogger in Central Park in the wrong place at the wrong time – out on an evening when gangs of youth were ‘wilding’ – just acting wild, scaring passers-by, vandalising property and raping and beating a woman and leaving her for dead. That’s how it was reported at the time, consistently across Channel 4, BBC and any newspaper I happen to be reading. I later learned that this is how it was reported in the US as well. The story seemed so straight forward – a horrible, sickening crime. When the five teenagers were arrested, I remember thinking that it was a good thing someone was caught. But I also felt uneasy that they were all black and one Latino – ‘black and brown boys’ a phrase I have heard since – and that the victim was white. Such happenings feed into the racist’s view of the world, leaving us liberals appearing naïve and soft on crime.  I allowed myself to fall for the media interpretation – the story wasn’t about race, but about women being victims of rape, and this was one rare time when the guilty were caught. And if that wasn’t bad enough, shameful moment number 2 – the idea of confessing to crime a person didn’t commit wasn’t even in my world of possibilities.

Sometimes it takes a case like this to shake people out of their comfortable thoughts. This true-life story was obviously about race – the discrimination against African-Americans – and the DNA evidence confirmed that people – especially teen boys under interrogation – can confess to crimes they did not commit.

Exonerated five 2

Postscript – I’ve entitled this ‘the exonerated five’ to help the language and labelling to catch up with the truths.

Starry, Starry Night

I’m hoping this blog will purge the song from my head. The original tune by Don Mclean was never a favourite. Like its topic, the life and paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, it’s riddled with clichés and imagery of the ubiquitous works of art. The song was released when I was nine and Van Gogh was already an industry. Like any self-respecting kid, I rebelled against things cross-generational and ultra-popular. I adopted the view that Van Gogh wasn’t such a great painter, but merely the first pop artist, creating his own celebrity as he suffered for his sanity, clipped off his own earlobe and took his own life as lovers often do.Starry starry night 1

It wasn’t until I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam some 25 years later that I felt a genuine admiration for the artist’s work. Yes, of course, Vincent (I think we’re on first names here) is still an industry, arguably an even larger one than he was in my childhood. But he’s not just about starry nights after a day of daffodils that catch the breeze from the painter with a severed ear. There’s the earthiness of his potato eaters and the delicacy of his Japanese-style almond trees that speak volumes for his skill and renderings of life around him and in his imagination (he never went to Japan). I’ve since toured the museum a few more times, searching for the lesser known works and avoiding the gift shop.

The song wouldn’t have lodged in my head had it not been for a reinterpretation by Lianne La Havas which featured at the end of the film Loving Vincent. La Havas’s version is more soulful, slightly less melodic, than Mclean’s. In case you haven’t seen it or heard about it, Loving Vincent (directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman) is an animation using Van Gogh’s paintings for the scenes and characters, including the master himself. It’s the only film of its kind, using 125 artists to hand paint the 65,000 frames. Many of the scenes appear to move slightly as if being painted or repainted before our very eyes – it’s visually hypnotic. This entrancing state is helped by the soft, rhythmic soundtrack (by Clint Mansell) to lift the audience into another world. The only thing holding the film back, as many critics have noted, is the mediocre script that revolves around the artist’s sudden death, suggesting that it wasn’t intentional.

Nevertheless, this melange of paintings, film and music needed to come together for me to remember, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you. (Oh, I wish it would stop). Starry starry night 3

Rosewater: another side of journalism

Based on the best-selling memoir Then They Came for Me, Jon Stewart’s film about journalist Maziar Bahari serves as a reminder of how fragile freedom of the press can be. Rosewater chronicles the capture and imprisonment of the Iran-born Canadian journalist, who was arrested for filming protests in Iran against Ahmadinejad’s dubious victory over Mousavi. Bahari was charged with espionage and for 118 days underwent Kafkaesque interrogations and torture along with being held in solitary confinement.

For fans of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, there isn’t much humour in Rosewater. It nonetheless is aware of an entertainment value, taking mise-en-scène and cinematography into artistry. The narrative is also for a more discerning audience. Instead of following the formula of scenes cutting back and forth between the prisoner and his distraught family, we see the imprisonment through the eyes of the prisoner. As he doesn’t know what his wife or his colleagues are doing to secure his release, we don’t see any of that until quite late in the story and only when Bahari learns that Secretary of State Clinton is trying to get him out. A brief flashback follows, filling us in on the parallel story of family, colleagues and news coverage, mixing Bahari’s imagination with the true happenings. The same drama in the hands of another director, say Ron Howard, would have followed the more traditional formula and milked the family story, especially as the wife was pregnant at the time.

Bahari is just one among many journalists who have been arrested, detained, even killed for reporting events that expose flaws in governments or protests against them. We see this in Erdogan’s Turkey, in Iran, Syria, Myanmar and Trump’s America, to name a few. These cases of attacking the messenger are even more disturbing at a time when so-called democracies are accusing the media of producing fake news. Of course, we are bombarded with fake news, politically bias news and what I call propagandist’s news (as in The Daily Mail in the UK and America’s Fox News). As odious as some of these can be, they do have a right to express themselves. It just puts more demands on the public to fact check stories and to support the more reputable news outlets. I make that sound easier than it is – which brings me back to Rosewater and the case of Maziar Bahari. Journalism has become a more complex endeavour, a multi-sided object, where one side risks obscuring the other.

I conclude this look at another side of journalism by purloining a campaign slogan from Amnesty International – Journalism is not a crime.

Revisiting Emily Dickinson

Occasionally the screensaver on my Kindle pops up with the dour face of Emily Dickinson. She has become one of the most recognisable faces in American literature. Yet, only recently has her life been transferred to the screen with Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion.  The film d’auteur has its tableau moments, which slows down the pace and might not appeal to some viewers. But I found this fitting with the nature of Dickinson’s poetry – her elliptical language could cause images to freeze in the air. I liked too that the film contained sharp, intelligent dialogue in keeping with the dialogic style of many of Dickinson’s poems.  At the same time, these dialogues – many between Emily and her sister – remind audiences of the social liEmily D 2mitations thrusted upon 19th century New England life, especially for women. Although mostly a contemplative and melancholic film, humour and wit are present in a way that I felt was realistic to the poet’s life (Dickinson scholars are free to differ on this point.)

I’m also grateful to this film for reminding me that Dickinson wrote some poems about the US Civil War. We tend to think of Walt Whitman as the Civil War poet and of war poetry as being a male preserve.  But here is a Dickinson sampling:

(582)

Inconceivably solemn!
Things go gay
Pierce — by the very Press
Of Imagery —

Their far Parades — order on the eye
With a mute Pomp —
A pleading Pageantry —

Flags, are a brave sight —
But no true Eye
Ever went by One —
Steadily —

Music’s triumphant —
But the fine Ear
Winces with delight
Are Drums too near —

Since I was a teenager, I’ve liked Dickinson’s work, though I confess that there was a lot I didn’t understand younger. I think her writing and people’s understanding of it has been more helped by cognitive poetics (and other areas of literary stylistics) than by traditional literary criticism with its focus on biography, religion and history. Cognitive stylistics has shown how Dickinson manipulates grammar and word-choice to create different worlds that wrangle with, among other things, ontological questions. Here, I’m thinking mainly of the scholarship of Margaret Freeman, who gives a wonderful analysis of one of my favourite Dickinson poems:

A Spider sewed at Night

Without a Light

Upon an Arc of White

If Ruff it was of Dame

Or Shroud of Gnome

Himself himself inform.

Of Immortality

His Strategy Was Physiognomy.

(J 1138, lines 1-6; ms)

I think it’s time to return to this poet and see how I get on with her language and wisdom in my middle age.

On James Baldwin

I read James Baldwin for the first time when I was 13. My English teacher was keen on contemporary writers and issued us a summer’s reading list, which included Notes of a Native Son. It was the first essay collection I had ever read. I was catapulted out of my comfort zone of fiction, poetry and magazine articles from the likes of Time and People and into a world that not only employed metaphors and symbols, but dissected them.  This world had a social conscience and an eloquence that went beyond the dinner-table rumblings of my anti-establishment older siblings.

A few months later I read Giovanni’s Room. That was my first openly gay novel – though there were plenty of suggestively gay works from Wilde, Forster and Mann. Neither of Baldwin’s books were part of the standard curriculum. There were other African-American writers taught in those days, but they tended to be historical slave narratives. Perhaps Baldwin’s books were too raw in their expression to be official reading material for young minds. I am to this day grateful for my English teacher. Together these works formed a literary coming of age.

With the release of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I’ve been reminded of Iamnotyour negroBaldwin’s life as a civil rights activist. Director Raoul Peck takes us on a journey through the civil rights protests and public discussions on race during the 60s and 70s, with some unspoken allusions to present-day hate crimes in America. Baldwin is positioned at the centre of this sometimes-loose narrative. We watch him on television talk shows, lecturing at all-white university campuses and demurely in the crowd of some of the most iconic marches of the twentieth century. The real treat and reason for seeing this film are the sonorous tones of actor Samuel L. Jackson reading passages from Baldwin’s much-quoted works while images recapture the horrors. Although some of these quotes have been exploited on posters, coffee mugs and Facebook postings, in the context of this film they have re-found their rightful home.