Film Review: “I Am Not Your Negro”

 

James Baldwin was a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and essays, perhaps best known for his semi-autobiographical work “Go Tell it on the Mountain”. This astonishing documentary is an insight into his thinking about racism in America. The title comes from his searing statement:

What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.”

Baldwin suffered the loss of three of his heroes, murdered in the pursuit of racial equality: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. King wanted peaceful resistance, Malcolm X active resistance. Evers mounted legal challenges against racist institutions. They were all assassinated, presumably because any kind of questioning of the status quo was seen as a threat to  white dominance. Baldwin sought to confront and challenge white attitudes and white ignorance with his written words and his eloquent and passionate speeches.

His words are at times spoken by Samuel L. Jackson, or taken from footage of his speeches.  One prime source is a debate at which he spoke in front of what looks like a completely white and, given the setting, upper class audience at Cambridge University. These segments are interspersed with historical and more contemporary footage of racial incidents such as police brutality in America. This interweaving of words and images highlights how prophetic Baldwin’s words were and how racism is perhaps even more established in the U.S.A (and Australia) now than it was thirty or forty years ago.

The U.S.A. now has a president who defines himself by his whiteness, whose followers are aggressively defensive of their right to be racist. Similar trends can be seen in Australia, where senior ministers defend “the right to be a bigot”. This documentary raises the basic question: Why do we (the dominant whites) need to create and subjugate an “other”, whether that “other” is people of a darker skin, refugees, Jews or people with a different sexual orientation?

 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017.
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Erin Thornback Reviews “Selfish Bastards”

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To be precise, Cordite Poetry Review’s Erin Thornback reviews “Selfish Bastards and Other Poems” by Mike Hopkins and “Jardin du Luxembourg and Other Poems” by Steve Brock (both Garron Publishing, 2016).

The full review is here.

It can be intimidating to have your work reviewed, especially by someone  you’ve never met who writes for a prestigious publication like Cordite. It’s interesting that people often pick out lines that you regarded as ordinary, and (presumably) regard as ordinary, lines that you felt a bit smug about. That happens at readings too – the biggest reaction can sometimes be to lines that you underestimated, and, by turns, lines that you thought were belters produce little reaction. As they say, once you put a poem out there, it’s out of your control.

Here are a few snippets from Erin’s review from 13th December 2016 :

“Displaying an impulse that is communitarian and geographic by turns, Mike Hopkins’s Selfish Bastards and Other Poems, and Steve Brock’s Jardin du Luxembourg and Other Poems address the quotidian of the present under the notion that place-based does not necessarily mean place-bound. ….. Hopkins’ collection … unfolds in a specific place, articulating a contemporary critique of the Australian present. The poems are inflected with the volatility of political lyricism in ‘Selfish Bastards’ and ‘Anzacery’, and Hopkins’ ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’ terrifically probes and parodies popular culture.

… Mike Hopkins’s Selfish Bastards places his truth within the perception of Australia’s political stage. This truth can compete in the public arena with the ‘truth’ that is portrayed by politicians, such as:

Politicians who tell us we need to tighten our belt, and then
use a helicopter to go to a cocktail party — Selfish Bastards

…. Being free from the same existential competition that obligates politicians to indulge their constituent public, Hopkin’s doesn’t flatter and indulge his audience in the eponymous slam poem:

People in the audience who don’t shout out “SELFISH 
BASTARDS” when politely asked to do so — Selfish Bastards! 

Rather, the poem performs in front of the reader’s eyes, the musicality of the concluding refrains unpacking the realities of our monotone and formulaic reality:

People who like their own posts on Facebook — Selfish Bastards!

Indeed, Selfish Bastards signals a condemnation of contemporary society. Reinforced in ‘The Template’ and ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’, we are confronted with thick hectic prose, sentence fragments and the hackneyed that has taken ‘the world by storm, though it was a small world, when all is said and done’. These clichés humorously gain momentum in ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’, as the people ‘did not stay glued / to the one true cliché’ but ‘ took to false clichés like ducks to water’. In ‘The Template’ Hopkins satirises the public treatment of our magazine society and paper-politicians:

Another soldier dead. Pull
out the template and we’ll 
knock off the news story in 
a flash. First the headline: 
“Digger” and “fallen” are
mandatory words. “Brave”
and salute are excellent 
accompaniments.

Structured like a traditional newspaper spread in two columns side by side, such portrayals are confrontational to the say the least, but there is also a sense of warning that is conspicuous here. Hopkins, in similar tonality to Brock’s ‘Hollywood Hotel’, takes an itinerary of the cookie-cutter Australian media and divisive political scene:

Get a shot or two of 
the politicians in the pews, 
and the comforting the next 
of kin outside the church. 
After all they’ve sacrificed 
their precious time to
attend the service, and 
they like to see that we’ve 
stuck to the template.

The words ‘cliché’ and ‘template’ are key here. The tired terminology is fixed in repetition, an endless ventriloquy hovering over texts, criticising and energising in turn. The geographic impulses that these texts address is one of renewal, the language resonating with a precise duplicity that recognises regardless of the place, we encounter distance, we are always a tourist on the outskirts of a template, political, humorous or based in the explorative:

This rule is our rule: 
THIS DAY IS NOT FOR YOU

(‘Anzacery’, by Hopkins).

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017 except content from Cordite Poetry Review 2016