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Which Documentaries Help Make Sense of the World Today? — IndieWire Critics Survey

James Baldwin died in 1987, but "I Am Not Your Negro" presents his words in the present tense. Critics name other docs that resonate today.

James Baldwin Raoul Peck I am Not Your Negro

“I Am Not Your Negro”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: This past Friday saw the release of Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary that speaks to our present moment through the writings and actions of the late James Baldwin. What other documentaries — recent or not — might help people better understand and / or respond to the state of the world today?

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

“The state of the world today” is too big a matter for any one documentary, because there’s no one state of things, there’s an overwhelming diversity of experiences — and the history of movies is as much the history of the ones that it doesn’t show. But to respond in a limited way, in terms of the racist and quasi-fascist regime that has taken over the United States, the first movie that comes to mind isn’t a documentary, it’s Joseph Mankiewicz’s drama “No Way Out,” about a white criminal and rabid racist who’s so put out at being treated by a black doctor (actually, so put out that a black guy is a doctor when he himself is a greedy ignoramus) that he trumps up charges against him and sparks a race riot.

But to the question, three documentaries come to mind. First, Leo Hurwitz’s “Strange Victory,” which is both an object of nostalgia — centered around the time when the United States government defeated fascists rather than employing them–and bitterly contemporary, in its vision of  veterans who return home to find the country in the grips of racist persecution and violence akin to that which they had risked their lives to defeat. Then, Robert Drew’s “The Children Were Watching,” in which a bunch of whites, civilians and officials alike, have the same conniption over the integration of schools that they’re having now over the diversity of American society at large. Third, given that more than eighty percent of evangelical Christians voted for a boastfully avowing sexual predator, the mysteries of Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan’s “Marjoe” require attention.

Plus, of course, Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” which should be playing in every multiplex, broadcast on every news channel, and shown in every school.

“The Look of Silence”

Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), The Guardian

“Koyaanisqatsi” takes its name from the Hopi language term for “life out of balance,” which sure as heck sums up how I feel right now.

READ MORE: “I Am Not Your Negro” Review: Samuel L. Jackson Brings James Baldwin’s Words To Life In The Year’s Most Important Oscar Nominee

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance with Vulture, the Verge, Rolling Stone

After I first saw “The Look of Silence” in the summer of 2015, I remember leaving the theater thinking about the quality of true evil, and how scarce it was in my life. I had encountered petty, self-centered, rude, and even cruel people wth some regularity in my day-to-day doings, but the willful malevolence of evil — the twisted pleasure coming from doing harm and causing despair — still felt to me like the province of YA fantasy-lit villains. Call it optimistic or naive, but I genuinely believed that everyone had some shred of empathy in them, that if you looked into your tormentor’s eyes and clearly expressed that what they’re doing is causing you pain, it’d give them some moral pause.

Even after having witnessed the remorselessness of the aging former Indonesian death squad leaders in “The Act of Killing” a couple years earlier, I was freshly scandalized by Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece. I assumed that the men responsible for the massacres in 1965 and 1966 believed themselves to be soldiers, doing what was difficult for the sake of what was right. But as Adi Rukun confronts them, he plumbs the depths of their sadism and finds them to be boundless. The men were proud of the ruin they’d caused. Seeing them actually brag about drinking the blood of their victims make my stomach turn. Villainy is real, and American now know that the far-flung isolation of the South Pacific isn’t the only terrain in which it can take root.

That is what repulses and frightens me about Donald Trump — it’s not that he’s stupid, or that he’s boorish, or that he’s narcissistic, or that he’s so tacky Carson Kressley would commit suicide before agreeing to give him a makeover. He’s a villain, a genuinely hateful man who mushes his sagging lips into a flaccid little smirk when he thinks he’s gotten one over on any of his many enemies. There’s a part of me that doesn’t think Trump has the organizational skills to successfully coordinate a genocide, and then there’s another part of me that thinks that all it takes is the desire to do so.

“The Central Park Five”

Alissa Wilkinson (@alissamarie), Vox

Because so much of our present moment seems to stem from bad ideas about the past, the most sobering (but vital) docs are the ones that fill in some of the gaps and draw lines from the past to the present. With that in mind, one strong combination (though there are many) would be Ken Burns’s “The Central Park Five” and Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America.” But I’d sprinkle in a rewatch of “The Act of Killing,” too, which taps more deeply into acts of cruelty and the human soul.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

“Shoah” is the first thing that comes to mind, but I’d rather not take things in that direction (at least not for this survey), so instead I’ll highlight Orson Welles’ “F for Fake.” This sneaky, endlessly knotted essay film will be relevant for as long as there are humans alive to deceive each other (however long that is), but Welles’ fascination with charlatans, forgeries, and doublespeak only cuts deeper by the day. The film limits its scope to the art world, but today it applies to everything. As fabricator extraordinaire Clifford Irving says with a sigh: “All the world loves to see the experts and the establishment made a fool of.” And as Welles is quick to retort: “Cliff Irving’s caper may well be the hoax of the century, but, really, this is not, you know, in any way the century of the hoax. We hanky-panky men have always been with you.”

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics and Film School Rejects

I wish that I could think of more hopeful documentaries to help us in these times, but the stuff I believe relates most to current events is rather scary. There’s Alex Gibney’s chilling cyber warfare feature from last year, “Zero Days,” which I think teases an even darker future ahead. With the rise of white nationalism in the public eye in the last year, I keep recalling that I saw it coming thanks to the flawed but now quite relevant “Welcome to Leith,” which showed we’d already been there in the background. Chris Smith’s 2009 feature “Collapse” is back in my mind lately as one of the most effective nightmare-inspiring nonfiction films of the past decade. Might as well throw in the old Oscar winner “Black Fox: The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler,” too. And others of its kind.

More akin to “I Am Not Your Negro,” there are its two similar fellow Oscar nominees. Ava DuVernay’s “13th” is more of a counterpart with the race relations issues but is much more of a firecracker in its impact. And “OJ: Made in America” is less reflective of specific current events but if you watch the recent Frontline doc “Divided States of America” you should get a sense that the transition from Obama to Trump has a lot to say about America in the way that OJ’s racial identity does before, during and after the murder trial, as depicted in that lengthy feature.

I guess if you want something more hopeful, watch “How to Survive a Plague,” a film that chronicles very tragic times with its history of HIV/AIDS activism and the mission to find treatment if not a cure. It’s a film that will have you crying sad tears throughout until the end when you’ll be crying optimistic joyful tears with the proof that at least partial happy endings can come about in even the dourest of stories.

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “I Am Not Your Negro”

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