by Ashley Naftule
A few years ago, I caught a rare screening of Wonder Bar on TCM. It was at 2am- I was tired and almost delirious from lack of sleep, but still too buzzed to hit the hay (ah, manic episodes: Nature’s Red Bull). Watching “Wonder Bar” when you’re rested feels like a bad dream; seeing it with eyes half shut and a brain drowning in half-formed ideas and exhaustion makes it an almost hallucinatory experience.
Directed by Lloyd Bacon (what fresh hell, to be born before your namesake was a meme!), the only reason why anybody would want to see this poorly paced Pre-Code musical is for the Busby Berkeley choreographed dance numbers. Al Jolson stars in it, and he’s so hammy and arch in it that I could actually hear my pillow whispering to me from across the room during the screening. “Come to me, sweetness,” it seemed to say. “Staring at a wall for an hour is better than this.”
And then, as the film winds down, the dreaded moment that I knew was coming happened: Jolson did blackface. I hadn’t seen a blackface performance before- what struck me about it immediately is how terrible it was. And I don’t mean in a moral or philosophical sense (though it certainly is terrible by those standards)- it just seemed terrible as entertainment. I couldn’t imagine how anyone, in any era, could watch Jolson bug out and wince and throw up spastic jazz hands with that cork on his face and not just be put off by it. It was hacky, hamfisted, and just plain weird to look at.
Jolson’s blackface wasn’t the worst part- he was just the segue into “Goin’ to Heaven On A Mule,” which might be the most deliriously racist thing I’ve ever seen on film. The film cuts from Jolson performing in front of a shack to a city in the clouds, with Jolson riding his mule across an arched bridge. He gets there and there are black-faced cherubim, a heavenly machine that turns anything into fried chicken, even backup dancers wearing giant watermelon slice costumes.
The entire sequence feels like some incredibly fucked-up game of “Can You Top This?”. Just when I saw something that seemed over-the-pale that made me say “It can’t get worse than that”, the camera would cut to something even more offensive and preposterous. As though the film itself was anticipating my reaction and was trying to fuck with me.
When I would tell people about the movie, most of them flat out wouldn’t believe me. They were convinced I was making it up. There were some moments where I almost wondered if I had- the sequence was so over the top, it didn’t seem totally crazy to think that maybe I had fallen asleep while watching TV. Perhaps my brain, influenced by Jolson’s grotesque routine, had decided to project a freaky racist dream onto the backs of my closed eyelids. When I watched “Wonder Bar” years later (this time well-rested), I actually felt relieved when the Heaven scene began, confirming once and for all that it wasn’t a malign figment of my imagination.
Watching Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro over the weekend, I couldn’t help but think about Wonder Bar. The dreadful movie came to my mind as Peck cut in archival footage from the civil rights era- images of angry, sneering whites holding up swastika flags with one hand while the other held glass Coke bottles (two American pastimes in one!); signs that screamed epithets and screeds against race-mixing; watching kids and the elderly alike crowd young African-American girls as they were trying to go to school, menacing them with hostile, too-close-for-comfort body language and verbal abuse. It’s easy to read about how awful the past was; quite another to see that it was even worse than you could have possibly imagined. And worst of all- the realization that it doesn’t look all that much different from the present.
Peck’s film uses notes that author James Baldwin had compiled when he was reluctantly working on a project called “Remember This House”, about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr (Baldwin knew all three men, making the experience of chronicling their histories excruciating for him). It also draws on other works of Baldwin’s, in particular “The Devil Finds Work,” his unnerving meditation on race and the movies.
Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s work with a voice that’s heavy with grave authority and weariness. His distinctive voice is almost unrecognizable; he sounds exhausted and humbled by the experience of reading Baldwin’s words, like the act of letting a dead man speak through him has hollowed him out. It’s a startling reminder of Jackson’s range as an actor: after so many years of Marvel movies and shouting on airplanes, it’s a welcome reminder that the man can still work his magic in a lower key.
While Peck uses the narration to give his montages context, he also lets his subject speak for himself. Archival footage of Baldwin is cut in throughout the film, and the man has a magnetic presence. His voice is a stark contrast from Jackson’s gravelly narration: Baldwin’s speaking voice is nimble and mellifluous. The only thing it has in common with Jackson’s is that weariness, that fatigue of the soul. Baldwin talks and looks like a man who’s waiting to be crushed under God’s heel at any moment.
What’s striking about Peck’s film is how utterly of-the-moment it feels. While it bombards us with images that seem as grotesque and unthinkable as that trip to Heaven in “Wonder Bar” (Peck shows us photos of lynchings, jeering racist demonstrations in public, even a well-meaning industrial film explaining how to sell products to middle-class black families that can’t help but feel patronizing and wrong), so much of what Baldwin talks about and what his friends struggled against feels just as present today.
To underline that point, Peck cuts between footage of demonstrations in Selma to the Ferguson riots. Watching a frustrated Baldwin angrily decimate a condescending Paul Weiss on a talk show (after the professor suggested he was exaggerating the problem of racism), the author seemed like a stand-in for every frustrated Black Lives Matter activist who’s had to explain that we DON’T live in a post-racial society. Even a section where Robert Kennedy talks about the possibility of a black American becoming President in ’40 years’ is treated with withering scorn by Baldwin:
“From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency. We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.”
In addition to the Civil Rights era footage, Peck also cuts in segments from a variety of Hollywood films- King Kong, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, The Defiant Ones, and a bevy of Stanley Donen musicals. Twinkling Doris Day confectionaries like The Pajama Game look ugly and fake when juxtaposed against the harsh reality of Baldwin’s time.
In a way, the sight of Doris Day glittering with jewels in a kitchen or frolicking in a park felt like watching “Goin’ To Heaven On A Mule” all over again: yet another vision of a false Paradise. To highlight that uneasiness, Jackson quotes Baldwin quoting The Idiot – a passage in which one of Dostoyevsky’s characters explains how he can’t bear the sight of full bread carts because it reminds him of all the hundreds of people who had to suffer and starve to fill them. Peck shows us footage of old movies bereft of black actors (save for a token few playing stereotypical roles) to elicit that same reaction. We see the bread carts, not the people who help bake and wheel them out. It’s basically the history of America in a nutshell: behold our works, ye mighty, and pay no attention to the bodies buried under them.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is an enlightening movie, full of fascinating trains of thoughts, brilliant Baldwin quotes, and provocative perspectives on the history of movies. It’s also the kind of film that will probably make most human beings feel like complete shit after watching. It’s a raspberry blown in the face of Progress, a reminder of just how far we have to go still. But it does offer some hope, in the form of Baldwin himself.
For a man who’s watched three close friends die and experienced countless instances of hate, he steadfastly refused to be bitter. He was angry, he was filled with righteous fury, but as he expresses time and time again in the film, he has some hope that things can get better. He’s weary and cautious, like someone who loves dogs but keeps getting bitten by them. He’s an example to live by, for people from any background: to be open, to be passionate, to be willing to try to make a difference… but to also be smart enough to know you should always keep your guard up.
“I Am Not Your Negro” opens at FilmBar this weekend. You should go see it. “Wonder Bar” is available through Warner Bros’ Archival Collection. Trust me- there’s better ways to spend $20.