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How Political Should (Documentary) Movie Reviews Get?

The other night—over a round of drinks, admittedly—I engaged in a lively and animated debate over certain political issues facing America today. This debate, held with a good friend of mine, stemmed off of a discussion of a film that I had seen that day.

The film was a documentary by the name of I Am Not Your Negro. Talk of this and another politically-charged doc from last year, 13th, sparked a conversation that I did not foresee, and it made me think about the nature of documentary criticism.

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In my review of I Am Not Your Negro, I lauded the film for reminding U.S. audiences of James Baldwin’s poignant words, saying that they are as necessary to hear now as when they were said during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In my mind, this was not a controversial statement, and I certainly believe that the message of the film is important. But to my friend this was a political statement for me to make as a critic, and a lengthy discussion soon followed.

In looking into I Am Not Your Negro for the sake of this editorial, I read the negative reviews of the film on Rotten Tomatoes (there are only two explicitly negative reviews, so my research is admittedly not that deep). Both of these reviews (read: here and here) did indeed take the opposite stance of mine, saying that Baldwin’s words are being perverted by Raoul Peck bringing it into the present political climate or otherwise omitting other Baldwin texts.

To be frank, one of these reviews makes a factual misinterpretation of Baldwin’s views as expressed in the film, which makes it hard to really bring that review into this argument.

Both reviews also took into account the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of Baldwin, citing it as a poor choice. I found that interesting, although not entirely inarguable.

The point is, in short, that even though I Am Not Your Negro is being almost universally heralded, that does not mean that the critical statements are devoid of politicization, and this includes my own review.

Quality film criticism, in my opinion, relies on the reviewer’s ability to remain as objective as possible. I try to start at a point as close to neutrality as I can before viewing a film. True neutrality is impossible, given a person’s reaction to art is dictated by prior experience and exposure to other texts. But reviewing a film from a place of subjectivity is to alienate those reading the reviews, and the purpose of the criticism is thus lost.

How, then, does one properly review a documentary, particularly one with a political bent? It is impossible for me to watch a political film without it being viewed through my personal political lens. And this is true of anyone not living in a vacuum.

If I were to review I Am Not Your Negro without addressing the politics, then the review would serve little purpose. I would be able to comment on the quality of the voiceover and the editors ability to cut together the archival footage. The true heart of the film would be left as an elephant in the room uncommented on.

In my review of 13th, I made comment on what I viewed a slightly hyperbolic thesis statement, and then I attempted to focus on what the film presented as facts. But still my commentary is inextricably linked with politics, whether I am trying to make a political statement or not. In a reductive sense, merely rating a political film positively or negatively makes a review political, regardless of the content of the review.

In one sense, reviewing documentaries with a goal of objectivity is a no win game. But does that make reviewing documentaries a futile effort?

Returning to the premise of this editorial, my debate with this friend of mine—a debate largely healthy but made slightly more volatile given long island iced teas and my affinity for Jameson—was a revealing one. I learned about political perspectives of my friend that I was not previously aware of.

Gaining knowledge of ideologies other than one’s own is important civic engagement. Did my friend convince me to alter my views? Not really, and I am sure she was not swayed by my inarticulate misquotations of facts. But healthy debate is, for lack of a better term, healthy.

The question remains, then, whether this outlet for debate is appropriate for the world of film criticism. The film world largely situated within the progressive left, speaking politics in film criticism may appear like shouting into the bubble. Not to mention that putting this criticism on the internet is merely contributing to the din of noise reverberating against the domain name echo chambers that exemplify both the strength and detriment of free speech.

I don’t find myself particularly capable when it comes to documentary film criticism. Perhaps this is why. Perhaps I find myself at a disconnect where I want to prevent personal commentary but can’t quite escape it. But I think documentaries are an easy medium by which revealing subject matter can be brought to light to the masses.

The question of truth in documentary aside, the genre is helpful. So I feel that continuing to review them accordingly is something I should do. Political or not. Contributing to echo chambers or not.

I find it fascinating that the crux of my debate with this friend was semantic in nature. It was about what we mean when we say X or Y. I think this is an important point, that terms are more often misinterpreted than the meaning of the systems they represent. My friend and I found ourselves agreeing about things but not agreeing on how we label the parts. Again, this represents the importance of good cross-boundary discourse. Misunderstanding can be cause for divide more than ideological differences, in some cases.

Apologies that this has sunken into proselytizing about multi-partisan communication. But what’s the point of having a platform if you can’t force folks to read your bull****. The internet, folks. It’s not getting any better.

 

As always, thanks for reading!

Am I making sense here, or is that Jameson going straight to my head? Is Hollywood an echo chamber? Are politics right or wrong for film criticism? Does anyone care? Nope.

—Alex Brannan

 

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