Our Opinion: Film is a tool to bring black history to life

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Movie screens the last few years have offered films and documentaries about the African-American experience in numbers and quality that may be unprecedented. Beyond their own value as an art form, they introduce writers and political figures who are too little known, or if known, have been misrepresented.

On Wednesday morning, screenings of the Oscar-nominated documentary "I Am Not Your Negro" at the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield brought author James Baldwin back to life for about 300 Berkshire students (Eagle, April 13.) The Beacon, the Berkshire branch of the NAACP and The Berkshire Eagle sponsored the screenings, which were organized by local educator and activist Shirley Edgerton, NAACP President Dennis Powell, and New England Newspapers Vice President of Audience, Sales and Marketing Warren Dews.

A novelist, essayist, playwright, historian and social critic, James Baldwin was to the 1960s and '70s what Great Barrington native W.E.B. Du Bois was to the early decades of the 20th century. Both chronicled the black experience in America and in doing so shed light on racism and discriminatory practices that were otherwise overlooked or covered up. Although Mr. Baldwin died in 1987, seminal works like "Notes of a Native Son" and "Nobody Knows My Name" remain on college reading lists, and clips of the eloquent Mr. Baldwin discussing his work and life experiences in "I Am Not Your Negro" have resonance today.

Mr. Baldwin was an admirer of civil rights leader Malcolm X, who as Taconic High School senior Trevor Taylor observed in The Eagle Thursday, was portrayed with greater complexity in "I Am Not Your Negro" than he had experienced before. Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965, is often portrayed as the militant flip side to Martin Luther King's man of peace, but the evolution of Malcolm X brought him closer to the creed of MLK. The 1992 release of the film "Malcolm X" led to renewed interest in "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and a greater understanding of this complex historic figure.

If younger generations are strongly attuned to visual mediums, films should be used by schools and other groups and individuals trying to reach them. (The 2014 film "Selma," which is centered around the bloody consequences of Martin Luther King's campaign to secure voting rights for African-Americans in Alabama is high on the list of films that should be seen by young people.) They should be an entry point, not an end point, however, as even the best films will take dramatic liberties because of time constraints while others (like Oliver Stone's "JFK") will thoroughly mislead and confuse.

Ideally, as was the case with the "Malcolm X" film, these movies will inspire young people to the writings of African-Americans like Dr. King, Malcolm X and W.E.B. Du Bois and well-researched books about them. Those works provide historic context to contemporary newspaper and electronic media stories about the prejudice that is still pervasive in American society at a time when too many feel newly emboldened to engage in racist speech and behavior.

These films, books and news stories deserve an audience beyond African-Americans. Pittsfield High School sophomore Jonathan Campbell said "Black history is everyone's history" in The Eagle, and black history in the U.S. is indeed as old as the nation itself. The complexities of black Americans' relationship with white Americans today can't be understood, or those relationships improved to the betterment of all, without knowledge of that history.
















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