Image and Life: Pim Verkleij on the Biopic Documentary

juni 13, 2017


Take these two scenes from Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro; in the first, we are shown footage of recent protests in Oklahoma and San Diego, following the shooting of black men by the police; in the second, Samuel L. Jackson reads a passage from James Baldwin’s memoirs, in which the African-American author recounts that he was at a swimming pool in New Orleans when he received a phone call informing him of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Instead of visually approximating Baldwin’s sentiments following this horrific event, I Am Not Your Negro shows us the image of a swimming pool, accompanied by the sound of a ringing phone. These two scenes serve to exemplify the main strength and weakness of the film. Its weakness lies in its too literal interpretation of Baldwin’s narration, while the film should be praised for staying true to the spirit of the documentary genre—a genre generally associated with more universal subjects such as war, climate change and foreign cultures—by using the individual as a mouthpiece through which the respective zeitgeist can be interpreted. When comparing I Am Not Your Negro to two other recent biopic documentaries, Citizen Schein and David Lynch: The Art Life, it becomes clear that it is an anomaly in this respect, as the other films appropriate the genre to glorify single individuals.


In light of this, it a shame that I Am Not Your Negro contains a few instances similar to the one described above, in which the visual aspect of the film constitutes a too literal interpretation of Baldwin’s memoirs, thereby becoming more of a trivialisation rather than an addition. This problem arises as the biopic documentary relies on voice-over narration and interviews to propel its narrative. While the latter has a clear subject (a person talking), the relation between the audio and the visual is more ambiguous in the case of the voice-over, precisely because it sometimes lacks a concrete subject. As such, the director is faced with the task of visually interpreting this ambiguity. Thus, the question becomes: does he strive for a verbatim interpretation or does he aim to more poetically approach the narration, by connecting it to the overarching ideas of the film? With I Am Not Your Negro it seems as if Peck has chosen for a more literal interpretation. This is especially lamentable as the film excels in using Baldwin’s persona as a vehicle to mediate on the history of racial discrimination in America, thus creating a broader perspective in light of which the ambiguity of the voice-over could have easily been used to add to the poignancy of its subject. Nevertheless, fact remains that I Am Not Your Negro manages to transcend the individual, in contrast to most biopic documentaries, which, because of the central role they allocate to the ego, are hardly distinguishable from regular biopics.


Citizen Schein is one such as example as it only addresses the world outside of its protagonist through his interaction with it. That the film, centering on the life of Harry Schein, a Jewish immigrant from Austria who became an important cultural figure in post-war Sweden, provides a fairly complete overview of Swedish society is only due to Schein’s omnipresent within it. During the few instances in which the narration becomes a bit more abstract, Citizen Schein, like I Am Not Your Negro, sticks to a verbatim interpretation. One such moment occurs when Schein is forced to quit his regular tennis matches with Swedish prime-minister Olof Palme, as the latter has been assassinated. Instead of visually approximating the loss of a close friend, we are shown an empty tennis court. Because of the central position Citizen Schein allocates to the individual, it lacks an overarching idea from which a poetical interpretation could originate.


In a similar vein, David Lynch: The Art Life idolises the creative genius of the film director of the same name. Where Citizen Schein still provides a fairly inclusive image of post-war Sweden, The Art Life seldom focusses on something other than Lynch himself. The obsession with the individual is best exemplified by the fact that the director is the only one interviewed about his life, as if an outside opinion would break the spell. A rare glimpse of post-war America occurs when Lynch recounts the years he spent in a deprived urban area in dilapidated Philadelphia. Because The Art Life has David Lynch as its overarching theme, it, contrary to I Am Not Your Negro and Citizen Schein, manages to find a visual solution when more abstract topics arise in the narration, by simply showing the director painting in his studio or speaking towards the camera. In using Lynch as the sole perspective on his own life, The Art Life glorifies his creative genius even more than if it had been a biopic. In case of the latter, reenactment of the director’s life would at least have left the spectators with room to make up their own mind about its subject. Instead, The Art Life uses a documentary to glorify an ego. In doing so, it appropriates a universal genre to highlight the particular, a movement which can be seen to be consonance with an ever increasing emphasise on the ‘I’ in ‘Individual’ in today’s time.
Pim Verkleij



Pim Verkleij, född 1993, studerar filmvetenskap vid Stockholms universitet och praktiserar på Kritiklabbet.


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