This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Young Karl Marx’ Gives Communism Its Very Own Cookie-Cutter Biopic

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CREDIT: The Orchard

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Krieps, Olivier Gourmet, Hannah Steele

Director: Raoul Peck

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Probably Be PG-13 for Philosophically Fueled Arguments

Release Date: February 23, 2018 (Limited Theatrically)/March 6, 2018 (Digital and On Demand)

Among history’s most influential philosophers, Karl Marx deserves a lot of credit for clearly keeping in mind that his ideas exist for people. It is not particularly useful to get bogged down in theory when you could actually improve the way people live. The human element is baked right into his writing, especially his most famous quote: “Workers of the world, unite!” That spirit is clearly present in The Young Karl Marx, which is less about how the socialist pioneer wrote The Communist Manifesto and changed the course of history and more about how he had a wife and kids and friends and acquaintances. This focus offers an appropriately fraternal approach, but it also makes for a rather run-of-the-mill biopic.

The Young Karl Marx has a notably multicultural background, as it features two German actors (August Diehl and Stefan Konarske, respectively) as Marx and Friedrich Engels, a Luxembourgian (Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps) as Marx’s wife Jenny, and a supporting cast of Belgians, French, and Brits. Plus, its director is the Haitian Raoul Peck (probably best known for the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro), and its dialogue weaves seamlessly between German, French, and English. This diversity may have some thematic connection to worldwide proletariat unity, but in practice it feels haphazard. Besides, it is simply a fact that Marx and Engels were multilingual. The polyglot nature feels meaningful and important, but it never goes much beyond the surface.

And that total straightforwardness is really the trouble with The Young Karl Marx. This is a major case of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened, the end.” Marx and Engels meet uneasily at first, and then they become great friends. They have disagreements with other philosophers who are too theory-centric, but then they all more or less come to an understanding with each other. Workers are suspicious of Engels’ motives, as he comes from a more privileged background, but then he proves his bona fides. Marx and Jenny struggle to get by on his writing income, and then they continue their lives together. It is all more or less acted with spirit, vigor, and dignity, and then The Communist Manifesto goes on to be one of the most influential texts of all time. If you’ve ever been exposed to Marxim, The Young Karl Marx won’t tell you anything new. It’s only worth seeking out if you’re a completist when it comes to historical figures’ domesticity.

The Young Karl Marx is Recommended If You Like: The home lives of philosophers, Debates about materialism and Hegelianism

Grade: 2 out of 5 Bourgeois Notions

This Is a Movie Review: I Am Not Your Negro

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This review was originally published on News Cult in 2017.

Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Raoul Peck

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for a Little More Explicitness Than the Title

Release Date: February 3, 2017 (Limited)

Nobody wants a documentary entitled I Am Not Your Negro to still be timeless in 2017, but here we are. The film is based on Remember This House, a manuscript by Harlem Renaissance writer James Baldwin that remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1987. Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s words, because when you want a voice to expound upon the legacy and persistence of racism in America, Sam is your man.

With its mix of archival news footage, still photography, and other various media clips (old movies to represent the American myth, game shows to represent capitalism), I Am Not Your Negro is not your typical cinematic experience. It plays more like a museum exhibit with a visual component. But please do not let the edutainment implication that description might inspire scare you away. I just want to make sure you know what you are in for. This is a vibrant, exciting experience, different though it may be.

But I do not want to discount the educational value. The film places Baldwin squarely in the context of the civil rights movement. He was an important figure right alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but he seems to be shunted off to a different historical pocket, perhaps because of his status as an artist. I fear that tendency is a grave mistake, especially in today’s climate.

Finally, dear viewers, pay particular attention to the scenes from Baldwin’s appearance on a 1968 episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss shows up to challenge Baldwin’s perspective, and the resulting rhetorical scuffle is a powerful display of the importance of listening and insisting that voices be heard and ideals be put into action.

I Am Not Your Negro is Recommended If You Like: Staying Woke, the Harlem Renaissance, the Dulcet Tones of Samuel L. Jackson

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Artist-Activists