Healing our collective soul

I am not your negro

This emotional powerhouse of a film features Samuel L. Jackson reading James Baldwin’s writings and pairs the two with heartbreaking archival footage to show us how and why white America’s “negro problem” is actually an urgent call for white Americans to reclaim their own shriveled souls. Against footage of beatings, lynchings, white adults spitting on black schoolchildren, and so on, we hear Baldwin’s words, I’m terrified at the moral apathy — the death of the heart which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long, that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say, and this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters.” 

Baldwin’s stance is built on a foundation laid by both Gandhi and Martin Luther King—that standing up to oppression is necessary for the soul of the oppressor as much as for the wellbeing of the oppressed. The “standing up” is necessary to challenge that moral apathy we see so prevalent in our culture today. How many Americans can even name the countries the United States is currently bombing? How many know how many foreign governments we have overthrown? How many children we have starved? There is a legal term, “depraved indifference,” to describe “conduct which is so reckless, wanton and deficient and lacking in regard for the lives of others as to warrant the same culpability as the individual who actually commits a crime.” How are we, as a nation, not guilty and stand in need of conducting a complete moral inventory on behalf of our own collective souls?

Directed by Raoul Peck, a Haitian filmmaker who previously directed Lumumba, I am not your negro was nominated for the 2016 Best Documentary Feature and was described by the New York Times as “one of the best films you are likely to see this year.” The film also has a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 97%, based on 78 reviews, with an average rating of 9/10. The site’s critical consensus reads, “I Am Not Your Negro offers an incendiary snapshot of James Baldwin’s crucial observations on American race relations — and a sobering reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.” On Metacritic, the film has a score of 96 out of 100, based on 30 critics, indicating “universal acclaim.”

Having watched the film twice, as well as all the special features included on the Netflix DVD version, I can only hope that more white Americans will heed Baldwin’s call to examine our collective history, own up to our collective shadow, and realize that black-Americans’ fate is inextricably tied up with ours; we share the same history; the same ancestors; the same geography. There IS no us vs. them; there’s only us.

The film is available on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and from its own website.


“Tawai” is a term the nomadic hunter-gatherers of Borneo use to describe the profound visceral sense of peace and wholeness they feel immersed in nature. In this 2017 documentary, British director and explorer Bruce Parry joins Borneo’s remote Penan tribe to see what this isolated indigenous people can teach us about our own survival and that of the planet. Parry films the tribe as their way of life becomes threatened by logging companies entering their beloved forest.

The healing effect of nature on the Penan—and its absence in the daily life of most modern humans—is not lost on Parry, who appeals to Westerners to reevaluate their existence (do some soul-searching) and start to recognize humankind as a whole, rather divided nations. Instead of blaming environmental destruction on foreign criminals or corrupt governments, Parry asks viewers to consider their own responsibility, saying, “My hope is that [the film] inspires a new state of awareness. It’s a kind and gentle invitation for us to reflect on ourselves. Until we look at ourselves, these things will continue.

“Globalized trade and our desire for goods is at the heart of this. It’s hard to acknowledge that, really hard. But until we do, I don’t think there is a solution. We need to think before we get hardwood furniture, or put a beautiful ring on our loved one’s finger, or buy a new phone or fill our car with petrol.”

Tawai has been favorably reviewed by critics ranging from The Guardian to The Times. It can be viewed on the film’s website, or via various video platforms, including Amazon, Apple, and others.

Innsaei: The Power of Intuition

According to this 2016 documentary’s website, the ancient Icelandic word for intuition is “innsæi,” which has multiple meanings. It can mean “the sea within,” which is the borderless nature of our inner world, a constantly moving world of vision, feelings and imagination beyond words. It can mean “to see within,” which means to know yourself well enough to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. And it can mean “to see from the inside out,” which is to have an inner compass adequate to navigate your way in our ever-changing world. In this film, Icelandic directors Hrund Gunnsteinsdottir and Kristín Ólafsdóttir invite us on a journey about utilizing our intuition to explore the sea within. In doing so, we may find ourselves more intimately connected with the world we live in.

Interviewing a broad spectrum of thinkers, from contemporary neurologist Marti Spiegelman, to consciousness-raising performance artist Marina Abramovic, to West African spiritual elder Malidoma Patrice Somé, the filmmakers strive to shed light on how we might reclaim our sense of purpose and belonging by tuning more deeply within. They also introduce us to group of British schoolchildren who are learning how to better cope in today’s world by unlocking the power of nature and mindfulness. Illustrated with evocative animations and stunning imagery from the natural world, Innsaei is, itself, a kind of meditation on how we might better sense and interact with our world.

Distributed by Zeitgeist Films, Innsaei is available from the Zeitgeist website and Netflix.

I Am

Director Tom Shadyac, known for comedic blockbusters like “Ace Ventura,” The Nutty Professor” and “Liar, Liar,” survives a serious cycling accident, which prompts him to reexamine his life and purpose. The examination results in this documentary, in which he poses two practical and provocative questions: what’s wrong with our world, and what can we do to make it better? Determined to share his own awakening to his prior life of excess and greed, he investigates how he as an individual, and we as a species, could improve the way we live in the world. In other words, Shadyac does his own soul retrieval work.

With a small film crew, Shadyac sets out on a twenty-first-century quest for enlightenment, interviewing the likes of David Suzuki, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lynne McTaggart, Ray Anderson, John Francis, Coleman Barks, and Marc Ian Barasch.

“What I discovered, when I began to look deeply,” he says, “was that the world I was living in was a lie. Much to my surprise, the accumulation of material wealth was a neutral phenomenon, neither good nor bad, yet certainly did not buy happiness.” Gradually, with much consideration and contemplation, he changed his lifestyle, selling his 17,000-square-foot home, moving to a mobile home community, and adopting a simpler and more responsible life.

For his 2011 documentary, Shadyac “didn’t want to hear the usual answers, like war, hunger, poverty, the environmental crisis, or even greed,” to describe what is wrong with the world. To his way of thinking, “These are not the problems, they are the symptoms of a larger endemic problem. In I AM, I wanted to talk about the root cause of the ills of the world, because if there is a common cause, and we can talk about it, air it out in a public forum, then we have a chance to solve it.”

Ironically, in the process of trying to figure out what’s wrong with the world, Shadyac discovered there’s more right than he ever imagined. He learned that the heart, not the brain, may be man’s primary organ of intelligence, and that human consciousness and emotions can actually affect the physical world, a point Shadyac makes with great humor by demonstrating the impact of his feelings on a bowl of yogurt. And, as Shadyac’s own story illustrates, money is not a pathway to happiness. In fact, he even learns that in some native cultures, gross materialism is equated with insanity.

Shadyac also discovers that, contrary to conventional thinking, cooperation and not competition, may be nature’s most fundamental operating principle. Thus, I AM shows consensus decision-making is the norm amongst many species, from insects and birds to deer and primates. The film further discovers that humans actually function better and remain healthier when expressing positive emotions, such as love, care, compassion, and gratitude, versus their negative counterparts, anxiety, frustration, anger, and fear.

“It was a revelation to me that for tens of thousands of years, indigenous cultures taught a very different story about our inherent goodness,” Shadyac says. “Now, following this ancient wisdom, science is discovering a plethora of evidence about our hardwiring for connection and compassion, from the vagus nerve, which releases oxytocin at simply witnessing a compassionate act, to the mirror neuron, which causes us to literally feel another person’s pain. Darwin himself, who was misunderstood to believe exclusively in our competitiveness, actually noted that humankind’s real power comes in their ability to perform complex tasks together, to sympathize and cooperate.”

While Shadyac does explore what’s wrong with the world, the film’s overwhelming emphasis is on what we can do to make it better.  Watching I AM is ultimately, for many, a transformative experience, yet Shadyac is reluctant to give specific steps for viewers who have been energized by the film.  “What can I do? I get asked that a lot,” he says. “But the solution begins with a deeper transformation that must occur in each of us.  I AM isn’t as much about what you can do, as who you can be.  And from that transformation of being, action will naturally follow.”

I Am received mixed reviews from critics. For example, Roger Ebert said the “film is often absurd and never less than giddy with uplift, but that’s not to say it’s bad. I watched with an incredulous delight, and at the end, I liked Tom Shadyac quite a lot…he offers us this hopeful if somewhat undigested cut of his findings, in a film as watchable as a really good TV commercial, and just as deep.” The aggregate critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes was only 38%; however 80% of audiences liked it.

It is available from the I Am website, Netflix, Amazon, and other platforms.

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