There’s something whimsical about writing this movie review, namely the fact that an infinite number of assumptions and prejudices are going to be brought into the theater when the prospective film-goer sits down for The Young Karl Marx, directed by Raoul Peck. This is because the word ‘Marx’ itself does not just signify the existence of a human being named Karl who wrote a lot of things in the 19th century, most of it quite technical and related to developing an analytical framework for describing the inner workings of Victorian capitalism. Instead, the word connotes absolutely everything imaginable, from absurd conspiracy theories (‘Cultural Marxism’) to esoteric and rather confusing lectures on the meaning of literature (Western Marxism) to methodological pathways towards liberation utilized over the past century by people who were called ‘the wretched of the earth’ (Marxism-Leninism or one of its descendants, opponents, or variations). By my count Wikipedia lists 35 different variations (more than Baskin-Robbins!) and still leaves out several others types that could be added.
And so perhaps we should start with the end, which gives us a place of firm understanding about what we have just been through as opposed to the beginning, wherein the prospective film-goer hath little sense of what to expect. Peck chooses to end his film with Bob Dylan’s epic Like a Rolling Stone, a musical selection that says so much about what he wants the film to be. That anthem was of course the explosive, controversial letter bomb that fell upon the ears of the patrons to the Newport Folk Festival with the heat and fury of a lightening bolt. After having been the darling of a veritable chart-topping folk music revival that paired him with Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, Dylan went on stage in July 1965 and gave his fans the a musical middle finger. Peck is choosing this song as the closer because he wants us to understand his young Karl Marx is as wild and unorthodox a genius as the man who asked ‘How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?‘
However, lest one misunderstand the coloration of this affair and deduce this is effectively a 19th century white hipster bro-mance, perhaps Wedding Crashers in Pantaloons, look to the past films directed by Peck for several profound insights. His most recent film was last year’s jaw-dropping epic documentary James Baldwin: I Am Not Your Negro. Prior to that, the film most prominently known to American audiences would probably be his 2000 biopic Lumumba, about the CIA-sponsored murder of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first Prime Minister, owing to a long position it had on the Netflix Instant service. The Haitian-born film maker was trained in West Berlin during the final years of the Cold War and was a Minister of Culture during the turbulent 1990s in his homeland. The Young Karl Marx is just as much a Black film in terms of who created it as Peck’s previous works were and so there is a dimension to the proceedings that differentiates this picture from the tired 20th century Soviet propaganda films about these same historic personages.
This is brought to the forefront from the start because Marx is introduced as what he always was, a shit-talking big-mouthed muckraking journalist who is game to take the heat from the elite. Starting out from an episode where Prussian authorities arrest him for ranting against the police beating up poor people, we are not given the beatific Communist Party-approved visionary prophet of Soviet society. Instead, he’s basically, well, moi!
We follow Marx in his early days when he gets exiled to London with his young family, begins his lifelong intellectual partnership with industrial magnate heir Frederich Engels, and starts to throw down the gauntlet before his ideological antecedents in a heady debate about what capitalism is and what socialism can be. In this sense it is a rather innocuous if not color-by-numbers period picture that would stand comparison to anything put out by Merchant-Ivory or Masterpiece Theater on PBS. However, it is because we are able to understand the content of the philosophy that we begin to recognize that these are the proceedings of a debate over the fate of you and I as working people of the world and how to liberate ourselves from the depravities of capitalism that we still confront today. This is a movie about your and my freedom from want, hunger, and hardship, boiled down to intellectual debates in rooms filled with cigar smoke. The film concludes as the two begin the composition of a pamphlet intended to enunciate their principles and goals almost simultaneous with the outbreak of the 1848 revolutions: The Communist Manifesto.
For those who have any affinity for Left politics, the film is going to be a source of interest and enjoyment, perhaps in a manner equivalent to how most Baldwin fans were drawn to Peck’s last film. However, will it prove to be interesting for the uninitiated, something the Baldwin film was capable of, or perhaps even those who have negative impressions related to this subject matter owing to the legacy of Stalinism? This is the real standard that the picture should be held to. And in this sense I am forced to say it’s a 50-50 of ‘maybe-maybe not’. The film does show that Marx’s theories were speaking out against the depravity of a system and therefore people might begin to identify with his position and motivations.
However, regretfully, Peck does not take into account the very real matter of environmentalism and anthropogenic climate change. He presents Marx’s critique of worker exploitation as narrowly productivist and centered on the factory worker and leaves out the substantial work done by scholars like John Bellamy Foster in the past 25 years. Since the Cold War ended, Foster has been generating a steady corpus of works highlighting the ecological element of Marx’s writings and therefore the preliminary basis of an eco-socialist current that is direly needed, particularly in ethnically heterogeneous societies like our own where catastrophic weather occurrences hit poor people of color the hardest. In this regard, the film has shortcomings that cannot be ignored. While capitalism continues to underwrite much of our woes today, the role of climate change is a matter that needs to be addressed. The war in Syria, protests in Iran, and the refugee crises in Europe and America are all defined by climate change. With all these images of coal-fired factories belching black smoke into the air Peck could not find a mere five seconds to acknowledge such an epoch-defining issue like climate change?
Regardless, the film at the very least is demonstrative of a craftsmanship and skillset that Peck deserves much recognition for. Twice now he has analyzed the deepest struggles in western society, racism and wage labor exploitation, and offered up refreshing, unorthodox pictures that carry Grade A production values regardless of individual viewer opinion.
Cable Car is running the movie today (Monday, 2/26) at 9:15 pm as part of the Providence French Film Festival and again on 3/3 at 4:15 pm.