Thursday, November 23, 2023

ADIFF ’23: Claude McKay from Harlem to Marseilles

The titles character of his novel Banjo was a frustrated jazz musician, so there darned well ought to be some jazz in any profile of Claude McKay. Happily, filmmaker Matthieu Verdeil saw it that way too. In fact, the jazz ensemble Big Hop Swing are amongst his most important collaborators. Consequently, there is a good chance the subject would have approved of Verdeil’s Claude McKay from Harlem to Marseilles (a French documentary produced in cooperation with the American consulate in Marseilles), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

The Jamaican-born McKay was associated with the Harlem Renaissance, but Verdeil and company make it clear that he did not spend that much time there, before he was off globe-trotting. McKay was a leader of the movement to incorporate dialect and vernacular, whereas Countee Cullen strictly adhered to proper grammar (but both should be more widely read).

In many ways, McKay’s life and work compares to that of B. Traven. He often labored as a sailor or longshoreman and frequently wrote about the people working on the margins of society (and legality). Yet, he was also toasted by the rich and powerful, including Lenin and Trotsky.

Verdeil devotes a fair amount of time to McKay’s Soviet visit, which predated Stalin and apparently never resulted in any direct collaboration on the writer’s part. However, he glosses over McKay’s conversion to Catholicism, foreswearing secular ideologies. It seems like Verdeil is overlooking the final piece of the McKay puzzle.

Nevertheless, the prominence of jazz, particularly the way he and Big Hop Swing link it to McKay’s own words, is a homerun. Throughout the film, Lamine Diagne reads excerpts from McKay’s work (he also plays saxophone and flute, quite distinctively). Their arrangements evoke the rhythm and energy of 1920s and 1930s swing, but with what we in New York might describe as a “downtown” sensibility. The important things are their music (including several renditions of “Shake that Thing”) swings and sounds great. Frankly, the musicians could carry the film just fine without the talking heads.

Fittingly, some tunes also feature Renaud Matchoulian on banjo (as well as guitar). Plus, Celine Benichou’s vocals are suitably bluesy. Each selection perfectly suits the readings it accompanies, while still feeling hip and contemporary.
From Harlem to Marseilles will never be a multiplex hit, but somebody really ought to release the soundtrack.

Verdeil and company do a nice job explaining the significance of McKay’s work. He also assembled a lot of interesting archival visuals, but the musicians provide the real show. Highly recommended for jazz fans and Harlem Renaissance readers,
Claude McKay from Harlem to Marseilles screens Saturday (12/25) and Thursday (12/7), as part of the 2023 ADIFF.