I Am Not Your Negro
By James Baldwin
Directed by Raoul Peck
Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s best known film until last year was his 2000 feature Lumumba, about Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of Congo. I Am Not Your Negro, his much-nominated documentary tracing the life of writer James Baldwin, his take on race relations and their prognosis, and Baldwin’s take on the deaths of three key civil rights leaders, was released nationally on February 3rd. It has already surpassed the six million dollar mark in gross earnings. It is, to put it mildly, a timely film. The headline of its New York Times review promised it “will make you rethink race.” I do believe it might. It certainly has done that for me.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an essayist, playwright, novelist and critic. His first of non-fiction, from 1955, Notes of A Native Son, is probably his most widely-read work. Peck started reading Baldwin at the age of fifteen, “in search of rational explanations for the contradictions” he was confronting, and came to see him as one of a handful of writers he could “call his own.” After getting to know Baldwin’s sister Gloria in 2009, Peck acquired from her thirty pages of Baldwin’s notes for an ambitious book project the author had started but not pursued, called Remember This House, about the deaths of three very different civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King in 1968, men he’d known.
I Am Not Your Negro is a masterpiece of fleshed-out storytelling, presented through a collage of images. It runs like a journey through James Baldwin’s astute mind. Peck has seamlessly woven excerpts from these thirty pages of notes in and among many other snippets from Baldwin’s letters and essays, all voiced by the actor Samuel L. Jackson. As visual complements for these, he’s selected clips from old movies Baldwin references; John Wayne and Gary Cooper killing Indians (“It comes as a great shock [for a black child]…to discover….that the Indians were you.”), Sidney Poitier covering up his bare chest in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (“… a man up against the furtive, infantile sexuality of this country.”), Doris Day bustling about the kitchen, pale and innocent.
Peck has taken creative liberties in selecting many of the accompaniments for Baldwin’s larger ideas about race, most of which feel like perfect marriages between word and picture. There is an extended advertisement sequence, “Selling the Negro,” broad landscapes and close ups of frolicking white youth, à la “The Pajama Game,” and the view as one moves down a row of stately Southern homes, all pillars and broad porches, until reaching a humble shack with a black woman waving in front.
Most powerfully, Peck has used archival footage of Baldwin speaking, in a debate at Cambridge University, at a forum in Florida, and on the Dick Cavett show, among other places. Lest we lull ourselves into believing the past is past, Peck uses Baldwin’s uncanny assessments to remind us that the history on the screen is our life now. The first black and white clip from the Cavett interview toward the start of the film cuts — directly from this generous comment, “It’s not a question of happens to the Negro here….but a real question of what is going to happen to this country.” — to high resolution shots of police in riot gear patrolling our cities’ streets, knocking young black men and women to the ground. Today’s news.
In another startling scene, Baldwin’s voice can be heard speaking so presciently, it seems he’d intended to narrate the heartbreaking images, names and dates that appear one after the other on the screen. Trayvon Martin, 1995-2012. Tamir Rice, 2002-2014. Amir Brooks, 1997-2014. (There have been so many deaths of so many young black men in recent years, I hadn’t even heard of Amir Brooks. He was a 17 year old chased down by police for riding a dirt bike. He crashed into a tree.)
For his failure to hate white people, Baldwin credited a white female teacher, Orilla Miller, who took him under her wing early. He expands on the enduring importance of this relationship, which took place despite his father’s deep misgivings, in Notes of a Native Son. “During the four or five years of our relatively close association he [Father] never trusted her and was always trying to surprise in her open, Midwestern face the genuine, cunningly hidden, and hideous motivation.”
Baldwin’s remarkable ability to speak about white people and American life in terms that a white audience could hear then, and can hear in new ways today, speaks to intellectual perspicacity combined with an absence of malice. An absence of malice that seems miraculous, given the circumstances of the times. Little girls spat on in Arkansas, non-violent men torn from bar stools and kicked viciously, mobs of Confederate flag bandana-wearing hatemongers shouting, “We want King! We want King!”
Baldwin at times sounds prophetic, as with his scathing retort to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s condescending assertion, “There is no reason that in the near and foreseeable future that a Negro could not also be President of the United States.” In 1965, Baldwin responded, “From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barbershop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he’s already on his way to the presidency. We’ve been here for four hundred years and now he tells that maybe in forty years, if you’re good, we may let you become president.” Barack Obama was elected in 2008, but of course many of us did not really ever let him become president. Despite the complete debunking of the racist “birther” claims that began as soon as he started campaigning, one out of three Republicans still don’t believe he was born in the United States.
“…the people in general cannot bear very much reality…they prefer fantasy to a truthful re-creation of their experience.” Today a reality TV president makes the idea of a serious engagement with hard realities seem quaint and ridiculous. Bald lies in the guise of “alternative facts” replace actual facts. Wiretapping can be spun as “wiretapping.” Hard science has somehow become deniable. As ever, we’d rather be numb than awake. As Baldwin put it, our “concept of entertainment is difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics.”
The most chilling image from I Am Not Your Negro is not of a lynching, but that of the faces — passive, empty, apathetic — of two young women sitting in an audience watching some sad display of human misery played out on a stage in front of television cameras.
Art critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote a century ago, in his essay “Art as Device,” “…and so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness… And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art.” I found sensation mysteriously returned to my heart through this artful, distressing and yet ultimately optimistic movie about our common American experience.
There’s so much I don’t understand about race, my own feelings, blind spots and motivations. It’s also unclear how things nationally might change for the better. Yet, here comes a difficult movie about what not long ago was an unspeakable subject, and it’s on track to make more money than the 2016 documentary Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party. Alan Zilberman of the Washington Post called that conservative movie, “Incurious to a fault, it’s also too incoherent for serious argument.”
Here’s to curious inquiry, and coherent, serious argument. James Baldwin was a master of both, and I Am Not Your Negro will make an invaluable contribution to the conversation.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is playing at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, Mass. For showtimes and tickets, click here.