I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck (2016)
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
That sentence from novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social activist James Baldwin essentially encapsulates Raoul Peck’s film I Am Not Your Negro in one memorable sentence.
Baldwin, one of the most acclaimed African-American novelists of the last century, was particularly associated with the civil rights struggle in the late 50s and 60s, and is particularly remembered for novels like Go Tell it on the Mountain and social commentary such as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. But that was 50 or 60 years ago, and it may be that few people read him anymore, except as a kind of historical curiosity, or unless they are particularly interested in African American literature, but even so you’re likely to read a lot more of Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou (both of whom were strongly influenced by Baldwin). Or, if you’re reading writers of Baldwin’s generation, you may be more likely to be looking at Richard Wright (a close friend of Baldwin’s) or Ralph Ellison, though in those decades Baldwin’s books outsold both Wright’s and Ellison’s among both black and white readers. Likewise Baldwin was more political, more directly involved in the Civil Rights movement, more visible as a spokesman for at least one aspect of the movement, and was at the same time a close friend of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, the fallen martyrs of the struggle for racial equality.
Peck’s aim in this film is to bring Baldwin’s insights out of the historical context of his time and demonstrate how relevant they still are in the not-so-post-racial American of the twenty-teens. Through the juxtaposition of images, Peck suggests direct connections between Baldwin’s comments on American society in his time and present-day American culture, between the struggles for voting rights and fair access to public education in Birmingham and Little Rock and the “Black Lives Matter” movement introduced into the film with images of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and Amir Brooks.
The starting point of the film is a letter that Baldwin wrote to his agent in 1979, describing a project he planned to undertake. Eleven years after the King assassination, Baldwin proposed writing a personal account of the civil rights movement of the mid-60s revolving around and connecting the lives and murders of his three close friends—Evers, Malcolm X, and King—a book that he was planning to call Remember This House. But Baldwin made little progress on the book, and when he died eight years later, he left only thirty pages of manuscript. Peck has taken these completed pages, given them to Samuel L. Jackson to read, combined them with images drawn from the virtually unlimited access to Baldwin’s estate and from archival footage of the writer at speaking engagements or television interviews, to create his own vision, in a different medium, of what Baldwin’s imagined book would have been like—a sweeping record of American history and of the African American within that history, up to the present moment.
It is not, as Baldwin said, a pretty story. The most grotesque moment in the film is a clip of a white woman in the mid 1960s in a televise interview, talking about what a devout Christian she is, and how she is certain God can forgive thieves and murderers, but she is certain that he can never tolerate integration. I audibly gasped when I heard her say this, and considered how very American it was and continues to be for us to recreate God in our own image. Peck, driving home the point that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, juxtaposes the ugliness of the hatred laid bare in the civil rights protests of the 60’s with the violence of Rodney King’s beating in the 1991 and the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
The film is a testament to Baldwin’s thesis that racism is so endemic to American society that for some white people it is not possible to see him as a complete human being: “They have become moral monsters,” he says. The myth of America, given flesh in the films of heroes like John Wayne, turns the wholesale slaughter of indigenous Americans into an heroic act, and the manifest destiny of white America into God’s will.
Baldwin’s love of films, instilled in large part by a white teacher he remembers fondly, permeates his analysis of white attitude toward blacks. He traces his reactions to black characters in films, from Stepin Fetchit through Sidney Poitier. He examines Poitier’s films closely, from his jumping from the train with Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (the act, Baldwin says, that made the white audience feel good, while all the blacks in the audience were thinking, “Don’t jump, you fool!”) through his “Uncle Tom” act in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, to the “farewell kiss” (as Baldwin calls it) between Poitier and Rod Steiger at the end of In the Heat of the Night. Essentially Baldwin argues that American film contained, even in his own time, to reflect the way white people wanted to think about African Americans, rather than the way African Americans thought about themselves, or the way things really were. One wonders what Baldwin would have thought of films like Moonlight and Fences, and whether he would consider things to have changed in contemporary Hollywood.
Aside from convincing us, or reminding us, of Baldwin’s status as a complex critic of American society and student of American history and popular culture, no one watching this film can help but be impressed by how articulate Baldwin was. Early in the film Peck includes a segment of Baldwin as a guest on the Dick Cavett show, an episode that Peck returns to more than once in the course of his film. At one point Cavett brings out a Yale philosophy professor named Paul Weis, who immediately argues that Baldwin’s emphasis on race is too narrow. It does not take long for Baldwin to dismantle Weiss’s position.
Equally impressive are the clips of Baldwin in a public debate at Cambridge University, where he seems clearly to have won over the all-white audience of privileged British students. Though Peck’s film does not mention it, that debate pitted Baldwin against conservative icon William F. Buckley, and the audience overwhelmingly considered Baldwin the victor.
The film is not perfect. There is a looseness to the structure that makes it difficult to assess what Peck’s chief point is. That racism is part and parcel of American culture, and that Baldwin’s assessments of that culture are still relevant today, seem to be the major takeaways for the film’s audiences. But Peck stops short of suggesting any solutions or steps that might be taken to change the situation. The film strongly implies near the end that Barack Obama’s election did not change the underlying racism in society. Baldwin’s solution, the film seems to suggest, a kind of middle way between his friends Malcolm X, with his aggressive approach to change, and King, with his program of passive resistance. In fact, Baldwin believed that the only solution was a wholesale reshaping of America society along a homegrown socialist model, since American capitalism needed to keep blacks “in their place” to ensure the continuation of cheap labor. This is barely touched on in Peck’s film.
But overall the film is hard-hitting and powerful, and Samuel L. Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s own words is mesmerizing. Of course, the only people who see this film are those who are predisposed to agree with its premises, which is a shame. Had this film won the “Best Documentary” Oscar last Sunday night, it may have reached a wider audience, but instead the Academy was more interested in the popular choice, giving the Oscar to a nine-hour made-for-TV project about O.J. Simpson that inexplicably wound up in this category. I think Peck was robbed. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.