I Am Not Your Negro distils the James Baldwin that we need now

Raoul Peck’s timely portrait offers an exhilarating reminder of the power of James Baldwin’s oratorical and literary talent – but subsumes the complexities and contradictions of the writer’s life in a wider denunciation of American race relations, argued Thomas Chatterton Williams in our May 2017 issue.

I Am Not Your Negro review: race, rage and the American Dream

James Baldwin

James Baldwin
Credit: Getty Images

When the singularly gifted black American writer James Baldwin died at the age of 63 in 1987 in the medieval Provençal village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, where he lived for the final 17 years of his life, he was a figure no longer remotely near the centre of the American discourse on race. Some 30 years later, he has become nothing less than the patron saint of an entire generation of black artists, activists and writers who came of intellectual age during the Obama presidency and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which collects under one label the broad public response to the spate of highly publicised police and vigilante killings of unarmed black men and women since Trayvon Martin’s 2012 murder in Sanford, Florida. This enormous reversal of fortune has been merited, illuminating and paradoxically reductive.

Poor, black and queer – Baldwin was intersectional before that was a thing – few icons from the past fit so seamlessly into the metric of identity politics of our current era. To cite just two of the most prominent examples: last autumn, the award-winning novelist Jesmyn Ward published an anthology of contemporary black writing, The Fire This Time, in which a polyphony of prominent voices attempted to pay tribute to and grapple with the legacy of Baldwin, the title an allusion to what is probably his most well-known work, the landmark two-part essay The Fire Next Time.

And the year before that, Ta-Nehisi Coates published his letter to his teenage son, Between the World and Me, a book formally modelled on the first section of that essay, which also thematically echoed a question Baldwin debated in a remarkable appearance opposite William F. Buckley Jr at the Cambridge Union in 1965: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”

Coates’s book went on to become one of the most widely read and discussed works of nonfiction in the new century. In her endorsement of it, Toni Morrison observed: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

Ironically, that remark and the enormity of the book’s subsequent commercial success – with its inextricable quality of homage – may have had an even greater impact on the way we now regard Baldwin than Coates. Between the World and Me, which so aptly embodied the rage and deep frustration of a simultaneously ascendant and oppressed people profoundly sobered and disappointed by the limitations of the first black presidency, rhetorically channelled a single late-phase facet of Baldwin’s protean body of work. The distillation of such a multitudinous writer to a single register has been so effective and complete that today it can feel as though contemporary writers like Coates are less the new Baldwin than that audiences are increasingly embracing Baldwin as the original Coates – in the process missing a large amount of the complexity that made him so special and difficult to categorise in the first place.

Raoul Peck

Raoul Peck
Credit: Getty Images

Into this context arrives the Haitian filmmaker and former minister of culture Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. Though some ten years in the making, the project’s timeliness feels uncanny. Ostensibly the film is based on Baldwin’s 30-page unfinished book, provisionally titled Remember This House, which he billed in a 1979 letter to his agent, Jay Acton, as an exploration of race in America told through the assassinations of three prominent civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Onto this framework Peck layers footage of Baldwin during televised roundtables and debates; familiar and scarily unfamiliar archival clips of virulent white reaction to civil rights gains, such as school and bus integration; and contemporary shots of charged police confrontations with black activists in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. There are no talking heads here, only Baldwin’s words (he is the sole writer credited on the film), either spoken directly or read by the actor Samuel L. Jackson.

The effect is exhilarating, in large measure, because Baldwin is so captivating and capable of speaking for himself – he requires no translation or amplification. Even the charismatic Jackson sounds oddly flat in comparison to his subject, a former child preacher in Harlem, who was at least as talented an orator as he was a writer, a distinction this film makes thrillingly apparent.

But I Am Not Your Negro, more free association than narrative – the 90-minute documentary is split into six sections: ‘Paying my dues’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Witness’, ‘Purity’, ‘Selling the Negro’, and ‘I am not a nigger’ – can also be frustrating. We learn next to nothing about the relationship between Baldwin and the trio of martyrs he set out to examine in Remember This House. “I want these three lives to bang against each other,” he writes to Acton, but it never quite happens. This is not only the case because – though he knew each of the men and they knew him – there really wasn’t much of a relationship among them, but also because, as is the tendency during this great Baldwin revival, it can be expedient to avoid the complexity and contradictions of Baldwin’s own position within black America during his lifetime.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Credit: Dan Budnik / Getty Images

Of the three, Baldwin may have had the most straightforward relationship with the Mississippi activist Medgar Evers, the youngest of the trio and the first to be murdered. But Malcolm X once dismissively quipped that he wanted a “real” revolution, not the “pseudo revolt” of someone like Baldwin. And Martin Luther King, for his part, in a conversation secretly recorded by the FBI, once balked at appearing with the author on television, claiming to be “put off by the poetic exaggeration in Baldwin’s approach to race issues”. He would almost certainly have been aware that Baldwin was frequently mocked as ‘Martin Luther Queen’ in civil rights circles.

In addition to Baldwin’s unfinished notes, I Am Not Your Negro also draws on Baldwin’s 1976 memoir of watching movies, The Devil Finds Work, and his 1972 book No Name in the Street, in which he writes about buying a dark blue suit for an appearance with King at Carnegie Hall. In two weeks’ time, that would become the suit he wore to King’s funeral.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Credit: Getty Images

Early in the documentary we hear Baldwin worry about his role as a witness and not as an actor, only to resolve the apparent discrepancy by declaring the two roles are separated by a “thin line indeed”. In some respects, in his attempts to write himself over that line and into proximity with Evers, King and X, and by extension into the centre of the civil rights movement, Baldwin betrays his insurmountable distance from them all. Darryl Pinckney, in a remarkably prescient essay on the release of the Library of America’s 1998 edition of Baldwin’s collected essays, wrote that Baldwin had remarked to a reporter that he would never be able to wear the suit again:

“A friend of Baldwin’s, a US postal worker whom he rarely saw, had seen the newspaper story and, because they were the same size, asked for the suit that to Baldwin was ‘drenched in the blood of all the crimes of my country.’ Baldwin went up to Harlem in a hired ‘Cadillac limousine’ in order to avoid the humiliation of watching taxis not stop for him, a black man. His life came into the ‘unspeakably respectable’ apartment of his friend like ‘the roar of champagne and the odor of brimstone.’ He characterizes himself as he assumes he must have appeared to his friend’s family: ‘an aging, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak.’

His friend had also ‘made it’ – holder of a civil-service job; builder of a house next to his mother’s on Long Island. Baldwin was incredulous that his friend had no interest in the civil rights struggle. They got into an argument about Vietnam. Baldwin says he realized then that the suit belonged to his friend and to his friend’s family. ‘The blood in which the fabric of that suit was stiffening was theirs,’ and the distance between him and them was that they did not know this.

The story is tortured and yet, regardless of Baldwin’s outrage at indifference or his identification with slain civil rights leaders, there is something wrongly insinuating about his depicting his scarcely worn suit as drenched and stiffening with blood, even metaphorical blood. People still remember what Jesse Jackson’s shirt looked like after King was shot.”

This side of Baldwin can only be glimpsed in I Am Not Your Negro. “I was never in town to stay,” he admits on the film, and after Evers’s death we do hear Jackson read, “Months later, I was in Puerto Rico, working on a play,” as the camera pans across a lovely beachscape. But it is on full display in No Name in the Street, in which he notes that, when King was murdered, he was living in Palm Springs, where he holed up to work on an unrealised screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

After the rhetorical shift to Black Power at the end of the 60s, many of Baldwin’s contemporaries and descendants wrote him off, considering him far too comfortable in the white world. “I was in some way in those years, without realising it, the great white hope of the great white father,” Jackson recites. “I was not a racist, or so I thought. Malcolm was a racist, or so they thought. In fact we were simply trapped in the same situation.” In actual fact their situations were very different, and this is inextricable from why their worldviews were so different too. Baldwin was in London when X was murdered. Unlike X, there were plenty of places where Baldwin could go, Pinckney notes, “to remind himself that he felt trapped”.

Baldwin was a consummate peripheralist. Whatever the costs, and there were many, I am convinced this is an indispensable part of what spared him from the myopia of Black Power and the Nation of Islam (which, in fairness, Malcolm X came to reject, too). He was not a black Muslim or a Black Panther, he observed, “because I did not believe all white people were devils and I did not want young black people to believe that”.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Credit: Getty Images

It is an insight he arrived at early through the combination of his New York City upbringing and the specificity of his precocity. In the film, he reminisces over his kind schoolteacher Orilla Miller, a white woman who took him to some sophisticated movies and because of whom, “I never really managed to hate white people”. On the contrary, he admits, he began to suspect that “white people did not act as they did because they were white but for some other reason”. Peck dangles these tantalising morsels but does not expand on what those other reasons might be.

In contrast to such ambivalence, one of the strongest sequences in the film is also indicative of what makes Baldwin such a straightforwardly useful figure for the present moment. We see black-and-white footage of a panel moderated by the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. A weary-looking King and a pugnacious X appear alongside an immensely thoughtful Baldwin, who speaks movingly of the “vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority”.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Credit: Getty Images

Peck cuts to the black-and-white images of contemporary police resembling an occupying force confronting an insurgency in Ferguson. “I’m terrified at the moral apathy,” Baldwin says, “these people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. It means that they have themselves become moral monsters.” Here Peck cuts to nostalgic colour shots of an all-white beauty pageant of sorts, and young white women frolicking in all-white ensembles against a radiant blue sky. The force of the faux innocence in such a context is irresistible. At this point, my white French wife exclaimed, “My god, mais ils sont vraiment monstrueux!

What Peck brilliantly achieves in I Am Not Your Negro is a vivid distillation of America’s historical and ongoing white supremacist motivations and deep-seated anti-black attitudes. A terrifying middle-aged Southern white woman tells the camera matter-of-factly, “God forgives murder and he forgives adultery, but he is very angry and he actually curses all who do integrate.”

As the rise of Donald Trump and the mainstreaming of white nationalism remind us, we are still undergoing a variation of this drama. But we are also still in need of a definitive Baldwin documentary or biopic that will do justice to the munificence of his brilliance and to the magnitude of his successes, his setbacks and his subsequent resurrection.

 

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