“I Am Not Your Negro”. Where do I begin to discuss a film that packs such a wallop you are literally reeling when it ends? So I guess I’ll start with the subject of the film, the writer James Baldwin who is arguably the greatest American writer of the 20th century. To describe Baldwin as a man ahead of his time does not fully embrace his importance as a cultural chronicler, nor does it adequately describe the genius of his artistry. There really aren’t words to encompass all that James Baldwin was/is. His writing was certainly prophetic, both from the standpoint of his perspective on American society in general and Black American society specifically and his predictions on where America was/is headed. “The Fire Next Time”, two essays on race in America could just have easily been written today as when it was published in 1963. The first essay "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation," should be required reading for all Americans as it lays out so perfectly the race issue and why America cannot resolve it. The second essay “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind" does an equally magnificent job of dissecting the Black Church and its role in preserving racial, social & political hierarchy in Black communities throughout America. If you only have time to read one Baldwin book before seeing “I Am Not Your Negro”, I recommend “The Fire Next Time” as it will provide the perfect context for the film. Then if you really get ambitious, move on to “Notes of A Native Son” and “Nobody Know My Name”, both of which will provide more insight into Baldwin’s always on point intellect.
James Baldwin never shied away from his role as artist/activist, using his international celebrity to cast a spotlight on the plight of Black people at home and abroad. One of the reasons he was so revered by Black America was because of this willingness to speak truth to power and his clarity as to how such forthrightness affected his people. Whether he was addressing a room of college scholars or debating William Buckley, he remained focused on presenting truth as he saw it, no matter the consequences. I could say that his particular place in American cultural history was partly determined by the tumultuous era in which he was most popular but that would diminish his impact that actually spans several decades. I re-read Baldwin often because the work is so present which is not surprising since as he states in the film, the past is the present.
So, let me now move on to my reaction to “I Am Not Your Negro”. There couldn’t be a better filmmaker for this film then Raoul Peck. His exquisite use of archival footage juxtaposed against present day imagery along with an inspired soundtrack made this so much more than a typical documentary. The flow of the film is seamless, giving the audience a complete picture of Baldwin’s time and our time and illustrates how difficult it can be to tell the two apart. His meticulous choice of footage from the 1960s is impeccable, making it difficult to separate the brutality of that time from what we are barraged with on social media daily. Peck via Baldwin assures us that the more things change, the more they stay the same, a situation that may have some feeling pessimistic about the future but that James Baldwin asserted was not his position. He remained an optimist until his death; always seeking the humanity in White America since he maintained it would either find it or destroy itself trying to avoid finding it. Clearly we are seeing this prediction playing out today as illustrated by Peck’s insertion of images/footage of mass shootings and other destructive activities carried out by white people against each other. There is a powerful scene where whites are apologizing, and Peck underscores how hollow these apologies are as he mutes the faces of the speakers, making them appear as ghostlike images. Throughout the film, he uses numerous graphic devices to keep from falling into a predictable format and that serve to add texture to the film. Although Peck based the narrative on an unpublished book, “Remember This House” that James Baldwin was working on at the time of his death, it was incumbent upon him to bring this manuscript to life and he exceeded my expectations in this area. I was excited that along with giving the audience a wonderful profile of James Baldwin, they were able to learn more about Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. beyond the usual conversations around each of these mythic men.
As we bemoan the start of 2017 because our political landscape is seemingly sinking into a deep pit of despair, we should celebrate the brilliance of James Baldwin and embrace his prophetic writings as we steel ourselves for the battle ahead. As Raoul Peck so deftly illustrates, Brother Baldwin would expect us to soldier on and keep our eyes on the prize. A luta continua.
Please make it your mission to see “I Am Not Your Negro” at The Angelika Film Center at Mockingbird Station before it leaves town!