Watching James Baldwin on screen you see a funny looking man. His cartoonish eyes, his animated face, his teeth… so many teeth in an almost gaunt face. Equally his personality is witty; in your face, droll, and he’s funny. He tells it like it is with a sarcasm hard to rebel against.
Baldwin the novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic was a tiny square in the quilt of my upbringing. During my childhood my mum wasn’t vocal about politics, art and most definitely didn’t show interest in the boho queer life of the black male Baldwin represented. My dad has always been politically vocal but his early absence in my life meant my political interests were genetic rather than paternally nurtured. Nonetheless Baldwin’s book Just Above My Head (1979) wound up in my childhood book collection – I was that child who read beyond her years, my thirst fed by this magical book collection in my home, belonging to which parent I had no clue. But as brainy as I was, there are things I know now, that I’d have missed as a child, thus now Just Above My Head languishes on my bookshelf waiting patiently to get chosen from my lengthy ‘to read again as an adult’ list.
So as the synopsis reads, I Am Not Your Negro is about the time in 1979 James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, “Remember This House.” The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of Baldwin’s close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Taking 10 years, award winning filmmaker, author and political activist Raoul Peck brings Baldwin’s manuscript to life with the help of film clips, archive and modern footage; seamlessly pulled together with award-winning actor, Samuel L. Jackson providing the voice of Baldwin.
In his own words, Peck said – From the beginning, my project was always: How do I bring Baldwin back? How do I bring those words… in a time when we really need it, where there is an absence of an authoritative voice, intellectual voice, and progressive voice?… I didn’t want to have any interpreter of Baldwin, I didn’t want any talking head about the work of Baldwin. It was not going to be a biography. It was about Baldwin speaking to us today. So I have to make sure that it’s his word, it’s him, it’s his thinking, and he’s looking at us and talking directly to us [read full interview here].
First of all, if there was an award for voice overs then Samuel L. Jackson would win it this year. There’s not one jive talk intoned muthafucka. There’s none of the cool L. Jackson which we’ve come to know and love. Mr Jackson voices Baldwin with such a respectful pared back delivery you believe you’re hearing Baldwin speak. It’s an excellent casting choice.
Oscar nominated in the Best Documentary category, Peck’s documentary is a slow-burning perfect and candid explanation of white people’s existence through the lens of power and race. The documentary premiered in the UK at the 2017 Glasgow film festival. I, in attendance sat in Glasgow’s GFT cinema; surrounded by a white audience, constantly wondering how they felt. Not in a pitiful way, rather, I wanted to press pause at each major point to ask them, ‘Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you agree?’ Because what Peck has wonderfully done, is use Baldwin to speak for us all, in such a way, it should be hard to rebel against. Though at first, I found myself searching for the hook; I Am Not Your Negro is kind of abstract so it takes a while to hit. But when it does land, and it will land, this is a masterpiece.
The documentary hinges on actual footage of Baldwin in a 1968 interview on The Dick Cavett Show where he attempts to explain the reasons and causes behind black rage in the face of white oppression and the effect it has had on America (my simplistic breakdown). The documentary is split into sections: Paying my dues; Heroes; Witness; Purity; Selling the Negro; I Am Not A Nigger. At first, it’s a bit difficult to correlate each heading with the footage being shown. In, Paying my dues, Baldwin explains his need to leave his safe haven in Paris, Europe to return to America in 1957 after seeing the image of 15-year old Dorothy Counts surrounded by a violent white mob as she attempted to enter a segregated high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. Baldwin said, “I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.” Around this we are shown clips of Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools Dance (1931), and then we hear Baldwin talk about a time when he saw a black woman in a local store who looked like Joan Crawford. This is the abstract. I Am Not Your Negro begins as if you are speaking to someone who has so much to say they’re all over the place with the story.
So it went on, and for a while as mentioned, as much as what I was watching was informative and engaging I wasn’t really getting the narrative, but it slowly dawned on me. Jackson as Baldwin’s voice, real footage of Baldwin talking about why we’re here today, ‘today’ being his sixties; ‘today’ being 2017 for the watching audience – the same issues applying. The juxtaposition of the police vs. Black Lives Matter protesters after the slew of police and white murders of black teens in recent years against historical race riots like the 1965 Watts Riots. The impactful rise and subsequent assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. Three different types of black men with different approaches to solving the race problem in America, yet all meeting the same fate. Baldwin and Peck explain that American humanity is where it is, because of the over-active and fearful white imagination which inexplicably created the negro monster.
Peck does well in taking the audience seamlessly through time with his choice of modern footage blending with the historical. As we argue today about the constant negative portrayal of black people on screen, Baldwin was reasoning back then that Hollywood perpetuated the negro monster based on white people’s perception of what they think ‘we’ are. The films and on screen characters Baldwin mentions throughout, Peck shows us with clips from – Tarzan, King Kong, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Uncle Tom’s Cabin – the pretence that slaves were happy, John Wayne as the Red Indian slayer, Stepin Fetchit – “the laziest man in the world”, Hollywood’s castration of sex symbols Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte; white saviour complex defined the minute Sidney Poitier’s character jumps off the train to save Tony Curtis’s character in 1958’s The Defiant Ones – mirror that with the revelation that a monumental scene in 2017’s Hidden Figures, when Kevin Costner’s character goes AWOL on a ‘for colored’s only’ toilet sign – was fictional and only added so white audiences would feel better about themselves!
Baldwin recounted a time when he and iconic playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) met with attorney general Robert Kennedy to ask him to accompany a little black girl going into a segregated school, to which ‘Bobby’ Kennedy refused on the grounds he thought it would be pointless. How far do the powers that be really want to resolve the race problem? Peck throws in Baldwin pondering the possibility of a black president, could happen if “we act like good negroes”. Peck shows us footage of Barack and Michelle Obama, but yet Baldwin’s words ring true, when we reflect on Obama’s presidency and what he wasn’t allowed to do, vs. what he chose to avoid to the instability Americans and the world face under President Donald Trump.
When it all started to come together for me, my mind wandered again to the white audience watching with me. How they felt? How do white people feel when beat over the head with such honest (in my opinion) / brutal I assume to others – examination of where they went wrong? There’s a part in the doc, when we return to Baldwin on the Dick Cavett show and philosopher Paul Weiss comes on to give the all too classic and expected line, ‘Why do you have to make everything about race?’ Going on to add ‘the importance of life is instead to become a man’ [I paraphrase]. In my imagination I heard the white surrounding audience exhale in relief. Someone had finally said it. But, imagined or not, their relief would have been short lived, because Baldwin drops the perfect, what we call today, clap-back – “becoming a man can get a black man killed”, he then reels off all the respected American institutions meant to represent every man, and the ways in which these institutions fail every man who is not white. Baldwin reasons, white people won’t address why they created the negro monster, because white people don’t understand why they are privileged, yet they don’t want to lose this privilege, therefore don’t want to deal with how they continue to maintain this privilege at the expense of those who aren’t white. Then comes the misunderstanding of black rage and the Weiss like frustration that all we see is race!
I must stress though, that Baldwin said, he did not think all white people were racist. He also didn’t say that for likes. You get the feeling Baldwin at that point of his life didn’t care who liked him. He was determined to tell the truth.
Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America and now Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro are the tri-factor necessary in dissecting, how and why the world’s most powerful country some could say is imploding on itself. It’s truly a shame these documentaries will be going up against each other at this year’s Oscars, because they are all such well made, important films. But outside the business of show, these documentaries are a must watch for everyone. Framed around the black existence in America sure, but as the uber-branded ‘most powerful’ continent in the world, there’s no denying America’s influence and the fact that its evolution is imitated globally. They jump, the world says how high!
I advise you to watch, I Am Not Your Negro first, Then O.J.: Made in America and then The 13th.
Read TBB’s 88% #OutOf100 review of O.J.: Made in America here.
Read TBB’s 100% #OutOf100 review of The 13th here.