As we mourn the loss of the political giant Darcus Howe, activism is high on the collective memory. Did we do right by Howe… indeed, did he do right by us as he navigated the public with the personal dynamics of activism? As the reflections pour in about this late Civil Rights leader, our attentions turn fluidly to another, James Baldwin.
James Baldwin has been a perennial in fictional and some academic circles. We hear of him occasionally during Black History Month but often not in a way which celebrates him as a whole person. To be fair, we canonise all the Civil Rights greats and remove them from anything which might suggest that they get up to the dirty business of life like the rest of us! Raoul Peck’s seminal I Am Not Your Negro is collecting critical acclaim and enjoying the financial success often rare for documentaries. Peck’s film attempts to place Baldwin in the Civil Rights movement in a holistic way; there were many voices in the movement, yet our ears seem to rest on just a few.
Peck is not new to the documentary genre. With Lumumba: La mort du prophéte (1992), Documenta X – Die Filme (1997) and Fatal Assistance | Assistance Mortelle (2013) in his quiver, I Am Not Your Negro is an (paradoxically) arrow-sharp sonnet to the magnitude of the resolve of James Baldwin to stand in the fullness of his humanity. I Am Not Your Negro is an account of the humanity of Civil Rights celebrants and their own attempts to live unapologetically despite an America rife with methods to tell them otherwise. The film brings some tenderness to their lives when viewed through Baldwin’s eyes, to bring another level of surprising sorrow upon hearing of their brutal deaths.
This film finds its origins in a letter Baldwin wrote to his literary agent outlining his memories surrounding the deaths of his dear friends and fellow activists Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Like so much in many areas of our lives, the ideas were not fully-fledged by Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro is the result of Peck’s attempt at reading further significance to the letters and adding his own interpretation. Images are skilfully brought together in sound with Samuel L. Jackson. He of the ‘muthaf*&in’ mouth, is the voice-piece which helps to anchor us to the film. Jackson’s narrating is so profound that it seems to come from a place of familiarity, of knowing, as if he’d lived the life himself, saw the deaths himself. Jackson brings a rich depth of character to his voice over that is riveting.
I watched this film at Brixton’s Ritzy. The audience was filled with more men than I had seen at any gathering for many years; and these men were mostly gay. Their presence was an additional message to me that the varied spectrum of the sexuality of humanity was no longer willing to lay under dubious covers, as it were. As the activism around black lives precipitates, the inequities around gender fluidity, trans-gender and other areas of our sexuality have inevitably ‘come out’ as we attempt to deconstruct patriarchy and the embedded references of masculinity. The film flirted with respectability politics; that area of investigation which sanitises activism. Respectability stipulates how one must be an activist and as a result, inexorably adhering to (worn) institutional values. This is probably why the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement were left on a back-burner for a while; three black women, two of them queer just didn’t fit respectability perspectives.
James Baldwin’s writing, prolific as it was, brought to us via (a personal favourite) Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953); a tale of the relenting, unforgiving nature of Christianity and the crushing of people who did not conform to its happy-clappy-nuclear-family structure – a structure the so-called black church shaped its own special cross to cling to. This respectability slid over Baldwin’s lived experience and homosexuality as part of his life. But let’s not make light of his leanings either. Of the time in many American states, homosexuality was illegal, a felony, punishable by imprisonment. Yet Baldwin was unapologetic; indeed, his belief that he should live his life as a fully-fledged human informed his outlook of the wider world of Civil Rights.
This Ritzy screening was hosted by BlackOutUK, a volunteer collaborative of black gay men who run the organisation as a social enterprise. This airing of I Am Not Your Negro is part of their season titled ‘Reclaiming Jimmy’. It was their way of allowing us to recognise the whole of Baldwin which was indicated in part, that the film had neglected.
Our current world climate is difficult to say the least; uncertainty makes it so. We are uncertain about many aspects of our lives due to about-turns in political persuasions; a ‘Republican’ Trump Administration in The White House rattling sabres at Iran and North Korea, simultaneously making overtures to the Russian leader in an awkward bromance. A breakaway from a European Union for the United Kingdom – the result of which could see these Isles’ dis-united if the Scottish First Minister has her way. This amongst the persistent austerity battle-cry of a Tory government. Europe will see general elections in France and Germany as a slow creep of far-right nationalism courses through European politics fuelled by fear of migrating people from battle-torn countries. These seismic actions should make activism mandatory to protect whatever civility is left in society, shouldn’t they?
As we soon see the burial of Darcus Howe, there’s a resurgence about the neglect of activism and political awareness amongst the black British populace; to whom have the batons been passed? During the 1970s after the first generations of (1940-60s) Caribbeans had settled in Britain, their children found that there was no ‘mother’ in this country. Persistently kept out of gainful employment, decent housing and purposeful education, they were condemned by a Tory government supported by a gleeful media. Activism and organisation was obligatory. Fast forward to the early 21st century and it seems we’re in replay on both sides of the Atlantic.
What then of I Am Not Your Negro’s attempt to provide commentary on today’s activism; today’s outrage at the continued slaughter of black lives – and it has to be said, the observance of the slaughter of black male heterosexual lives? The film intersperses Baldwin’s experiences of the deaths of his friends with contemporary (ish) images of OJ Simpson (O.J.: Made in America the documentary film is almost perfect). There are repeated images of Rodney King brutalised by the LAPD; a hooded Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner et. al. But by using these primary frames of reference, could it be that I Am Not Your Negro surreptitiously comments upon missing black lives, ergo what is wrong with mainstream activism (can there be such a thing?!) from its frames; the voices of women, queer, LGBTQ, Femmes, trans-gender people conspicuous by their absence in the film?
As then, today the spectre of ‘race’ focuses on black bodies; racism happens to black people. Baldwin’s literary commentary pointed the focus to ‘whiteness’. There is nothing inherently wrong with black people; black people did not create racism, it was ‘whiteness’ that needed an investigation as it complicity watched its design unfold.
We seem to be seeing this re-focus more clearly. Social media has definitely helped. For example, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite saw all manner of folk comment on what they thought was or was not whitewashing in the film industry. Twitter had its field-day with ‘clap-back’ on what it perceived as any ‘un-woke’ utterings. White participation in racism is critiqued through entertainment as Ava DuVernay’s 13th as it lets us know that the corporately held prison system is ‘eating’ black and brown people. Most lately and rather delightfully in the horror genre kind of way, the film Get Out tells us that (amongst other things) ‘whiteness’ operates as a collective. Directed by Jordan Peele, it adds to the focus of analysing ‘whiteness’.
The mirroring of I Am Not Your Negro with today’s western, racial politics reminds us that we need activists as much as we ever did but it has to develop in order to tread the new terrain. The ground has shifted. James Baldwin, in remembering him in all his entirety adds credibility and most importantly, viability to contemporary activism which includes the full spectrum of blackness.
I Am Not Your Negro gets its UK release Friday 7th April 2017