The Here and the Now
By Michael Koresky
I Am Not Your Negro
Dir. Raoul Peck, U.S./France, Magnolia Pictures
As one of those rare English-language writers whose any given sentence is exquisite and meaningful enough to stand as a complete work of art on its own, James Baldwin could only possibly be honored onscreen through his own words. With the tone and care of the genuinely righteous, his voice was that of a herald, with writing that sliced through hypocrisy and the specific, tragic banality of American life with a swift condemnation that managed to touch the sublime. To attempt translating his teeming prose and political clarity to the film format risks straying from the unerring paths his essays and novels forged; his theories about systemic racism and the congenital historical catastrophe that is American personhood are so passionately, expertly argued, and they so completely intertwine the personal anecdote and the societal diagnosis, that to disrupt the flow of words, sentences, paragraphs with images and music could potentially delimit their power. Depending on your point of view, Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck has either ambitiously circumvented these challenges or provocatively admitted defeat with his documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which uses Baldwin’s thirty pages of notes for his unfinished 1979 book Remember This House, as the conceptual skeleton on which to hang some of the writer’s most indelible observations and moments. In so doing, Peck aims to construct a portrait of the ongoing racial discord in today’s America and therefore throw light on Baldwin’s prescience and continuing relevance.
Though constructing a film from shards of Baldwin’s essays makes elegant sense in outline, it’s a tricky gambit. Or perhaps it’s an “exploratory exercise,” as Baldwin himself called Remember This House, in which he was going to create a narrative of America’s Civil Rights era via a prismatic recollection of three icons he personally knew—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, each murdered before he was forty. It’s a journey “I always knew I would have to make,” as he wrote in a letter to his literary agent; he wanted, through his writing, “these three lives to bang against and reveal each other.” Rather than presume to pick up where Baldwin left off, Peck seems to want the writer’s own history of observations to bang up against those lives and reveal something about the here and now. Peck continually returns to the three men and Baldwin’s notes on them throughout I Am Not Your Negro, but buffers them with passages from “The Devil Finds Work,” “No Name in the Street,” “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” and several of his other essays. With Baldwin’s first-person words read by a marvelously intimate and round-toned Samuel L. Jackson, the film does manage to paint a philosophically coherent picture, if not create a continuity amongst all these disparate, if philosophically coherent thoughts. Constructed of archival footage, photographs, clips from movies and television interviews, and original filler images of things like sun streaming through trees and cityscapes from under elevated subway tracks (shot by documentary filmmakers the Ross brothers), the result is an essayistic patchwork rather than a genuine essay film.
It opens with a reminder that there was once such a thing in the U.S. as a public intellectual: we first see footage of Baldwin as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show in the late sixties talking about contemporary race relations, and kicking off Peck's film with its investigative thesis: “The real question is what is going to happen to this country.” Near the end of the film, Peck will return to this same interview, during which Cavett’s secondary guest, self-righteous, avuncular white Yale professor Paul Weiss, tries to temper Baldwin’s distress over racial inequality by preaching a false brotherhood between the two of them, positing that as academics they have more in common than, say, two black men of different education and background, and that the problem of America is one of masculinity rather than of race. With a swift slip of his knifelike tongue, Baldwin cuts the blinkered liberal to the quick; there’s no place for his silly ahistorical idealism here. It stands in for all the small-minded voices over which he was constantly trying to be heard. It’s also a rude shock to hear someone questioning the narrator of a film that has lived so fully, persuasively in his head.
Peck isn’t so interested in constructing Baldwin’s biography, but there’s just enough bits and pieces of his life to form a narrative: through Jackson’s voice, we hear of Baldwin’s return to the U.S. from Paris during the thick of the Civil Rights battle; his memories of the white elementary schoolteacher who taught him about Africa and the horror of the Nazis during World War II; his experience stumbling through a lecture he gave in a room with Malcolm X before he met the man personally; his meeting with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, alongside A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry, to unsuccessfully ask him to persuade JFK to escort a black woman to school at the height of desegregation. In between these memories of concrete events are his renowned cultural takes and morsels of his seminal cinematic criticism: the primal terror of African-American actor Clinton Rosemund cutting through Hollywood racist representation as a janitor accused of murdering a white woman in They Won’t Forget (1937); the racial fantasy of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958), in which Sidney Poitier’s self-sacrificial friendship with fellow convict Tony Curtis functions only to reassure white viewers; and those “grotesque appeals to innocence” known as Doris Day and Gary Cooper, wet American dreams of false virtue, implicitly keeping Americans in a state of arrested development.
Because Peck only gives us fragments of these arguments, boiling them down to somewhat decontextualized insights, the viewer is left to piece them together to create an overall intellectual and philosophical outlook. And because they are not compartmentalized into thematic sections, his critiques are allowed to form a surprising dialogue—to “bang against and reveal each other.” For example, the first section of the film, titled Paying My Dues, collapses past and present as it zig-zags from color footage of outraged whites protesting de-segregation to a montage of racist advertising illustrations and photos featuring grinning butlers and mammies to contemporary shots of Times Square accompanied by Baldwin’s reminiscence about his ambivalent return from Paris and right on to his childhood memories of imbibing the monstrous beauty of Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). All of the film’s sections function this way, as though coursing through Baldwin’s head; the result is an unorthodox psychological portrait, a way of getting to know someone without having to account for an entire life, and a utilization of cinematic devices to broaden what might have been a purely text-driven experience.
It needs to be reiterated that I Am Not Your Negro is not a complete portrait—otherwise it would have acknowledged the important fact of Baldwin’s queerness; it’s only hinted at during a passage about J. Edgar Hoover’s mid-sixties FBI investigation of him as a suspicious person who has “traveled in Europe and is maybe an [sic] homosexual.” Peck’s decision to not include his sexuality in the overall tapestry of the film shouldn’t be necessarily seen as an act of avoidance, as the film is tightly focused on the past and future of America as it relates to race, yet Baldwin’s outsider status and artistic identity was compounded and hugely informed by his gayness. Baldwin’s insistence on the deleterious effects of labels on people extended explicitly to love and sex, and his views on societal homophobia implicitly apply to this powerful line from his 1971 essay “Take Me to the Water,” quoted in the film: “I have always been struck in America by an emotional poverty so bottomless and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life.”
This realization, like so many, is not just “relevant” to conversations about marginalization in American culture—it gets to the heart of the matter. Peck’s film reminds us that a critic’s job is to, in a sense, write formulas. In diagnosing a widespread, deeply ingrained problem, Baldwin was writing the formula for a nation in decline. I Am Not Your Negro’s central concept is to express how little things have changed. But at least one thing has: at one point Baldwin contemplates the centrality of false humility in American life, taking aim at our politicians’ stabs at apologetic sincerity. If Trump’s America has taught us anything, humility and emotional expression can be anathema—especially to a white, mainstream public increasingly identifying as outcast themselves. It's a relief to think that Baldwin doesn't have to see this latest American chapter. And Peck’s film reminds us that even though he is no longer with us, he’s still talking to us about what’s going on.