“Prophetic” is the adjective so often used to describe the writing of James Baldwin. And yes, Baldwin seems to fit in perfectly beside the other great prophets of the old days—an unheeded voice crying out in the wilderness. But we often forget about the lives of authors apart from their books, and in Baldwin’s case, many of those books are still rarely discussed.
The project of Haitian film director Raoul Peck’s new documentary I Am Not Your Negro is to reconcile James Baldwin the writer with his public persona, and to show the inextricable link between the two. The film is Baldwin’s “witness” to the life and death of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is his take on the three of the most devastating murders of the Civil Rights Movement.
The script is based on combination of Baldwin’s public lectures and the uncompleted manuscript Remember This House. Samuel L. Jackson reads the words with his characteristic rich and commanding voice. Clips from James Baldwin’s public lectures are interspersed, and powerful pictures and video footage from the Civil Rights Movement form the backdrop. And they are only that: a backdrop. The real force of I Am Not Your Negro lies in Baldwin’s words—sad, deep and unbelievably present. The film is mesmerizing, though it would have almost the same effect if shown on a black screen. I Am Not Your Negro is a great film because of the genius and might of Baldwin’s words, and for no other reason.
Nonetheless, Peck smartly frames the text, providing us with the evidence of hope and struggle Baldwin speaks of. He cites Baldwin’s contemporaries and his predecessors, those who struggled alongside him and those who fought against him. Yet the documentary is not only the story of past struggle. It is a narrative that belongs equally to the present tense—Peck unflinchingly links Harlem of the 1960s to the riots in Ferguson and the deaths of young black men at the hands of police.
Peck goes to great lengths to emphasize the relationship between Baldwin’s witness and the continuing problems facing the black community in the 21st century. He underscores the foresight of Baldwin’s work by showing footage of President Obama and the riots in Ferguson. As he writes in the introduction of the script – published in conjunction with the documentary – “I grew up inhabiting a myth in which I was both enforcer and actor: the myth of a single and unique America.” This story “was well written, the soundtrack allowed no ambiguity, the actors of this utopia, whether black or white, were convincing.” Peck pushes strongly against the idea of a singular American narrative. He insists on Baldwin’s statement, even today: “In this country, for a dangerously long time, there have been two levels of experience.”
I Am Not Your Negro is an important documentary. We do not live in a post-racial America, and we never will if we don’t recognize the part of ourselves that allows racism to exist. Baldwin again puts it best:
“History is not the past.
It is the present.
We carry our history with us.
We are our history.”
I Am Not Your Negro is now playing The Belcourt Theatre. Tickets available at belcourt.org.
I Am Not Your Negro: A Companion Edition to the Documentary Film Directed by Raoul Peck
By James Baldwin & Raoul Peck
144 pages (paperback)