Raoul Peck’s ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ lifts passages from Baldwin’s unfinished novel ‘Remember This House’ to frame, as only Baldwin could, the story of America from the standpoint of its primary protagonist, the African-American.
PHOTO: BOB ADELMAN, COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES
Watching Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, nominated this year for an Academy Award as Best Documentary, I couldn’t overcome another prideful declaration, a salute as assertive and defiant as a raised fist. As every frame unspooled and every word erupted like a cannon blast from narrator Samuel L. Jackson, I longed to shout, “I am James Baldwin.”
Baldwin, who died in 1987, is the central subject of this film. His writings — especially his collected essays in The Fire Next Time, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name — made him not just a major literary figure but also an important social and political critic, a voice of conscience during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. He also wrote novels, plays, poetry and short stories. His books remain timely.
The film lifts passages from Baldwin’s unfinished novel Remember This House to frame, as only Baldwin could, the story of America from the standpoint of its primary protagonist, the African-American. Jackson reads from Baldwin’s manuscript, as well as his letters; Baldwin is seen in archival footage. Baldwin’s perspective links together such murdered figures of the 1960s civil rights movement as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — not only because of their historic relevance, but also because of his connection to these men and their missions. Through their struggles, they reminded him of his conflicted allegiance to the fragile American experiment, this work-in-progress that at times feels like it needs to be completely scrapped so that it can start over with a fresh perspective, informed by the failings of the past.
But Peck doesn’t strand us in fading memories. He shows that while we might not have new leaders to galvanize us the way Evers, Malcolm X and King did, there is an ever-growing parade of martyred victims — Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner — sacrificed on the altar of American justice. They constitute the next links in the chains binding us to a history we long to keep hidden.
And while some question the perceived strides we have made (and Baldwin would be chief among the skeptics were he alive today), we do have the testimony of an African-American president who voiced his solidarity with the latest victims of our ongoing struggles with race.
And yet, watching and listening to I Am Not Your Negro reaffirms the undeniable moral gravity of Baldwin. I have been drawn to him since my post-collegiate days, when I made regular trips to any and every bookstore in Center City Philadelphia to purchase and consume his catalog — the titles I had never been exposed to in school. I wanted to write because I saw how the craft offered up a reflection of my world, the one I naïvely assumed everyone would care about because so much had changed.
Reading The Fire Next Time, a book comprised of two essays written in 1963 but damningly relevant to me in the early 1990s and still apropos today, made me put aside my youthful innocence. I could have been the 14-year-old nephew Baldwin addressed in “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” In light of our recent election and the steps taken in the first few weeks of the new administration, dreams of hope and change remain little more than deterred ideals and funhouse distortions.
Beyond the overt politics, I Am Not Your Negro spotlights Baldwin’s role as a cultural critic, in particular his investment in and affinity for film. We hear him speak of being enthralled by cinematic images, despite the fact that he never found positive and engaging representations of himself in the frames of his youth. As he matured and embarked upon his career as a successful writer, Baldwin found himself in the company of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, men who served as race-based role models and curiously sexless sex symbols.
I Am Not Your Negro curiously subverts our conception of history, perceptions of ourselves as a nation, and attempts to address our unending dilemma. It tells its story best through Baldwin’s own words rather than moving images. That is a fitting tribute to its subject — a universal man of letters that we need to finally claim as one of the best our nation has ever produced. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (PG-13) Grade: A