In the words of James Baldwin (1924-1987) and in the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, viewers of the documentary ” I Am Not Your Negro”, (2017) see in a profound glimpse into the racial divide in the United States of America. In just under ninety- fIve minutes, archival film reels and photos are interspersed with old movie clips to illustrate a history one can not be proud of, let alone laud. “America is not the home of the free, and only sporadically the home of the brave”, Baldwin tells us.
From an ex-patriot’s vantage point, Baldwin writes forcefully of three friends and Civil Rights’ icons: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, who were murdered in the 1960’s all under the age of forty.
Beginning with Dick Cavatt’s television interview and ending with the same, Haitian director Raoul Peck lets Baldwin personalize these deaths and draw a warning for our country. It is a country the self-exiled Baldwin tells us that he never felt homesick for.
His journey back is one of “paying his dues” and seeing his family whom he did miss. We learn of Baldwin’s grade school teacher and how she enriched his education. How he did not hate white people then. He relays how his world was later debased by a culture that only had white heroes, Step ‘n Fetch It, and fear-filled black janitors. Baldwin, who would have been 93 this year, has a perspective that brutally portrays and labels The Civil Rights Movement as the “latest slave rebellion.”
His unfinished manuscript called “Remember This House” is the bones of this documentary, part social commentary and part memoir and recollections of three personal friends. As a side note, McGraw -Hill sued the Baldwin Estate to recover the 200,000 dollar advance they gave him. Peck, a former Haitian Minister of Culture, honors Baldwin with this film and credits him with writing it.
Old news becomes a personal journey to elicit remorse from white Americans who do not seem to understand that “we are our history”. We carry it with us always, and “white is a metaphor for power”.
One of the most arresting pictorial arguments comes from a clip of a 1961 Doris Day film that I remember seeing. She sings “shall I be naughty or nice..shall I surrender”. The next frames show real lynched men swinging from trees. The disparity in feeling safe with taking risks has never looked sillier.
One of the factoids I learned from this film is that Lorraine Hansberry, author of one of my favorite plays of all time, ” A Raisin In The Sun”, walked out of a discussion with Bobby Kennedy and James Baldwin. Baldwin relays that, “we heard the thunder!”. There are enough revelations like the NAACP’s early errors in making class distinctions to keep even the most seasoned students of the racial divide learning.
Robert Kennedy does not fare well in this documentary. Though we see him in Indianapolis calming the crowd after announcing the death of MLK, we also see him in 1965 at 38 telling Blacks that maybe in forty years a black man may even become president. While he is not portrayed as a villain, it is made clear that Baldwin and Hansberry understand white politicians more than he understands Black America. Hansberry’ s point being that we have been here 400 years , and he tells us in 1965 that maybe in forty more we will see parity. What kind of dream is this?!
Baldwin writes that ” Whites don’t want to believe that the Birmingham massacre is the norm”. The screen shows Birmingham on Mars to make the point. Equally Creative is the interplay of music like ” Stormy Weather”, gospel and blues. The original score by Alexei Aigui is extremely effective.
Film stars and film clips serve as a mesh to capture our culture. There are two levels of experience shown. An example is a group of picnicking whites and then a parade of black faces staring one by one from the screen. How white institutions like Chase Manhattan Bank treat Blacks is the real issue. There is no picnicking for them.
Wince at the clip of Trump saying , “Sorry, get used to it.” Acknowledge the evils of “vested interests” and ” profiteers”. Safety and profit loom over passion and care in ending racism. While Baldwin has been called ” a soul on fire”, here we see the smoldering embers. He makes legend out of massacre the same way our culture has done with Native Americans. Peck, who took ten years making this documentary, will have many choosing to reread “Go Tell It On The Mountain” (1953) and “Evidence Of Things Not Seen” ( 1985). This documentary warrants multiple viewings. It is that full and that important. This Sunday evening, Raoul Peck should be taking home an Oscar.