I Am Not Your Negro  – A Highly Relevant & Reflective Examination of the Woeful American Past
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. And it is not a pretty story”, proclaimed Mr. James Arthur Baldwin, an extraordinary African-American author and poet. In American cinema, there’s not ample space for film-makers to truthfully reflect on this ‘not-so-pretty’ story. For decades, the incredible stories of total whiteness, hailing from Hollywood, has showcased the oppressed and dispossessed as the wicked subjects who either needs to be vanquished or subjugated. Over the last few years, there have been few interesting changes in this dominant & twisted white perspective. Last year, especially had been a good year for historical & personal stories from African-American perspective – Moonlight, Loving, Fences, and Hidden Figures, etc. There have also been three important documentaries, released in 2016, which told the history of ‘negro in America’ – Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, and Raoul Peck’s electrifying tribute to James Baldwin in I am Not Your Negro.
James Baldwin may not have been celebrated as much as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr., yet his profound and provocative words possessed the same power as those assassinated African-American leaders. Mr. Baldwin (1924-1987) was a keen observer of the American racial strife and his beautiful and hard-hitting prose had correctly predicted many of the ruthless consequences of this racial divide. In the light of woeful incidents from Ferguson to Baton Rouge, James Baldwin’s words resonate a lot more than ever; that the unaddressed racial problems and the excessive use of force could mark the beginning of the fall of outwardly civilized American system. James Baldwin’s unfinished book ‘Remember This House’ provides the basic framework for Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. In the book, the author hoped to explore racial struggles from the perspective of his friendships with three of the key black activists – Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – all three of them assassinated at different times.
James Baldwin wrote quite a few letters to his agent about the idea for his book. But the book never made it past 30 pages. The letters, unfinished manuscript, and other various notes were entrusted to Haitian film-maker Raoul Peck. Mr. Peck, for the past decade, have worked on the material he possessed to weave a thunderous summation of James Baldwin’s timeless words. The documentary is also benefited by a sharp editing work (Alexandra Strauss). Director Raoul Peck’s good decision to avoid talking-heads and his perfect use of cinematic instruments turns the documentary into a deep, one-on-one encounter between Baldwin’s words and our soul.
Baldwin’s framework (in Remember this House) was more about the black experience in USA than an civil rights biography. The documentary opens with James Baldwin scrutinizing his own peripheral status, compared to the three aforementioned black leaders, who were the personification of civil rights struggle. Mr. Baldwin was an eloquent observer, who waged his battles through words. He didn’t see the racial politics in simplistic terms of black vs white, but observed the economical situation and insecurities which lies at the root of these prejudices. Director Raoul Peck uses impeccable juxtapositions to emphasis on the prophetic nature of Baldwin’s words. “I am terrified at the moral apathy — the death of the heart — which is happening in my country”, which is not just about the segregationist mobs of 1960s, but also could represent contemporary police brutalities and the ensuing protests from Black Lives Matter.
Mr. Peck juxtaposes 1960 US government film including images of baseball, liberty statue, swimming pools, theme parks, and white people in full regalia with 1965 Watts protests, infamous for the police brutality. In many occasions, Peck makes good use of Baldwin’s speeches to reflect on the timeless nature of it. Baldwin’s verbal lashing on Booby Kennedy’s ‘Black President’ speech and rebuttal to Professor Paul Weiss were some of the most stirring moments. Baldwin’s illustrations on how Hollywood misguides the American culture and history were fascinating, especially his take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). In the film analysis part comes the most memorable juxtaposition – one that of dancing Gary Cooper and Doris Day (called as grotesque display of innocence) with the shocking images of lynching.
James Baldwin interestingly claimed ‘immaturity’ as one of the American virtues. He cited John Wayne as the embodiment of this American virtue. Perhaps, Mr. Baldwin was right, especially after thinking about the rise of Donald Trump. I was mostly struck by the unbelievable prophetic words from Mr. Baldwin regarding the entertainment industry. Director Peck juxtaposes images of plainly stupid reality TV with Baldwin’s fierce articulation: ‘entertainment industry is no different from the narcotics industry’. His other interesting philosophical musing states how people get so bogged down by reality that ‘they prefer fantasy than truthful creation of reality’. In Baldwin’s times, reality TV shows weren’t that readily available and social media were non-existent. Yet, he was perfectly right about the adverse impact of these meaningless images in TV and the atmosphere of moral apathy it creates.
Actor Samuel L. Jackson has narrated James Baldwin’s letters and other notes. Jackson’s voice finely mirrors the ebb and flow in Baldwin’s voice without blatantly trying to imitate him. The vital positive aspect of the documentary is that Peck doesn’t turn it into a tedious recollection of the historical events. It doesn’t just showcase the words of a celebrated author; it goes deep and explores his soul. Due to this approach, there’s no necessity to justify Baldwin’s importance with the help of other respected individuals. As Mr. Peck says in an interview (to rogerebert.com), “I only wanted there to be Baldwin’s words throughout the film, with no single word coming from any interpreters or other voices.” At its best, the documentary serves as very good introduction to those who are yet to read his books; others may want to re-read it and let his contemplative words to slowly sink in.
Both ‘I am Not Your Negro’ and James Baldwin’s writings don’t just make statements on the lamentable situation of African-Americans. It’s a spellbinding analysis on how myths continue to overpower people’s collective conscience and reality. It also demands accountability from the privileged (on personal as well as institutional level) on those who aren’t. Or else as Mr. Baldwin said, “All the buried corpses will begin to speak”.