I Am Not Your Negro is not a film about James Baldwin: more like a séance presided over by director Raoul Peck in which he summons up from beyond the grave Baldwin’s voice ventriloquised by Samuel L. Jackson in a narration drawn entirely from Baldwin’s work. It is not one of those conventional documentaries cluttered with the thoughts of friends, relatives or experts, but a work of literary archaeology that pieces together a book which Baldwin planned but never wrote, using his notes, plus words – and only his words – from letters, essays and books written in the mid-1970s. It is, perhaps, the best documentary I have ever seen.
Raoul Peck began with the concept of a film which would position Baldwin’s ideas in today’s context. He received permission to access material held by the Baldwin estate, and after four years’ work exploring the archive he found the decisive key to the film – a packet of letters to his literary agent called ‘Notes Toward Remember This House,’ the project which Baldwin never completed. Through personal recollections of three friends – the civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King – all of whom were assassinated within five years of each other. Baldwin said he wanted the lives of these three extraordinary but very different men ‘to bang against and reveal each other as, in truth, they did … and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.’ In the event, Baldwin made little progress on the project, leaving behind just thirty pages of notes when he died in 1987.
The narrative voice we hear in I Am Not Your Negro – whose words are entirely those of Baldwin – comes from this unfinished manuscript, supplemented by Baldwin’s published works and various television appearances. This brilliant move allows viewers to fully appreciate the incomparable eloquence of Baldwin’s words, read beautifully by Samuel L. Jackson, and gain a deep understanding of the writer through his own words. Visually, Raoul Peck illustrates Baldwin’s words with archive footage of adverts, interviews, newsreels, and film clips – plus images of Black Lives Matter protests which underscore how Baldwin’s words remain as urgent and relevant as they were when written.
I Am Not Your Negro begins with a photograph. It’s one of the infamous ones which showed fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by a violent white mob that surrounded her as she became the first black student to enter the formerly segregated Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was 1957, and after living in France for almost a decade, the photo, displayed on every newsstand in Paris, prompted Baldwin to return to the country he had never been homesick for:
I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.
Reflections on the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr (each of whom Baldwin knew well) are interspersed with passages from other books and essays, in particular ‘The Devil Finds Work,’ a meditation on race, Hollywood and the mythology of white innocence, published in 1976. In an opening section of the film, entitled ‘Heroes’, Baldwin recalls his childhood in the thirties and forties as an enthusiastic cinema-goer when ‘no-one resembling my father had yet made an appearance on the America cinema scene.’ At the movies, all the heroes were white, ‘not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which the movies were simply a reflection.’ Screen gods such as John Wayne or Gary Cooper killed off Indians in stories ‘designed to reassure us that no crime was committed,’ and which made ‘a legend out of a massacre,’ convincing Baldwin that ‘my countrymen were my enemy.’
But Baldwin is too honest a writer to retreat into simplistic hatreds. The film’s narrative includes a tribute to the young white schoolteacher who gave him books to read, took him to see plays and films, and talked to him about the world:
It is certainly because of Bill Miller … that I never really managed to hate white people. Though, God knows, I have often wished to murder more than one or two. Therefore, I begin to suspect that white people did not act as they did because they were white, but for some other reason.
Baldwin states that to begin with he knew Malcolm X only by legend ‘and this legend, since I was a Harlem street boy, I was sufficiently astute to distrust.’ In The Fire Next Time, in words quoted in the film, Baldwin stated:
I was in some way, in those years, without entirely realising it, the Great Black Hope of the Great White Father. I was not a racist – or so I thought; Malcolm was a racist, or so they thought. In fact, we were simply trapped in the same situation.
In a clip from a television interview in 1963 he says:
When Malcolm talks, or other Muslim ministers talk, they articulate for all the Negro people who hear them, who listen to them, they articulate their suffering. The suffering which this country has so long denied. That is Malcolm’s great authority over any of his audiences. He corroborates their reality. He tells them that they really exist.
Speaking of Malcolm and Martin, he states:
I watched two men, coming from unimaginably different backgrounds, whose positions, originally, were poles apart, driven closer and closer together. By the time each died, their positions had become virtually the same position. It can be said, indeed, that Martin picked up Malcolm’s burden, articulated the vision which Malcolm had begun to see, and for which he paid with his life.
Medgar Evers died on 12 June 1963. Malcolm X died on 21 February 1965. Martin Luther King died on 4 April 1968. Three men, three black leaders, assassinated in less than five years.
Baldwin speaks of how he had been invited to Mississippi by Medgar Evers, a member of the NAACP, who was investigating the murder of a black man several moths before. He speaks of being ‘terribly frightened’ during the trip, and says:
I was to discover that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed; nevertheless, the line is real.
Real because, he states, he was not a Black Muslim (because he did not believe that ‘all white people were devils,’ and he did not want young black people to believe that). Nor did he have to ‘deal with the criminal state of Mississippi, hour by hour and day by day, to say nothing of night by night. I did not have to sweat cold sweat after decisions involving hundreds of thousands of lives. … I saw the sheriffs, the deputies, the storm troopers more or less in passing. I was never in town to stay.’
I was older than Medgar, Malcolm and Martin. … Not one of these men lived to be forty.
He remembers how he heard the news that Medgar Evers had been shot to death at his home in full view of his wife and children. The words of ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ one of Bob Dylan’s finest lyrics appear on screen.
Somewhere in the film – I can’t recall whether it’s in response to the murder of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King – we hear Baldwin speak these words:
There are days, this is one of them, when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How precisely you’re going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified at the moral apathy – the death of the heart – which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. And I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means that they have become in themselves moral monsters.
These words might have been uttered in response to another of those deaths that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement: the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Ferguson, or the deaths at the hands of police officers of countless other young black males. It is the prescience of Baldwin’s words in I Am Not Your Negro that is stunning; the plain fact that they are as relevant to America today as it was in the 1960s. says about what America still is.
In a 1965 debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge University, Baldwin shares his vision on the prospect of a black president as suggested by Robert Kennedy (40 years before the election of Barack Obama).
From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency. We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.
It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. And until that moment, until the moment comes when we, the Americans, we, the American people, are able to accept the fact, that I have to accept, for example, that my ancestors are both white and Black. That on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other and that I am not a ward of America. I am not an object of missionary charity. I am one of the people who built the country–until this moment there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it. And if that happens it is a very grave moment for the West.
Reviewing the film for the New York Times, AO Scott wrote:
Baldwin could not have known about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, about the presidency of Barack Obama and the recrudescence of white nationalism in its wake, but in a sense he explained it all in advance. He understood the deep, contradictory patterns of our history, and articulated, with a passion and clarity that few others have matched, the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: the suppression of black humanity under slavery and Jim Crow and the insistence on it in African-American politics and art; the dialectic of guilt and rage, forgiveness and denial that distorts relations between black and white citizens in the North as well as the South; the lengths that white people will go to wash themselves clean of their complicity in oppression.
In Baldwin’s day, commentators would speak of ‘the Negro problem,’ but as Baldwin was tireless in pointing out, they were not the problem. The problem was – and remains – white Americans’ reluctance to face up to their past.
History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.
Baldwin wrote, ‘not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.’ He also wrote: ‘The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story. The future of the Negro in this country, is precisely as bright or dark as the future of the country.’
To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep. This is not the land of the free; it is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave.
In No Name in the Street, he put it thus:
All the western nations are caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism: this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the West has no moral authority.
These are words which are not just powerful. They are prophetic – as important now as when Baldwin said or wrote them. ‘To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time,’ he says. People accuse him – ‘in an attempt to dismiss the social reality,’ he says – of being bitter. ‘If I were bitter,’ he responds, ‘I would have good reasons for it: chief among them that American blindness, or cowardice, which allows us to pretend that life presents no reasons for being bitter.’
The film draws upon Baldwin’s critique of Hollywood films which have, for decades in his view, perpetuated this pretence. In America, there have existed two levels of experience and there has never been any genuine confrontation between them. Quoting from Baldwin’s 1976 essay on American film, ‘The Devil Finds Work,’ the film illustrates his words with many of the film clips that Baldwin discusses from films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and In the Heat of the Night.
What Baldwin sees when he watches these films is a country that is unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the humanity of non-white people. John Wayne rides across the prairie shooting Indians, and Baldwin talks about the moment when he realized that, as a black child, he was not the hero of the story, but one of those being gunned down. In the films, when black people do get to be the good guys, their main role, Baldwin asserts, is to provide reassurance and deference. So, for example, in the 1958 escaped convict film The Defiant Ones, Sidney Poitier leaps off a train to join his white buddy, who couldn’t make it onto the train in order to escape. White viewers were comforted by the Poitier character’s humanity, Baldwin says; black audiences simply shouted at the screen, ‘Get back on the train, you fool!’
In 1963 Baldwin appeared in a TV debate, ‘The Negro and the American Promise’, alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The New York Times described the James Baldwin segment as ‘a television experience that seared the conscience.’ Raoul Peck brings I Am Not Your Negro to a searing conclusion with this extract:
I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. … But the Negro in this country … The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger who they have maligned so long. What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. . . . If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.
‘When the Israelis pick up guns,’ Baldwin once said, ‘or the Poles or the Irish or any white man in the world says ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.’
In a recent interview, director Raoul Peck said:
‘The scariest thing is that it is so precise and dead on the point of what is happening right now. … We have been somehow in a sort of lethargy. We’ve been sleeping and we’ve been lazy. We’ve got Black History Month and we have Martin Luther King Day and we have new laws, et cetera, and we pretend as if everything is OK now. Which it’s not. We’ve just buried the corpse even deeper.
It’s remarkable, too, that Peck’s film comes so soon after Ava DuVernay’s brilliantly analytical and passionate documentary13th, which traces the present-day mass incarceration of black Americans to its historical origins in the Thirteenth Amendment which supposedly abolished slavery, but instead led to its perpetuation in different forms.
Peck began working on the film ten years ago, as he worked and reshaped the screenplay, he realised he was ‘making a film where the reality was galloping even quicker than I was making it.’
At the time, my concern was, how do I put these important words of James Baldwin on the front row? You know, how do I make them accessible to the new generation? And as I was editing this film, we started to have those images of young black men being killed – of the resistance, of Black Lives Matter, of young people again going on the streets to protest. And it was incredible to see. It’s happening again, almost the same words and the same anger. And then you see that, my God, nothing have changed fundamentally.
After the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to St. Paul de Vence in the south of France, where he worked on a book about the disillusionment of the times, If Beale Street Could Talk (published 1974). Many critics responded to the harsh tone of If Beale Street Could Talk with accusations of bitterness, though Baldwin – despite expressing the anger of the times in the spoken and printed word – always steered away from strategies drawn from hatred and separation, and remained a firm advocate of equality:
From my point of view, no label, no slogan, no party, no skin color, and indeed no religion is more important than the human being.
Baldwin died of stomach cancer in 1987, aged 63. He had created works of literary beauty, depth and power. From his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and ones that followed such as Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train Has Been Gone, his words fired my teenage soul along with images from the civil rights movement and the protest songs that emerged from it. Later, his essay collections such as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time illuminated for me the politics of race and equality. Peck’s fine film has encouraged me to take up those books again after half a century and read them once more.
After seeing Peck’s film we went home and watched Hail, Hail Rock’N’Roll, the 1987 documentary about the life of the recently deceased Chuck Berry that is wrapped around a tremendous concert whose musical director was Keith Richards. In the film Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley talk about the racism they routinely experienced even as their music was grasped by a grateful generation of white youth. I thought: they liberated us, yet in the land of their birth, black Americans still await their true emancipation.
The next day I listened to Paul Gilroy, Professor of American and English Literature at King’s College London, in conversation on BBC Radio 3 last month. Born in the East End of London to a Guyanese mother and English father, Gilroy’s academic career has been dedicated to exploring the same issues that James Baldwin addressed in his work – but from a British perspective. In books like The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 1970s Britain (1982), There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack (1987), and The Black Atlantic (1993), he has examined the same pathological inability of Britain to come to terms with the unfinished business of the past, of a historical memory which has blocked out colonialism and slavery.
In the radio discussion Gilroy spoke of the citizenship of African Americans being ‘hard-won, hard-fought over a series of enriching political struggles over several centuries which deepened and transformed American democracy.’ Turning to the British scene, he spoke of the ‘wounded nationalism’ that produced last year’s referendum result, and of there being ‘something deeply fascistic in that hunger for a magical identity that will somehow dissolve every little bit of otherness, every little bit of danger, every little bit of risk.’ Challenged about his use of the term ‘fascistic’, he quoted Primo Levi: ‘Every age creates its own fascism.’
In After Empire: Multiculture or Postcolonial Melancholia, Gilroy introduced the idea of the convivial culture: the boisterous everyday interaction of different ethnicities in parts of Britain cities and parts of British life. For Gilroy, this multiculturalism is simply a reality – neither a liberal dream nor a conspiracy. In optimistic moments, he thinks this conviviality could replace nostalgic dreams of empire and global pre-eminence in our national identity.
But, at the same time as Gilroy celebrates the way in which race has become almost irrelevant for many young and urban Britons in recent years, he warns that for the rest of the population, race has become more important, with panics about asylum seekers, hostility to eastern European immigrants, and fear of Muslim terrorists. In many ways, he suggests, race relations in Britain may be going as much backward as forward. Repressed memories of colonialist and racist mentalities are once more coming to the surface. (How quickly we seem to have forgotten that a racist and white supremacist murdered a British MP during that poisonous referendum campaign.)
Last week a friend passed me a copy of an interview with James Baldwin, conducted by Paul Gilroy in 1985 for City Limits. In it, Gilroy asks Baldwin, living in exile in the south of France, how he feels about the rise of the Front National led by Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of the present leader, Marine Le Pen). Baldwin replies:
It is all absolutely familiar and absolutely appalling. I may not be able to hide there any longer. At the visceral level it’s a panic not just about losing an empire but of losing any significant role in the world.
Gilroy is reminded of a key sentence in Baldwin’s 1972 book, No Name In The Street, ‘There will be bloody holding actions all over the world, for years to come: but the western party is over, and the white man’s sun has set, period.’ Has the meaning of those words altered since he wrote them, Gilroy asks. Baldwin smiles: ‘There’s no way round that.’
The more elderly, more traditional Britain (or should that be ‘England’, a country I feel no part of) that rejects multiculturalism is, in Gilroy’s formulation, ‘melancholy’, transfixed by the nostalgia for empire and living in denial that things have changed. Meanwhile, ‘convivial’ Britain has little leverage where power lies.
Gilroy suggests (as Baldwin did with reference to white Americans) that Britons need to do some hard thinking about their colonial past and the realities of the present. At the same time, the positive virtues of conviviality should be championed.
Racism has been at the centre of my life as a scholar and as a political actor, too. The point about racism is – and we learned this aeons ago – that just supplying the right information is not going to be the answer. The very wrongness of it all is the point.
- James Baldwin Was Never Your Negro (Mother Jones)
- 11 James Baldwin Quotes On Race That Resonate Now More Than Ever (Huffington Post)
- Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons
- Songs of freedom, tears of rage