“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
These words from James Baldwin (1924-1987) are an effective summary of Raoul Peck’s new documentary essay about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. The Oscar-nominated film is not a bio-pic of Baldwin, author of plays, novels, poems and essays, as well as a public intellectual and a civil-rights activist. The film focuses on Baldwin in the 1960s, and specifically, what he had to say.
As a loose framing device, Peck taps the unfinished work Remember This House, in which Baldwin planned to write about his relationships with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. There are no outside voices in the film, only Baldwin’s words. Peck uses archival footage of Baldwin speaking during lectures and television appearances; in other places, Baldwin’s written works are read by Samuel L. Jackson.
What transpires is a still-searing indictment of the systemic racism that underpins our civic, moral and cultural institutions. Baldwin’s reflections and admonishments ring as true today as they did 50 years ago. He calls out whites for their casual blindness to how their privilege came to be, and how it continues — from the wealth created by slave labor to the primacy of the white experience that casts black lives as other. He dismisses suggestions to “move on.” “History is not the past, it is the present,” he says. “We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
Baldwin explores the troubled relationship between whites and blacks, and not just the surface tensions. “You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves,” he says. “You give me a terrifying advantage. You have never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me.”
Often behind Baldwin’s words, Peck inserts clips from old films. Baldwin, who cites a childhood spent at the movies, frequently reached for film to underscore his theories about white privilege, the disconnect between promise and reality, and the powerful role popular film plays in cementing preferred myths. He speaks of his disillusion upon realizing, while rooting for Gary Cooper to kill the Indians, that he is the Indian and not the cowboy.
Peck also pairs footage of street protests from the 1960s with those in Ferguson, Mo., three years ago, and the most notable difference between the two eras is hardly a positive one — cops now are heavily militarized. And lest we think, “But … Obama,” Baldwin’s thoughts about the success of a future black president are remarkably prescient. What matters, he epxlains, is not whether an American president is black, but what the country he is president of is like. No doubt, America remains a work in progress.