The uncomfortable truth
James Baldwin’s civil rights-era writings speak to America’s current racial discord
I Am Not Your Negro didn’t win the Oscar for Best Documentary, but might well have in almost any other year. (OJ: Made in America, one of three nominated documentaries dealing with race relations in America, took home the award.) But no matter—what most needs to be said about Raoul Peck’s 93-minute film on the work and thought of James Baldwin is one of the best and, by my lights, most essential movies of recent times.
Baldwin is one of the most distinctive and cogent American writers of the 20th century, and—as Peck’s film richly demonstrates—what the man had to say about race and human character in the modern USA remains eminently worth hearing, and every bit as much now as during the writer’s own lifetime (1924-1987).
And a key element of Peck’s film is that it gives Baldwin an ample, intimate, nuanced and sometimes galvanic forum in which to speak to us in our own present moment (2016-17 and counting). Baldwin’s voice is literally present in the film via excerpts of his speaking in televised debates, talk shows and interviews, but also through voice-over readings of passages from his work (performed here by Samuel L. Jackson speaking in accents that are remarkably “Baldwinesque”).
In one sense, the film is based on, or originated with, unpublished fragments from a book-length project that Baldwin never got to finish. Circa 1979, the writer was working his way into a deep analysis of race and American society via accounts of the lives and deaths of three iconic activists and martyrs who were his contemporaries (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers).
Peck’s film makes vivid use of archival footage and those voice-over quotations in presenting Baldwin’s observations on all three of those murdered icons. And the film is maybe even better at embodying the other major strand in Baldwin’s unfinished project—the discourse on racism’s toxic effect on all of American society, including especially its ideals of happiness, freedom and prosperity.
The cultural commentary extends into Baldwin’s acerbic comments on American movies, and Peck pairs the commentaries with excerpts from many films: a silent movie version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, racially themed Hollywood movies like Imitation of Life (1934) and They Won’t Forget (1937), several Sidney Poitier films, a couple of John Wayne westerns, etc. Peck also links the cultural analysis to several glimpses of recent racial incidents, including especially the rash of police shootings of young black men.
Baldwin’s comments on the noxious underside of liberalism and prosperity among the white middle class are linked to advertising images from the 1950s and ’60s, but a big part of what’s stunning and arousing about I Am Not Your Negro is that it speaks very directly to an America that Baldwin did not live to see but also to the America of 2017, and to us, all of us.