(This is a much delayed review and commentary on Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and released to Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Download—including Amazon Video—May 2 by Magnolia Home Entertainment.)
“There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.” — Time, May 17, 1963
What does an effeminate writer with a cartoonish face; a wide, effusive, queer grin; crooked, gaped teeth; and a habit of crossing his legs and dangling a cigarette holder in his right hand like a dandy when he speaks have to do with recent outrage over the flagrant and most foul police shootings of primarily young African-American men? As Haitian filmmaker and international citizen Raoul Peck sees it, quite a bit. It may or may not seem as if the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Birmingham followers were just released from jail Saturday, and not necessarily on April 20, 1963, but one thing’s for sure, the more things change, the more they stay the same—a fitting turn of phrase when it comes to the African-American experience. I’m not sure if James Arthur Baldwin would believe that the redemptive election of the nation’s first African-American president ultimately represented progress or a step back, but had the Harlem native son clawed his way through the muddy depths of racial provocation, strife, and social ill still plaguing his people to the surface of his grave to awaken to this, I’m also not sure if he might rather just cover himself back up with dirt and go back to sleep. Peck doesn’t believe so, and not just because Baldwin’s dreams be so disturbed; it was just this sort of contemporaneous riot—then, the dignified demeanor of Dorothy Counts walking—schoolbooks in hand—through a gauntlet of abusive White citizens to attend class at a newly integrated high school in Charlotte; today, the moving responses, ripostes, and vigils of the wives, sisters, girlfriends, etc. of the victims of those shootings—that brought Baldwin out of his Parisian exile. Besides that, Peck was not even a young man when he discovered the American’s writings that form the basis of …Negro so penetrated to the bone the essence of the “negro problem” they ventured on prophecy. If Baldwin’s bones do rattle at the forcefully lethal expression of malice and ill will toward his brothers (and sisters) under color of authority, he might hardly blink an eye at the rest; after all, his testimonies ultimately predicted it.
If the film is based, then, on Baldwin’s written and oral expression, including Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street and other essays, magazine and newspaper articles, including an April, 1978 piece in The New York Times entitled, “The News from All the Northern Cities Is, to Understate It, Grim; the State of the Union Is Catastrophic,” a few things still need to be clarified. NO, James Baldwin did not “write” this film, as the odd and misleading opening credit states, as if we were about to witness a posthumous realisation of an August Wilson piece, which was strange enough. It’s a homage, for sure, but make no mistake about it, Raoul Peck (Sometimes in April, Lumumba) crafted this film. Second, the film’s title is a watering down of Baldwin’s initial, actual “N—“ expression that today still might carry the same shock as it did then when Baldwin was trying to wake folks up, though in today’s pop-culture-influenced parlance, it’s used in ways that I can assure you Baldwin would write an entire tome on the psychological complexities at work. …Negro is divided into segments with titles such as “Paying Your Dues” and “Witness,” but it was primary inspired by an unfinished book-length testimony Baldwin was intending to write about his contemporaries King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X entitled Remember This House. You may or may not be too surprised to see who comes out best—besides the unassailable Evers, it’s King. While Baldwin joined the chorus in denouncing the southern Christian’s “early” departure from Birmingham—after a resolution with city leaders but before a particularly virulent put-down of “rioting” by police and National Guardsmen—and asserted that Malcolm X “corroborates [African-American} reality” when he speaks, this is particularly acute when Peck includes an excerpt from a television interview conducted by Kenneth B. Clark in which he makes ugly and juvenile assertions about “ignorant Black preachers” and “Uncle Toms,” to which King gives a calm, cool, and collected rebuttal. While this was Malcolm X about at his worst—and Baldwin believed that toward the end the two had not only come closer to respecting one another but were essentially espousing the same things—it’s this same calm, cool, penetrating intellect and deep reservoir of knowledge and wisdom of King’s that Peck draws from Baldwin in the film.
While that “unconditional” voice, as the filmmaker puts it in his dedication, the one that became to be known as the voice of the Civil Rights Movement, is sometimes typewritten across a black screen in white typography, it’s more often given dramatic resonance by Samuel L. Jackson’s deep cadences, rich pauses, and emphatic precision. His profound and moving narration is not only one of the highlights of Jackson’s career, but one of the most devastating and authentic I’ve heard committed to narrative voiceover. No, this is not the nauseating commercial spokesman pushing the benefits of Capital One’s cash-back credit-card rewards program over those of Chase and the others, not to worry. Besides that, Peck captures Baldwin, whose oratorical eloquence was honed during a teenage stint replicating his abusive stepfather’s calling as a junior minister at a Pentecostal assembly in Washington Heights, at some particularly entertaining and illuminating events: a Harvard forum in 1963; a University of Cambridge debate in 1965 in which he receives an effusive standing ovation from a packed audience of White students; and an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show that not only captures the chain-smoking writer in fine form as he respectfully reproves Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss, but the classic facial expressions and uncomfortable glances at the audience of the host, who encapsulates Baldwin’s take on the current status of the American negro by saying, “At once better and still hopeless.” Witticisms and deep, incisive comments abound from the subject throughout. One can’t help but think that for today’s generation who may lack tolerance and even respect for Civil Rights-era and other veteran African-American leadership—and who declined to even vote for Hillary Clinton despite all that was at stake—Baldwin would immediately fill a void and command respect. That may or may not be why Peck thought the time was right for this.
Baldwin arrived at this preeminent place perhaps because of his status as an outsider. His escape to France as a young man in 1948—even with nothing but $40 and the clothes on my back on the Paris streets “nothing worse could happen to me” than already had in America, Jackson narrates—practically guaranteed that. When he returned as a “witness” to the troubles in 1957—some of the most satisfying footage is seeing a wide-eyed, wonderstruck Baldwin riding shotgun in a car as he tours the Chicago streets nodding his head this way and that to get views from every window—and though he toured the South in 1963 in support of the Congress of Racial Equality, he formally turned away from the principle organized movements—the Muslim Brotherhood, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the NAACP, which he believed exhibited class elitism. The sometimes emotionally brittle writer took pride in his poor Harlem street boy days—“My school was the streets of New York City”—and rejected organized religion. Besides, as Jackson also narrates, “I was never in town long enough to commit myself to the movement. My motive was to write about it.”
Here, I couldn’t help but be reminded of similarities not only to Afro-Caribbean writer Franz Fanon, who woke up left-wing European intellectuals with his stark depictions of the effects of colonialism and who died in December, 1961, at the age of 36, but French writer Jean Genet, who was rescued from a lifelong prison sentence by French intelligentsia led by the likes of Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre who were most impressed with his penmanship. A ward of the state before his first birthday, the national treasure turned to a life of crime, homosexuality, visionary writing, and, after being pardoned, a life of international activism à la Sartre. But Genet never felt comfortable with his comparatively bourgeoise peers—his The Thief’s Journal is one of the darkest and most extremely lived autobiographical pieces I can imagine—and remained an outsider of the literary establishment and any other. Baldwin actually toured America with Genet in support of the Panthers, George Jackson, and Angela Davis during the time of the Soledad Brothers Defense in 1971. Genet’s provocative caricature on race and class, The Blacks, arrived off-Broadway in 1961 with a cast including James Earl Jones; Louis Gossett, Jr.; Cicely Tyson; and Maya Angelou as the White Queen. The long-running sensation “inspired” A Raison in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry to write Les Blancs as a more dignified Pan-African response to themes of colonialism—an adaptation by Rogue Machine at the MET Theatre in Los Angeles is actually currently running through July 31.
Hansberry appears in …Negro not only as a close confident of Baldwin’s who also died young—just 40 days before Malcolm X at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer—but because of her demonstrative role in a surreal encounter with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in May, 1963, subsequent to the Birmingham “Riots.” Baldwin recounts how Hansberry defiantly walked out of the meeting with other civil-rights leaders after delivering a particularly stinging summation of the president’s younger brother’s out-of-touch views of negroes in the struggle. The contingent had been hoping to persuade the administration, “the good white people on the hill,” as Baldwin referred to Washington, to provide federal support for African Americans who were enduring the threats, harassment, and violence of integration and peaceful protest, but they left empty-handed, with Baldwin feeling that the future Democratic presidential candidate was completely out of touch with Black Americans. No, despite some of his and his brother’s intervention on behalf of integration, the man whose own assassination five years later would close like a guillotine any hope of a liberal 1960s political movement segueing into the next decade does not come off well here at all. As if to illustrate that insularity that so bedeviled the East Coast prep royalty, Kennedy reportedly referred to Baldwin as “Martin Luther Queen.” Among the AG’s dangerous dalliance with closeted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was to put Baldwin in his crosshairs, with much of it being plainly discernable muckraking focused on the writer’s alleged homosexuality, in which the writer pretty much wore the “alleged” on his sleeve. Peck graphically reveals some of the organization’s conclusions among the astounding number of pages—some 1,887—it compiled on Baldwin, far more than many others at the time, ultimately portraying the morally questionable citizen as a “dangerous individual,” a threat not only to national security but to the very democracy itself, a distinction Genet most certainly would‘ve been proud of if it were even true. The official dossier, perhaps an unparalleled waste of time and energy, echoes Baldwin’s opinion expressed in the film that White society held a “laughably pathetic” view of Malcolm X “were it not so dangerously wicked.”
Yet, Baldwin’s outsider status was cured and sealed much earlier in a way that he himself felt was similarly wicked, and Peck spends a good deal of the film on this, which came as a surprise. As a middle-school student Baldwin not only came under the influence of Countee Cullen, but his math teacher, Orilla Miller, took the promising young student under her wing, introducing him to the city’s art and culture but also, significantly, its cinema. His first film was the seemingly innocuous Dance, Fools, Dance starring Joan Crawford; images of her dancing wildly on a stage in B&W play while Jackson narrates Baldwin’s impressions from The Devil Finds Work. Classic Hollywood can at times appear very innocuous, especially with talented stars around, but if the treatment of women isn’t appalling enough, the fact that most everyone in them is White to noticeable exception can leave one not used to White society feeling left out, to put it mildly, not to mention an impressionable young boy of a different skin. Things get more literal with patently questionable cowboys and Indians fare like John Ford’s The Stagecoach; the boy’s childhood with the stars now includes John Wayne and Gary Cooper cleansing the prairie with wild, wanton rampages on horseback and stagecoach, guns a’blazin’. The psychological effects of racism are realized; faced with thrilling depictions of national genocide, the boy sees that “my countrymen were my enemies,” and with a choice between good guys and bad, “the Indians were you.” In Wayne and company, “immaturity is a virtue,” creating “a legend out of a massacre.” Gunplay seems to be all the sensation, unless you’re a Black Panther. Baldwin then takes on what he perceives to be Hollywood’s misuse of Sidney Poitier to fit White expectations. Amid scenes of The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night, Baldwin muses that Black audiences must either be howling with unintended laughter or hugely disappointed. By the time Jackson relates the writer’s reminisces of a thwarted interracial relationship with a White girl in which the couple are forced to clandestinely date, a missed opportunity at love that also haunted King, the young man’s already halfway to Paris.
On it goes, a deeper journey into darkness as the film progresses; it’s not quite Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now!, but it may as well be. Images of B&W civil-rights actions, police brutality, Baldwin, King, Evers, and Malcolm X flash to contemporary scenes of Ferguson, incendiary protests, and further police intimidation. Peck does an excellent job compiling text, stills, and video; still, segueing to the contemporary scenes may require the audience take a leap of faith, no matter how convincing they may seem. Upon a latter, second viewing, I realized the filmmaker had gone to the well too often with scenes of Classic Hollywood bucolic Americana contrasted with racial unrest and aggressive, out-of-control policing. Assisted by editor Alexandra Strauss and animation and graphics designer Michel Blustein, it’s agit-prop filmmaking, to be sure, but one that strives to remain truthful. A concluding chapter emerges, “Purity,” a title with evocations of a final solution.
For Baldwin, there is no separation between the destiny of the American nation and that of African Americans, those “unique” peoples from whose bright eyes “a light seems to go everywhere,” as Jackson narrates. The very fabric of the democracy depends on a permanent uplift and unification, a nation born from slave auctions and carried on through cheap labor, a democracy that has not yet even begun. “The story of the negro is America’s story. It is not a pretty story.” A good writer typically has a nice degree of amateur psychology in his or her bag of tricks, and Baldwin is certainly no exception. In analyzing the impetus for carrying forward a race-based system far beyond the blossoms of slavery, the trenchant social observer asserts a similar perspective to King’s “sick white brothers” diagnosis of the psychological pathology behind it. Through the genocide of the native peoples and the inculcation of a system that “repudiates my existence” and remains entrenched in deep economic poverty, White Americans have completely abrogated their “moral authority”; “it’s a “formula for a kingdom’s demise.” Baldwin believes the way out is for Americans to start taking responsibility because “we need each other.” He offers the spark for a new beginning: “The future of the country depends on white people figuring out why you needed to have a n— in the first place.”
One of my biggest takes from …Negro is the Dick Cavett excerpt. I can’t get beyond contrasting that show with today’s ebullient late-night figures the likes of Jimmy Fallon and their absolutely useless shenanigans, celebrity adorations, and trifling interviews, while Tavis Smiley can barely string together 20 minutes of content in exile on PBS with hardly enough funding to stay afloat. It may seem a curious take, but it actually goes right to the heart of Baldwin’s essential beliefs. Amid wild scenes from The Jerry Springer Show, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine on The Gong Show, and staged game-show giveaways on Let’s Make a Deal and The Price Is Right, Jackson asserts Baldwin’s critique of an “immature… narrow-minded” nation in which “the empty lives we live” are reflected in “the empty, tame, bland images on television” through which “we fail to recognize who we are.” Far from being just commercial decadence, the broadcast entertainment confirms a deep psychological denial and moral surrender, an inability of White Americans “to come to terms with themselves and the race problem.” “To look around America today is to see radical insights into white complacence,” Jackson intones. Peck wonders what’s changed; so do I. About all he doesn’t include are the reassurances of Fox News Channel hosts and commentators that yet another senseless shooting was not the dreadful confirmation of a prejudiced, out-of-control police force but the unacceptable and unfortunate actions of a suddenly lifeless Black man, or countering to a guest with barely concealed indignation, “What, me worry? The problem is your racial consciousness…” let alone the network’s inflammatory coverage of the Ferguson unrest that I had the misfortune of catching on a plane one night.
Toward the end of 1987, the body of James Arthur Baldwin perished in his home in the medieval commune of Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the French Riviera from stomach cancer and was returned to the state of New York to be buried in a cemetery plot, yet his words are still there, all around us. Just turn on the television, or open your web browser, if you prefer, look, and listen, then you tell me.
© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours