I Am Not Your Negro
[…] «History is not the past. History is the present. We carry our history with us. To think otherwise is criminal», Baldwin wrote memorably: a truth which has never been more evident than now.
[…] Secondly – and this is what makes this film such an intense, affecting and political experience – there are the images that Peck has chosen to give Baldwin’s words more than a mere context or illustration, as he succeeds in powerfully recreating the very atmosphere of cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of the American race discourse.
It is rather difficult to write meaningfully about a film that concerns a topic that is so American – in fact, the American topic – where its own subject, black civil rights intellectual James Baldwin, has already spoken and written about with such eloquence and grace that any words of my own cannot but try to describe the awe that his words are still able to inspire, even if they were written almost half a century ago. This is somewhat in line with Raoul Peck’s deeply affecting political documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which eschews any attempts to contextualize Baldwin’s words with classical documentary tropes such as talking heads or attempts at a biographical structuring of the material. The speech and structure are entirely Baldwin’s, and it is nothing short of astounding – if definitely depressing – that they speak not only about the historical epoch in which they were written, but about the present times as well. «The history of America is the history of the Negro in America», Baldwin says. «And it’s not a pretty picture».
Why then, one might ask, should one not save themselves the cost of the movie ticket and just head to the next English book store (as almost none of his work has been translated into French or German), to buy a copy of any of Baldwin’s books, since Peck’s film only features his words anyway? First of all – to answer a rhetorical question no one ever asked – there is Baldwin’s voice, heard in interviews and on talk shows, calm and thoughtful, speaking in sentences more than fit for print, and it is a long shot from the polemics and histrionics plaguing the (very) same debate today. There is also Samuel L. Jackson’s voice, in different cadence but no less urgent, quoting long passages from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, which was his attempt to recount the history of the African-American Civil Rights Movement by means of the lives and deaths of its central figures, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, all of whom Baldwin has known and mourned – all three of them having been assassinated. Secondly – and this is what makes this film such an intense, affecting and political experience – there are the images that Peck has chosen to give Baldwin’s words more than a mere context or illustration, as he succeeds in powerfully recreating the very atmosphere of cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of the American race discourse.
One of the lasting insights drawn from Baldwin’s prose, and from I Am Not Your Negro, concerns the deciding role that images – be it those in photography, advertising and, of course, movies – play when one tries to make sense of the sad and confusing, not to say catastrophic history of American race relations. Peck uses Baldwin’s obsession with race-related identity politics played out in American pop-culture, going as far back as Baldwin’s original Freudian mirror-experience realization that, although seemingly every person around him, in the streets, in literature and in movies, is white, he himself is black, different, other. Suddenly understanding that cheering on John Wayne in his defense against the Indian attackers in Stagecoach is cheering on the enemy, as he himself, Baldwin, and all of America’s black populace have so much more in common not with Ford’s cowboys and settlers, but with the people that are, here, heroically shot from their horses, lest they succeed in fighting for and winning back what has always been rightfully theirs. Peck presents an exhausting panorama of American imagery that either – depending on what part of history they are taken from – puts black people at the very margins of society, blatantly paints them as the enemy or at least as a fundamental other, or just straight up denies their very existence as an integral part of American society.
How Peck arranges these images, the ways in which he manages to construct image dialectics that are reminiscent of an Eisensteinian montage, is nothing short of masterful. Consider, for example, the way he uses a scene from some Doris Day comedy called Lover Come Back (1961), melodramatic suburban housewife’s woes and all, and combines it, shockingly but chronologically accurate – Jim Crow’s laws being abolished only in 1965 –, with photographs of black people hanging from trees, all while keeping Doris Day lamenting her romantic troubles on the soundtrack. In a contrasting movement, notice how he draws a direct line from the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties, with Baldwin lucidly commenting on the different but fundamentally similar strategies proposed by Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, to the present – from the infamous Rodney King beating and portraits of way too many black American teenagers killed by white police officers these last years, to images of police crackdowns on Black Lives Matter demonstrations. «History is not the past. History is the present. We carry our history with us. To think otherwise is criminal», Baldwin wrote memorably: a truth which has never been more evident than now. I Am Not Your Negro succeeds not only in making you see this truth, but to feel it and understand it. It is a deeply political film in the best sense, as it never tries to convince you of something that might not be obvious from the start, but which strips you of any plausible deniability regarding the moral imperatives that come with sharing a country, or a world, with people who might not look or think like you. Those challenges are not American, but universal. It is deeply unfortunate that there aren't more individuals like James Baldwin to make us see this: public intellectuals whose humanity, humility and eloquence manage to motivate us to work together instead of against each other. They do exist, even if they are few and not often listened to. We need them now more than ever.
Text: Dominic Schmid
First published: March 17, 2017