Academy Award-Nominated Film is an Insightful Essay on Race Relations in America
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In 1979, the great American writer James Baldwin sent a short letter to his literary agent Jay Acton, outlining an ambitious project that would require the author to undertake a long-delayed journey back into his anguished past. Baldwin, who was at the nadir of a brilliant literary career at the time, intended to write a book about three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — all of whom had been assassinated before they had reached the age of 40. It was his hope that by exploring their lives and deaths, side-by-side, he would begin to understand more clearly the Gordian knot of race relations in America. Baldwin would pass away eight years later at the age of 63 from stomach cancer and finish only 30 pages of the book that had long haunted him.
Baldwin’s unfinished elegy has always been one of literary America’s chimeras, along with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Garden of Eden” — unkept promises that tease us with what might have been if their authors had lived long enough to fulfill their possibilities.
In 2008, the Haitian-born movie director Raoul Peck, whose love for Baldwin’s work stretched back to his youth, began his odyssey to turn the author’s words into film. Peck would use Baldwin’s unrealized dream to weave together the disparate strands of his next movie. Peck, who has given us such remarkable works as “Lumumba,” his earlier film about the short-lived rule of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, has submitted his most mature and riveting effort yet with the 2017 Academy Award-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Using Baldwin’s 30-page manuscript as a jumping off point, Peck interweaves personal interviews, feature film clips, archival photographs and popular culture television shows with additional excerpts from the author’s other writings to create an unsparing film filled with revelation and heartbreak that never takes a wrong turn. What makes “I Am Not Your Negro” so satisfying is that Peck goes beyond the usual carnival of academicians and Greek chorus voices to craft a documentary that is instead personal, human and utterly original. Using actor Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of Baldwin’s inner world, Peck employs only the author’s words to inform the entire narrative of his film.
Born in New York City in 1924, Baldwin grew up amidst a vibrant flowering of African American music, writing and performing arts. The Harlem Renaissance featured world-class artists such as novelist Zora Neale Thurston and poet Langston Hughes, who would expose Baldwin to the beauty and power of a rich and dynamic culture that percolated all around him. Nurtured and encouraged by Orilla Miller, a white school teacher, he would ultimately go on to produce novels, plays, short stories, literary criticism and political essays that would eventually catapult the young writer to the forefront of the burgeoning civil rights movement that was cresting in the late ‘50s and ‘60s.
His talent would inevitably connect him to the great African American political icons of the day as a witness and recorder to the epic victories and tragedies that would soon follow. Harassed twice, first as a 10-year-old boy and later, as a teenager, by New York police for no reason other than the color of his skin, Baldwin came to believe that the simple act of being African American was a threat to his own personal safety. Inevitably, Baldwin would end up on the FBI’s enemies list for simply articulating the truth of what it meant to be black in America. Peck’s film moves seamlessly across the landscape of Baldwin’s life, embracing the roots of the author’s hope, bitterness and disillusionment as it reaches for its conclusion. Peck is a gifted storyteller and his direction of this movie makes Baldwin’s narrative impossible to turn away from or forget. Peck accompanies Baldwin down the terrible path of the murders of his three friends, giving flesh and spirit to the skeletons of their lives and what our nation lost with their deaths.
What makes Peck’s film so particularly effective is the splicing of historic racial confrontations with contemporary tragedies such as Ferguson, Mo., to underscore the obvious: that Baldwin’s ferocious warnings from the past were merely prophecies of the future. Although some of the author’s writings are almost fifty years old, the relevancy of his message has never faded or grown pedestrian over the past decades. At the heart of Baldwin’s writing was the simple thesis that African Americans were never merely guests at the communal table, but rather a blood and sinew member of the American family. Our country’s unwillingness to accept this historical fact condemns us into a never-ending purgatory that prevents us from moving forward as a nation. Baldwin often declared that “history is not the past, but the present and that the human race carries our history with us. We are our history, but unless we face the truth of our past, we are only doomed to become criminals.”
Throughout his career, Baldwin was often depicted as a lonely, angry, unreasonable voice in the wilderness whose message was too razor-edged for the American mainstream. Ironically, it was Baldwin who was among the first to recognize that the problem of race in the United States was only a symptom of a more profound emptiness within the deeper American experience. Peck’s film is at its most provocative and compelling when it spotlights Baldwin’s contention that our country’s obsession with demonizing African Americans is a symptom of our inability to accept the truth of our deeper, more invisible poverty as a nation. As we sedate ourselves with the superficiality of our popular culture, we continue to ignore the deeper wounds of growing up and living in a country that is disconnected in more troubling ways than we are willing to face: The result is the mindless murder rampages of Sandy Hook and Columbine that erupt so frequently across our television screens that we have almost become numb to their horror.
Peck ends his film quietly with an introspective and eloquent Baldwin, enswirled in a haze of cigarette smoke, being interviewed in 1963 on public television. Although he pronounced himself an optimist, Baldwin would leave America in 1970 for the second time, convinced that the nation of his birth would never be able to resolve its race problems in his lifetime.
As a public figure, Baldwin was often asked to comment on the future of African Americans, but he always believed that the question was too narrow. “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,” concluded Baldwin. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it . . . If I’m not a nigger 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.”
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.