Academy Award-Nominated Film is an Insightful Essay on Race Relations in America

Alan Suemori
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.

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Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.


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