Documentary Shows that James Baldwin was No One’s ‘Negro’
James Baldwin held his own among the heavyweights of the civil rights movement, darting and jabbing like a Mohammad Ali of the mind. Where Malcolm X appeared grimly in earnest and Martin Luther King exuded solemn gravitas, Baldwin acted with acute awareness of every painful irony. He was more likely to laugh in public than any of his peers but the laughter was usually bitter.
In 1979 the novelist-essayist of Go Tell it on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son began assembling material for a book he planned on the lives (and deaths) of X and King along with another slain civil rights leader, Medgar Evers. As read by Samuel L. Jackson, those notes have become the framework for the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Director Raoul Peck even claims a posthumous collaboration with Baldwin, crediting the author, who died in 1987, as the film’s writer. Peck visually links Baldwin’s pessimism on American race relations with recent images from Ferguson and elsewhere. “I don’t think there is much hope,” Baldwin told talk show host Dick Cavett in a 1968 discussion at the film’s opening.
I Am Not Your Negro
Directed by Raoul Peck
As voiced by Jackson, Baldwin recounts the white schoolteacher who gave him books to read, brought him to films and plays and widened his curious eyes about the world. Because of her, “I’ve never managed to hate white people,” he says. Never much of a joiner, Baldwin wasn’t a Black Muslim or a Black Panther, affiliated himself with no Christian denomination and even disdained the NAACP. And yet he was fully engaged in the civil rights struggle as a public intellectual at a time when smart people were regular guests on network television. Peck culls ’60s TV archives and excerpts from a 1965 speech at Cambridge University where Baldwin spoke of a childhood epiphany while watching a John Wayne western—the shock of recognition when he realized that white America equated blacks with movie Indians. The country of his birth had “not evolved any place” for him.
In exploring the roots of the racism he experienced, Baldwin critiqued the foundation and superstructure of American life. He ridiculed the “emotional poverty” of a country where “immaturity is taken to be a virtue.” John Wayne, he added, “had no necessity to grow up.” He feared a nation inhabited by the “moral monsters” jeering at black students as they enrolled in formerly segregated schools, and a mainstream public unwilling to see reality—though he concedes that everyday reality is difficult enough to face, what with birth, death, work and taxes. What results from denial is a retreat into fantasy and the embrace of entertainment “indistinguishable from narcotics.”
Peck illustrates the swiftly moving narrative with snippets from movies, TV commercials and other pop culture depictions of African Americans. In a 1960s-era FBI memorandum displayed on screen, Baldwin was classified as inimical to “national defense and public safety” and listed on the “security index” of citizens to be rounded up in case of emergency. When Robert Kennedy expressed the thought that in 40 years, America might have a black president, Baldwin laughed scornfully. Kennedy’s prediction proved remarkably on target, yet as shown by the reaction against the Obama administration and the toxic discourse surrounding Trump, elements of American society remain pretty much as Baldwin described them.