James Baldwin’s ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Out on DVD
2017 has been a good year for the legacy of James Baldwin. His writings on races in America have inspired a new generation of essayists; his papers were ceremoniously donated to New York’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture; and arguments over the fate of the house where he lived in France found their way into the New York Times.
But perhaps he gained the most notice for the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, out now on Blu-ray and DVD. Director Raoul Peck built the film around the notes Baldwin assembled in 1979 for a book he never completed on the lives (and deaths) of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King along with another slain civil rights leader, Medgar Evers. Peck even claims a posthumous collaboration with Baldwin, crediting the author of Notes of a Native Son, 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.
As voiced by Samuel L. Jackson from the notes Baldwin left behind, the author 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.