Let me just get this out of my system at the top: I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s exemplary documentary on James Baldwin, was robbed at the Oscars. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t see the OJ documentary, and now I really don’t want to. I think OJ mania may tell us a lot about our media-saturated culture, James Baldwin’s life, work, and vision speaks to the entirety of American culture, history, and society. Peck brings that vision to the fore and expertly demonstrates how Baldwin’s analysis of American life, which he developed in the Civil Rights Era, still has application in our post-Ferguson time.
Baldwin famously states, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” In a nation that infamously “forgets” its past — how few of my students know when Pearl Harbor occurred — Baldwin is fierce in his argument (rightly) that the history of slavery and Jim Crow still is very much part of our present. This tenant serves as Peck’s thesis.
The film builds upon Baldwin’s notes for a planned but never completed book Remember This House. It rests on a three-legged stool of Baldwin’s friendships with three very different but significant figures: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Another important relationship touched upon is his friendship with Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Peck and Baldwin both are emphasizing the importance and synthesis of culture to politics. Baldwin again cogitates on the line between witness and actor (as in someone engaged in political activity); it is a blurred but fine line. And what emerges is how necessary Baldwin was to our changing perceptions during the 1950’s and 1960’s. As much as it was about bus seats and votes and marches, it was also about where those not white fit into the culture. Speaking of a John Wayne Western, the writer has the epiphany that he was the Indians.
I was struck by a clip from The Dick Caveat Show. Baldwin is joined by a saged academic from Yale University (a philosopher I believe). This professor challenges Baldwin on race, but invoking class! Doesn’t Baldwin have more in common with a white author than a black sharecropper? Firstly, I was amazed that this man would use class prejudice as a way of mitigating racial prejudice. Secondly, he — a learned and educated man — fails to grasp the truth in front of him in 1968: race is class.
Peck masterfully employs a large dose of Baldwin’s cultural criticism — particularly as race has been portrayed in American film — as part of his narrative. Why? Because legislative achievements are one thing, but that history Baldwin speaks of lives on in our attitudes and perceptions. It is present.
Samuel L. Jackson reads a number of Baldwin’s letters and essays. I knew going in that he was doing that, but still, I did not recognize — what is his usually distinct — voice. Jackson’s work adds to the power of the documentary.
I found the film so essential that it has inspired me to create a course exclusively on James Baldwin for my university.