James Baldwin's Resounding Words in 'I Am Not Your Negro'

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

As James Baldwin reminds us, "History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history."

I Am Not Your Negro

Director: Raoul Peck
Cast: Samuel Jackson (narrator)
Rated: NR
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-17-09 (Limited release)
"Your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history, in the name of your gods, in the name of your language. And what has happened is as though I, having always been outside it -- more outside it than victimized by it, but mainly outside it -- can see it better than you can see it. Because I cannot afford to let you fool me. If I let you fool me, then I die. But I've fooled you for a long time. That's why you keep saying, what does the Negro want? It's a summation of your own delusions, the lies you've told yourself. You know exactly what I want!"

-- James Baldwin

"Look at my African American."

-- Donald Trump

I Am Not Your Negro begins in the middle of a conversation. It's 1968, and Dick Cavett, playing devil's advocate, asks James Baldwin why "Negroes" aren't optimistic, even though "There are Negro mayors, there are Negroes in all of sports, there are Negroes in politics, they're even accorded the ultimate accolade of being in television commercials now." Cavett pauses, asks why Baldwin is smiling. His answer is as resonant now as it was 48 years ago: "It's not a question of what happens to the Negro here, the black man here," Baldwin says, "That's a very vivid question for me, you know, but the real question is what's going to happen to this country? I have to repeat that."

We all have to repeat that. This much is clear as Raoul Peck's documentary, screening this week at DOC NYC 2016, cuts directly from this archival moment to a series of current images, showing confrontations offers one set of answers, multiple still images of recent confrontations between protestors and police, under Buddy Guy's "Damn Right I Got the Blues". The jarring, seemingly inevitable transition from Baldwin to today makes clear that for all the progress anyone imagines has been made, "What's going to happen in this country" remains exactly the real question.

It's a question made more pressing, and more real, following the American election and the installation of Steve Bannon in the White House. Again and still, optimism seems hard to come by.

Still and again, I Am Not Your Negro offers resistance. It does this by looking both to the past and the future, exploring the relationships between art and politics, and examining assumptions as well as aspirations. Contemplating the continuities and contradictions that make up what we think of as history, the film is built on Baldwin's unfinished project, "Remember This House", a meditation on the intertwining legacies of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and also on the nature of memory itself.

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Again and again, memory here is traumatic, structured by American history, however wrong or calculated. As Baldwin asserts in an Esquire magazine interview, history serves as rationale and delusion, means to ends, and he reminds his white interlocutors, he "can see it better than you can see it."

Such capacity to see, Baldwin remembers in I Am Not Your Negro, developed in his own history, his childhood, laid out in the film in a series of cultural allusions, to movies, to events, to damages done. As a boy, Baldwin recalls (his notes for the manuscript are read by Samuel L. Jackson), he watched movies. These offered no heroes who resembled him or his father, but only clownish black figures. "It seemed to me that they lied about the world I knew and debased it, and certainly I did not know anybody like them as far as I could tell," he writes.

But in his rejection of these images, he saw a process. "It's also possible," he says, "that their comic bug-eyed terror contained the truth concerning the terror by which I hoped never to be engulfed." Here he notes in particular 1932's The Monster Walks, featuring a janitor played by Willie Best (credited as "Sleep n' Eat"). "The janitor's role is small," writes Baldwin, "but the man's face bangs in my memory until today. He both scared me and strengthened me."

And so it bangs for us now. I Am Not Your Negro overlays recordings, Baldwin's words and Jackson's voice, Baldwin's own voice and image in interviews, debates, and other performances, and also archival shots, historical and mythical, illustrating the stories he tells. Clips from Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Defiant Ones, and Dance Fools Dance together trace a history that bangs, material and cultural experiences that shape the present.

For its own shape, the film draws from Baldwin's narrative, in which he recalls his education, especially with the help of Orilla ("Bill") Miller, a young white teacher who introduced his ten-year-old self to Ethiopia, Italy, and the Third Reich, each rendered here in photos of families or, in the last instance, brightly white children smiling and holding up swastika flags. It was because of Bill Miller, Baldwin writes, "who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people." Instead, he adds, over the scene in 1933's King Kong where Fay Wray is captured by painted natives with torches and sacrificed to the god gorilla, "I began to suspect that white people did not act as they did because they were white, but for some other reason."

As the film goes on to consider multiple reasons, you're invited to ponder your own terrifying life, whether familiar or new, the fears conjured by the incoming US president. Even if you might have once avoided the trauma Baldwin describes so eloquently and so compellingly, the trauma shared for so long by so many, you might use this film to see clearly. During a debate at Cambridge University in 1965, Baldwin is asked to comment on Robert Kennedy's suggestion that the US might have a "Negro president" in 40 years. Baldwin is patient and deliberate, turning before the camera when he explains, "That sounded I suppose like a very emancipated statement to white people," he says, reminding his audience, the white faces behind him and the rest of us, that perspectives are different, that the condescension, pain, and ignorance wound up so tightly within that suggestion ("In 40 years, if you're good, we may let you become president"), is stunning to hear again now, in the brutality of its truth and its understanding.

Of a piece with Peck's extraordinary Lumumba, another film that reexamined a complicated history, involving the US role in the Congolese prime minister's 1961 assassination, I Am Not Your Negro makes visible what some viewers might have once avoided, but what other viewers remember acutely, a set of connections turned into poetry, thematic dissolves and visual rhymes exposed in Alexandra Strauss' impeccable, evocative editing and extended in sound, as layers of voices detail what's in front of us.

I Am Not Your Negro helps us to remember and reframe. "That's Malcolm's great authority over any of his audiences," Martin Luther King, Jr. tells a television interviewer. "He corroborates their reality, he tells them that they really exist, you know?" Like Martin, Malcolm, and Medgar Evers, Baldwin made himself visible. He recalls his decision to come back to New York, from his home in Paris, to write "Remember This House", his choice to be a witness: "Part of my responsibility as a witness," he says, "was to move as largely and as freely as possible to write the story and to get it out."

On TV, in debates, in Peck's film, Baldwin, then and now again, corroborates realities as it also uncovers them. "I'm sure they have nothing whatever against Negroes, but that's really not the question, you know," Baldwin says during another TV interview. "The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is the price we paid for segregation. It's what segregation means, you don't know what's happening on the other side of the wall because you don't want to know."

Baldwin's face hovers in close-up against a black background, an image out of time and immersed in it. Not wanting to know, to see, remains the most devastating of decisions. Our recent history makes this abundantly clear even as we guess at an unknown future. Or maybe it's not so unknown. Maybe we can see at least something of what's in front of us. As Baldwin reminds us, "History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history." But what do we remember? I Am Not Your Negro expands the ways we might answer that question. It also asks us to be aware of who "we" are.


I Am Not Your Negro opens in select theaters 9 December 2016, and opens in more theaters 3 February 2017.


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