Nominated this year for the Academy Award for best documentary, I Am Not Your Negro is the best film in this category I have ever seen. An indie film (and PBS Independent Lens program) I Am Not Your Negro gives us a fuller understanding of the brilliant mind and soul of James Baldwin, a critical thinker, writer, and essayist, whose work is not as well-known as it should be.
At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind thirty pages of an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, interweaving his incisive and excoriating psychological analysis of race, national identity, and morality. Filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the world through the author’s own words. Enabling viewers to appreciate Baldwin’s unmatched eloquence, I Am Not Your Negro paints a portrait of his rich intellectual power, emotional pain and literary achievement.
Remember This House was supposed to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. And his letter to his literary agent becomes the template for I Am Not Your Negro, interspersing lines from the letter to convey Baldwin’s emotions at the time of his friends’ deaths.
Though James Baldwin has been dead for over 30 years, I Am Not Your Negro speaks with unimaginable clarity and force to both the 1960’s Civil Rights movement of his generation and today’s Black Lives Matter. Some of the most compelling scenes intercut footage of police violence in the ’60s with similar violence today, using Baldwin’s words to conflate the two eras. Uncomfortable truths and stark lessons from the shadows of history illuminate Baldwin’s delineation of the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: a dialectic of guilt and rage. In political and social relations between blacks and whites, Baldwin commands this territory, zeroing in on the lengths that whites will go in order to wash themselves clean of their complicity in and denial of oppression. The seminal and stunning argument that Baldwin presents is that racism is the manifestation of an underlying, psychologically pervasive feeling of self-doubt and vulnerability on the part of bigoted whites. Impotence and violence are two sides of the same behavior. Baldwin mercilessly penetrates the psychodynamices of the racist personality: hate comes from fear (of one’s own fragility and weakness) leading to rage and violence.
For the most part I Am Not Your Negro ignores Baldwin’s identity as a homosexual. As early as 1949, Baldwin intrepidly wrote about being gay, a central theme in some of his fiction. As a black gay man, Baldwin’s intellectual excellence was demeaned on several fronts due not only to racism but also to homophobia (which the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover menacingly reported). One of the most overlooked political activists, Lorraine Lansberry (playwright of “Raisin in the Sun”), is seen with Baldwin, in a courageous standoff against an unempathetic Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, in their failed attempt to have him go down to Birmingham, Alabama to support a fourteen year old girl’s fight for integration of a whites-only high school. This is a moment in history that few of us knew…until now.
I Am Not Your Negro makes you think about the life of an extraordinary black gay 1950’s intellectual in our present overheated, anti-intellectual moment in history.
In a scene from “The Dick Cavett Show,” Baldwin tangles with a Yale philosophy professor who condescendingly scolds him for making everything about race relations. The initial spectacle is painful, but Baldwin’s mildmannered triumph of brilliance over credentialed arrogance is thrilling to witness. In what seems effortless, through James Baldwin’s own eloquence we see race not only as a black intellectual sees it but as American blacks all have been defined by it.
Many of Baldwin’s most acclaimed books were written as an ex-pat in Paris where he found the emotional and physical distance required to create his profound dissection of American life. With chilling clarity, the US history of injustice is evident.
Hollywood traffics in stereotypes of black menace and subservience. In a reflexive move, I Am Not Your Negro also becomes a commentary on a U.S. cultural and economic system devoted only to simplistic racial “types” and on perpetuating a fiction of America as the greatest purveyor of freedom, democracy, and happiness. Posters, ads and a particularly rich selection of period movies –some of them Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss–force the viewer to evaluate and draw conclusions about this country’s fear and denial of race. Juxtaposition of images and footage of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter with Baldwin’s three civil rights icons serves to underscore the plight of the US in our so-called post-racial present. I Am Not Your Negro is a sobering reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.
Note: Baldwin’s own words: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.”
“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. . . . I’m forced to be an optimist.”