Everything changes; nothing changes.
That’s the feeling you’ll walk away with after watching Raoul Peck’s documentary essay on literary giant James Baldwin’s life and ideas. Based on an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, in which Baldwin aimed to examine the lives of three Civil Rights heroes he knew–Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.–the film highlights Baldwin’s ideas about race and power in America. Mixing memoir with cold analysis, I Am Not Your Negro shows how far black Americans have come in the last half century, and how much further white people have to go.
The film begins with, and is framed by, Baldwin’s letter to his literary agent pitching the book. Baldwin had lived for a decade in happy, self-imposed exile in France, but the burgeoning civil rights movement brought him back in 1957. There’s a great passage–read, like all of the Baldwin quotes in the film, by Samuel L. Jackson–in which Baldwin pointedly lists all of the implicitly white things about America he doesn’t miss, and the people and places of black America that he does.
Jackson is a curious choice for narrator, as he sounds nothing like Baldwin–and we hear Baldwin in vintage footage more than we hear Jackson’s readings. Yet it isn’t a distraction and does work, perhaps as it suggests that the writer’s ideas have a life of their own apart from the author.
That fact hits us repeatedly in the face, as Baldwin’s vintage analysis of racism is set against the racism and violence of Ferguson, Mo., and the faces of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and so many other African Americans murdered by police and/or the white power structure.
We learn a bit about Baldwin’s encounters with Evers, X and King; they’re poignant and funny and heartbreaking. We also learn a bit about the FBI surveillance of Baldwin; the Federal views of Baldwin reflect the moral sickness of law enforcement when it comes to black America. It is a sickness, the film illustrates again and again, that persists.
There is also a level of celebrity artistic and political glam, as Baldwin’s encounters with friends, adversaries and fellow travelers Lorraine Hansberry, Robert F. Kennedy, Harry Belafonte, the Black Panthers, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston, Billy Dee Williams and Dick Cavett are threaded through the film. Baldwin’s description of an encounter with RFK, a meeting in which Kennedy failed to “get” what the civil rights movement wanted, and which ended with playwright Hansberry cutting Kennedy to the bone with an icy parting smile, hits hard.
Some of the more bracing clips come from Baldwin’s 1965 debate with William F. Buckley at England’s Cambridge University–not just because his arguments are so sharp, but because we never see or hear Buckley. Buckley’s ideas on race belong on the ash heap of history; Baldwin’s are as true today as they were 52 years ago. This is a film that’s cruelly relevant.
I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, a Magnolia Pictures release