For anyone unfamiliar with James Baldwin’s writing, Raoul Peck’s new documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, will comes as a revelation. Perhaps it shouldn’t be—the man’s essays and fiction started appearing in the early 1950s—but it’s still exhilarating to hear someone speak so intelligently and humanely about the African American experience and prejudice in America.
Peck’s film is told almost exclusively through Baldwin’s own words, save for a pompous philosopher who debates him and the sometimes stumbling but admirably game Dick Cavett. Insightful and sometimes combative television appearances are interspersed with selections from Baldwin’s essays, read by Samuel L. Jackson. At first, the switch between Baldwin and Jackson’s voices is jarring—the two men sound nothing alike. But the weariness and exhaustion that Jackson delivers is appropriate for the often sorrowful tone of Baldwin’s writing.
The film quotes extensively from an unfinished manuscript that Baldwin worked on in the late 1970s, Remember This House, about three civil rights icons: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin was friends with all three men, and their deaths affected him greatly. His assessments of their legacies are free of the dangerous simplifications that have infected American school children, who are taught a version of King that fails to mention his antiwar and pro-social safety net politics and a version of Malcolm X that paints him as a misguided and violent revolutionary. Although he lived most of his adult life in self-imposed exile in France, Baldwin returned to the U.S. periodically to serve as a witness to the nation’s civil rights struggle, shown through footage of him driving through turbulent southern towns.
In addition to the unfinished manuscript, the film also uses large sections of Baldwin’s book-length essay, The Devil Finds Work. Part memoir, part film criticism, Baldwin recounts his first experiences with American films in the 1930s and his slow realization that many of them are lies that erase his own experiences. As much as “I Am Not Your Negro” is a vehicle for Baldwin’s words, it also serves a critique of Hollywood’s ignorance about the lives and struggles of Black people. A clip from The Pajama Game is presented as an example of overwhelming whitewashing, in which a crowd of nothing but white faces descend on a public park and colonize it for some kind of rowdy picnic. More than just ignoring African Americans, the scene requires them to be completely scrubbed from the earth.
Baldwin’s fury is also directed toward Black comic actors, especially Stepin Fetchit, who played characters known for their unintelligibility and laziness. Baldwin excoriates Fetchit and his ilk, who present a castrated and lobotomized version of Black men to White audiences. But not every criticism of Baldwin’s is as ably handled by Peck. When Jackson’s narration references despising Doris Day, Peck cuts from a shot of Day singing alone to images of lynched Black men. The cut implies some kind of responsibility on her part, or at least blames her for ignoring the deadly impacts of racism. But it’s a cheap shot. It’s not a crime to make a film that’s about something other than the scourge of racism, and it doesn’t automatically imply collusion with White supremacy. But it’s a minor fault of an otherwise laudable film.
As skilled as Peck is at matching images with Baldwin’s words, the film is most engaging when we get to see Baldwin on screen. His face conveys far more emotion than Jackson’s narration can. When he is briefly lectured by a White philosopher who criticizes him for being overly negative about race relations, Baldwin’s self-described frog eyes open wide in astonishment, and we stop listening, even though the man prattles on for a few more seconds before Baldwin interrupts him. Elsewhere, he mostly keeps a grave expression on his face, but when Baldwin occasionally breaks into a wide smile it provides a precious moment of levity.
It’s striking how well Baldwin’s words from these 1960s TV appearances address contemporary issues, even though they must have seemed quite radical to many White viewers (and still do). Baldwin steadfastly refuses to hold our hand and point some way toward racial equality that doesn’t involve coming to terms with our nation’s racial sins. His diagnoses and prescriptions are perhaps more important now than ever; now that Baldwin hews closer to the mainstream, it’s harder to discount him.
As intelligently as Peck assembles Baldwin’s appearances and essays, the film’s original footage adds important emotional depth. There’s a motif repeated throughout the film of shots facing up toward the sky, as if yearning for a response from some silent god. But the shots are blocked by car windshields, branches, and steel pillars from bridges, like bars on a cage imprisoning us on this flawed earth.
Since the time when Baldwin wrote his best work, and even since his death, too many still remain in this cage. Our world looks less and less dissimilar from the one Baldwin was writing about 60 years ago, but it’s not that we’ve regressed, just that more people have finally started to see.