I’m sure like many a soul who is fortunate enough to happen upon the quite exceptional new documentary by seasoned director Raoul Peck ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ (2016) won’t be aware of the voice, words and actions of it’s subject, the equally eminent ringmaster of storytelling (in this case via words) James Baldwin.
Thankfully for us, Baldwin never restricted himself to a single medium of communication, instead utilising the connective empathetic and reportage powers of poetry, essays, books, plays, activism and social commentary, and with a prodigious lexicon that could shame humanity (and regularly did given what he rightfully had to say), Baldwin was one of the greatest American writers of his time.
Like all great artists he was able to quantify, appraise and take stock of his life experiences, observations, sufferings, jubilations and repurpose them into words that connected with the entire world. Being that he was a gay black man living in a highly segregated 60s America he certainly had far more than his fair share of disquiet, aggression and oppression directly aimed at him in his lifetime (he died in 1987), certainly a thousandfold more than any human being should ever have.
Such experiences lead him to leave the USA at the age of 24 and move to Paris to hone his writing prowess and certainly to be recognised for his pronounced abilities rather than just being a ‘negro writer’. With an ever burgeoning civil and racial rights activism escalating, he returned to the States in 1957 just in time for a startlingly brutal and vicious period in that movement and American history, namely in the assassinations of Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers whom he had known all personnally.
This bleak zeitgeist is starkly made evident in a very shrewd opening placement of a TV interview Baldwin had on ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ where he deftly and succinctly presents the true face and every day/minute reality of what it is to be a black person living in America. What he is saying is polite but candidly horrifying, but even that horror is pipped at the post by the indifference of the white TV show host. There’s supportive applause for Baldwin’s speech from the audience, but the established mainstream media (just like today) present naivety, effectively pro actively supporting and maintaining the status quo, the oppression.
It aptly sets the tone for the film in that Peck has woven together some truly stunning rare archive footage, photography, interviews and sieved them through the notes and writings that Baldwin had been preparing for a planned book (Remember This House).
Dark of subject, but fundamentally important it was to cover the common connective humanity inherent in the leading activists that he had known before their murders. They were very different individuals in many ways, especially in how they felt solutions should be sought, but there was benevolent commanality too.
I wasn’t overtly aware of Baldwin’s works prior to this documentary, but there is zero doubt of the power of his words, marinaded in integrity and with a beautifully written cadence that is patient, understanding, intelligent and necessarily forthright, the message is far too important to sheepishly presented via subtle pleasantries. These words are brought to a whole new level through the voice over supplied by Samuel L. Jackson. Not generally known for his subtlety in performances (to his credit and our joy), this is a whole other being. The power and depth of his voice still has the resonance, but it’s calm, potent and possibly one of his finest performances ever. The introductory TV interview slips from that of Baldwin to Jackson in an imperceptible slight of voice, for pretty much the entire movie I actually thought it was Baldwin.
Stripped of the window dressing and white picket fences of segregation, the story is brutal, and rightly so. Years have passed since these moments, but it’s clearly shown that very little, if anything has changed at all. Peck shows how black culture was routinely suppressed throughout American culture indoctrinating the vast majority into that way of thinking. Despite having seen some of the images before, there is a stunning sequence that shows the advertising and Hollywood films that infested society on all levels, degrading black people at every juncture, effectively working like a psyops campaign.
There is the possibility that some folk may read of the subject matter and say ‘that’s not for me’, but it must be made clear that choice actually supports any and all oppression. The oppressors wholly rely on ordinary folk not saying anything, or ‘that’s just the way it is’, that is true to an extent because that’s they way you are allowing it to be. There’s a mesmerising moment in the film where a young black girl is walking alone towards a segregated school she wants to attend, and despite being completely surrounded by braying aggressive white kids who look like they fell straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, or a 60s Coca-Cola ad, she towers elegantly and beautifully above the filth.
With courageous poise and focus, this young girl is changing history with every step. She must have been terrified, as it is a terrifying sight, but she knew what is right and categorically what was wrong.
10/10 ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is out now.