In 1979, James Baldwin attempted to tell the story of the United States through three infamously martyred civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
As director Raoul Peck tells us at the start of the hugely anticipated and now widely critiqued documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin never got past 30 pages of notes entitled Remember This House. Perhaps the story was too difficult to tell as Baldwin got to know these three men to varying degrees over the course of their emergence. They were all murdered between 1963 and 1968.
This incomplete work is the catalysing force behind Peck’s searing portrait of Baldwin and a perpetually aflame US, but it is not the exclusive source. The film sometimes feels less like a portrait of Baldwin and more like a portrait of an intransigent US, perhaps fitting, given that the author considered African-Americans as much more than mere historical appendages, but as equal partners to America’s fate and glory. He regards them as nothing short of fully-fledged citizens in a country where this is constantly up for question.
As Baldwin tells television show host Dick Cavett early on in the film, “It is not a question of what happens to the Negro here or the black man here … the real question is what’s going to happen to this country. I repeat that.”
But Baldwin takes this even further, telling an audience that as a “Negro”, he is not an oddity but “flesh of your flesh”, alluding to ties that extend beyond the historical. His point is that the concept of racial purity, the very cornerstone of race theory and institutional racism, is rendered null and void by the hypocrisy necessary to prop these ideas up. Baldwin exposes this repeatedly in this film. White, in his view, is merely a metaphor for power.
One of his earliest mentors is a woman named Bill Miller, who takes the 10-year-old Baldwin under her wing, feeding him literature about the Ethiopian civilisation and the rise of Germany’s Third Reich. Baldwin, perhaps looking back on his youth, confesses that he never managed to hate white people, quipping that his teacher was also treated like a “nigger” and “hated landlords”, perhaps alluding to a political orientation that he couldn’t quite contextualise as a child.
“I began to suspect that they acted as they did because of other reasons,” says Baldwin, without ever going into the reasons. This passage is an example of the film’s tonal master stroke, that it captures, early on, the complex, interweaving layers that comprise Baldwin’s framing of the American question and maintains it throughout.
Much of this film’s timbre is drawn from Baldwin’s expert flipping of the burden of proof. “What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger,” he says. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it … If I’m not a nigger and you invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”
Some of the criticism levelled at Peck has been that he fudges Baldwin’s sexuality, reducing it to a footnote, an entry in Baldwin’s FBI files.
This criticism is perhaps valid. The crass tone of the FBI’s entries on Baldwin, that he may indeed “appear as one [a homosexual]” is merely a statement of suspicion made in passing. For someone so consumed with humanity in its totality as Baldwin was, the manner of the files’ inclusion is cold and jarring. Even from a filmmaking perspective, it finds little place in what is an intricately edited montage film.
If we accept Remember This House as a framing device and not the sole driver of this narrative, then perhaps some thoughts from Baldwin would have had a more desirable effect.
The result of the former approach is that the effect of Baldwin’s sexuality on his activism and larger political outlook is left unexplored. By failing to expand on this thread, Peck fails to locate Baldwin within his milieu, perhaps projecting his own sensitivities about the portrait that he sought to sculpt.
There is little about how Baldwin was perceived by his contemporaries on either side of the struggle for freedom, and yet we know that Black Panther minister of information Eldridge Cleaver and president John F Kennedy mocked him, with Kennedy infamously calling him Martin Luther Queen.
For Baldwin, maturity, and in fact manhood, were derived from a recognition of the complexity of gender identity. This is partly what he means in his categorisation of Hollywood drivel as driven by a desire to “preserve innocence.”
Given the film’s treatment of the topic, it may as well have done without this loosely hanging thread, particularly considering the unlimited access Peck had to Baldwin’s canon and his private letters.
If Peck realises that “the price that black people have had to pay for the wellbeing of this country (the US) is incommensurable”, as he says in a Combat Jack interview, then surely he understands how that cuts to the heart of Baldwin’s inherently intersectional intellectual practice.
Baldwin, narrating the film through his own writings, by means of Samuel L Jackson’s voice, spends much of the screen time transcending boxes that constrain him.
It is his vantage point, from the tree-lined Parisian boulevards, that sends him packing for the US after eight years. The triggering image is one of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts walking into a Charlotte high school soon after desegregation is decreed. We have Baldwin to thank for those moving, lingering shots that portray Counts suppressing her fear with measured poise. Counts, through Baldwin’s sensitive lens, is an accidental hero who should have had visible support while he was out discussing the “Algerian problem” in Parisian bars.
A preacher in his teen years, Baldwin confesses to being not a Muslim, nor a Christian, nor Panther, nor a supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a movement with long history and a particular bent towards class mobility. There is a female companion, perhaps a lover, perhaps not, who is safer alone than she is with Baldwin, so they carefully co-ordinate their movements to evade the suspicion of the white gaze.
Tellingly, in the same Dick Cavett episode that appears frequently in the film, Baldwin speaks of himself as a hypothetical Negro, with a conventional nuclear and extended family. Perhaps without intending to do so, this section reveals the compendium of pressures that may have been brought on Baldwin, forcing his life as a public activist to foreground race at the expense of other causes close to him.
Ultimately, though, this is a measured film that, through the use of film clips central to the history of US cinema, deals extensively with Baldwin’s criticism of image-making in that country. With the interlinking of #BlackLivesMatter-era footage, it is weighted in the direction of Baldwin’s perpetual reminders about the failure of introspection. Thus, it lives true to its protagonist’s desire to be not much more than a faithful witness to history.
I Am Not Your Negro will screen as part of the Encounters Documentary Festival, which runs until June 11.