One of James Baldwin’s most famous essays, “Notes on a Native Son,” relates a story from his adolescence in New Jersey. A young waitress at a diner refused to serve him, and he threw a glass of water in her face. White men chased him down, intending to murder him, for this transgression. In 1942, no one would bat an eye at white men murdering a black teen for looking at a white woman, let alone throwing a glass of water at her. But Baldwin managed to evade them. The episode haunted him for decades, not because of the violence he nearly suffered, but because of the violence he was prepared to inflict himself.
The Baldwin of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro is the same hurt, humiliated, furious teenage Baldwin from that New Jersey diner. Only this Baldwin has a shelf of novels in his back catalogue, a host of famous friends, an aborted screenwriting career, a house in France, and a public platform on American talk shows. It is this Baldwin who committed himself to taking those deeply felt ravages of rage and terror — the lonely injustices of oppression — and confirming their existence with words. He became something even more dangerous to the white establishment: the black person with a pen, the black person on a podium. This documentary is not about Baldwin’s upbringing, his date of birth, or his family. It is about the history he bore witness to, the brave black men and women he loved, the country he condemned, and the mythos he exposed. For a film about James Baldwin, it’s best to let the man speak for himself.
Besides the unpublished manuscript Remember This House (which contains sentiments articulated throughout many of his essays), much of the material in the documentary has been around for decades, though it’s still ripe for more immediate packaging. Samuel L. Jackson — whose grave, measured voice is almost unrecognizable — narrates the film, which covers a massive sprawl of ideas chaptered under subheadings like “Heroes,” “Witness,” and “Purity.” Sprinkled throughout are FBI memorandums describing Baldwin as a “dangerous individual” who is “inimical to the potential national security of the country.”
Remember This House, which is about the deaths of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, provides the springboard for a microcosmic American history lesson. In the geometric configurations of mid-century racial politics, Evers, King, and Malcolm X represented three poles — the NAACP, the church, and the Nation of Islam. Baldwin does not participate in any of these, but he observes them. While he was never on the front lines organizing, he was a witness. For Baldwin, his responsibility was to write the story. A deep, cutting agony haunts Baldwin’s recollections — though we know how Malcolm and Medgar and Martin’s stories end, for Baldwin it was not the loss of heroes, but the loss of friends. Baldwin strips them of romanticism — a different kind of dehumanization — and instead shows them as men.
In I Am Not Your Negro, it is the movies — that saccharine, utopian dreamscape of white imagination — that gets the most brutal interrogation. Baldwin casts not only doubt, but dread, on the traditional faces of American iconography — the pretty blonde tap-dancers, the cowboys galloping through the Wild West. The story of America is not the one we’ve been given by the smoke-and-mirrors machinations of Hollywood. America is the Rodney King beating, the Ferguson protests, Emmet Till’s open coffin. Here and in his book-length essay on film, The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin shows us how Hollywood was never innocent. It was always sinister, and never moreso than when it paraded purity and virtue. If the movies showed us anything, it was how white America wished to be seen, and how easily the fantasy onscreen convinced them. For Baldwin, watching movies was a crash course not only in the white imagination, but also in the patterns of self-loathing that people of color learn to inherit from Hollywood’s imperfect looking-glass. Idyllic whiteness needs black horror to reaffirm itself. So it constructs both with equal fortitude, builds gates around them, and erases the bridge between.
The most painful scenes in the film are, yes, the brutality, but also witnessing Baldwin’s towering intellect forced to square off — and more, to have his own humanity debated — against the indifferent mediocrity of his white sparring partners. The brief pleasure of his triumph quickly collapses into dull anger. In a time where intellectual rigor and nuance come second to illiterate bombast, his small victories feel hollow but essential. When faced with middling ignorance, Baldwin does not bow. His voice — both his own and Jackson’s — sustains its crackling magnetism, leaving you hanging on his every word, which is surely the residue of his child-preacher upbringing.
While there are moments of extraordinary pathos, the spine of the film is Baldwin’s bruising observational precision, his methodical debunking of the American dream. There is a certain vim and vitality in Baldwin’s countenance and Jackson’s narration, the feeling of a storm in a bottle as he describes humiliation and horror with such measured control.
But there is intimacy too. Baldwin wanted to be seen as a man — a very human, a very normal man — not the sub-human animal conjured by his oppressors nor the superhuman prophet idealized by his admirers. The film gives us not only the man as he was, but the ideas he immortalized. It ties a rope to the prodigious body of work Baldwin left behind, leaving the impression that this film is but a taste of the brilliance Baldwin produced.
I Am Not Your Negro gives flesh and heart and teeth to a man our generation was denied. James Baldwin is dead. His words are alive and well.