Eight years after writer and social critic James Baldwin wrote a letter to his agent detailing his next book, Remember This House, after his death in 1987, only 30 pages of his manuscript were left behind. Baldwin’s original intention was to draw together his personal memories of Martin Luther King Jr, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. Looking back on their lives, he wanted to measure how their differences helped to establish a societal truth, and how he believed these three men were betrayed by the very people they had fought for.
Raoul Peck takes the remains of Baldwin’s unfinished book to form the basis of I Am Not Your Negro, using his social commentary to form a narrative of black history in America right through to the present day. The title itself is taken from a quote by Baldwin when describing the social divides separating black and white America in the 60s. Samuel L. Jackson delivers the words from his manuscript in subdued fashion, cut between interview footage of Baldwin speaking on televised roundtables, TV talk shows, and university debates.
Many of Baldwin’s thoughts are presented through the prism of film, as Jackson reads the text over old movie clips that helped to define a distorted sense of the world around us. How excluding brown faces, or depicting black life in a demeaning fashion, subconsciously creates a warped sense of power and comfort that reflects directly back onto white society. Be it the inoffensiveness of Doris Day, the aggression of John Wayne towards the Indians and the ‘creation of legend out of a massacre’, the caricatured and debased depictions of black people used in early Hollywood, or the neutered sexuality of Sidney Poitier.
And yet, for a film where Baldwin’s ideologies sit so confidently at its centre, something appears to be missing. That perhaps, we just do not hear enough from James Baldwin himself. This may seem like a strange thing to say, especially as Jackson’s narration is a near constant in-between the archived footage of the man. What his delivery fails to capture is the liveliness of Baldwin’s nature, the essence of his personality. There is a discernible difference between Jackson’s downplayed tone and the fast talking vibrancy of Baldwin heard in the clips. Of course, an impersonation would be crass, but perhaps casting someone other than Jackson, or simply giving us more footage would have brought his words more vividly to life.
There is also only a single reference to Baldwin’s sexuality. This may not necessarily inform the subject of the film but as a gay black man, under investigation by the FBI, it would have certainly shaped his ideas at the time. Peck wisely avoids covering the story of his life, instead concentrating on his social critique, but choosing to omit his sexuality feels like a peculiar choice to make. Baldwin was always something of an outsider because of his radical views and maybe Peck didn’t want to find himself tangled in a double narrative of sexuality and race.
The potency of Baldwin’s words sting just as sharply as they did 50 years ago. Peck cuts between the current #BlackLivesMatter movement and the civil rights struggle of the 60s, demonstrating how little has changed for black people across America in that time. The film leaves much to ponder, such as this, posed by Baldwin over five decades ago: "What white people have to do, is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a n****r in the first place. Because I am not a n****r. I'm a man. If I'm not the n****r here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why? And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to answer that question."
I Am Not Your Negro is in UK cinemas from April 7th
The prophecy of James Baldwin's words