413 I Am Not Your Negro

iamnotyournegrobookby James Baldwin, edited by Raoul Peck, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro is Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary based on the writings of James Baldwin. In 1979, Baldwin began working on a book about America as told through the deaths of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The book was to be called Remember This House, but Baldwin never got past thirty pages of notes before his death in 1987. Twenty years later, Peck wrote to the Baldwin estate to ask for the rights to produce a film on the writer’s life and work. He wasn’t yet sure what form that film would take until Baldwin’s sister Gloria Karefa-Smart gave him the notes to her brother’s unfinished project, saying, “You’ll know what to do with these.” From this, Peck developed the idea to finish this book through the medium of film, with the three men and Baldwin serving as a means by which to tell the story of America.

The resulting documentary is neither simply biographical, nor is it simply historical. By using compilations of television interviews, photographs, newspaper headlines, advertisements, and old and current news footage, Peck is able to offer a critical eye on who we, as a country, are today. In addition to Baldwin’s notes for the unfinished project, Peck uses passages from several of his published collections—The Devil Finds Work, No Name in the Street, and The Cross of Redemption—as well as various letters to fill out the project. These passages are narrated in a hauntingly subdued manner by Samuel L. Jackson, and they allow the viewer a glimpse of Baldwin’s perspective. This is not a film about Baldwin, but about how Baldwin saw the world.

This particular book, which brings my reading of Baldwin’s catalog to a close, is unique in that it does not stand on its own. It was published to accompany Peck’s film, and it contains the texts that Samuel L. Jackson reads over the images on screen, as well as the transcripts of Baldwin’s speeches, debates, and television show chats. Reading the book without having seen the documentary makes little sense, but watching the documentary as an introduction to Baldwin’s work is highly recommended. As I’ve stated time and again, the beauty and sadness of Baldwin’s words is that they remain so relevant today, and the imagery Peck chooses draws a straight line from the events of the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter protests of the recent past. The film shows that the fight against discrimination, inequality, and hate is far from over. It did not end in 1963 with Martin Luther King, Jr., as Baldwin’s writings throughout his life demonstrated. It did not end in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama, an event eerily in accordance with Robert F. Kennedy’s prediction in 1965 that, in forty years, there could be a Negro president. “We’ve been here for four hundred years,” Baldwin says, expressing contempt for Kennedy’s claim, “and now he tells us that maybe in forty years, if you’re good, we may let you become president.” The Obamas waving to the crowd on Inauguration Day in 2009 moves past the screen, the crowd cheering in the background, no narration over it. I remember watching this in the theater when it was released in 2017, knowing all of the gravity of that moment and how it would be defied by what was to come, and I could only think, We have come so far, yet so little has changed.

The murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. serve as touchpoints throughout the project, driving this violent history forward. That was Baldwin’s intention with the unfinished work, to have these three lives “bang against and reveal each other, as, in truth, they did…and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.” Peck fulfills this intention, as he shows not only the reality of these deaths with images of their widows and their children and people filing past their caskets at their funerals, but the reality of Black death at the hands of society, of Black men hanging from trees, of dash cam footage showing beatings by police officers in the street. Yet, Peck ensures that Baldwin’s message applies not just to the historical conflict between Black and White, but to the failure of the American system with which Baldwin so often found fault. What Baldwin has always said, and what Peck succeeds in showing, is that it has always been the system that has been broken, that, as Baldwin proclaims, “the American way of life has failed.”

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” Baldwin says. “It is not a pretty story.” That has always been the analytical aim of his work, to expose the trappings of a country that declares freedom for all but has no intention of fulfilling that promise. I Am Not Your Negro is an extraordinary film, and the book that accompanies it offers textual references for those wishing to see Baldwin’s powerful words written on the page.


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