Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which has secured an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, is said to be based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, namely for Remember This House, a memoir in which he was to have reminisced about his relationships with slain civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. I say “is said to be” because, although Baldwin’s unpublished words about each man are clearly heard at specific points, the film is really more about Baldwin himself – or, more accurately, the history of racism as filtered through Baldwin’s observations, his relationships, and his understanding of American culture.
One of the things made perfectly clear about Baldwin – revealed through archival footage as well as the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, who narrates select passages of Baldwin’s writing, presumably excerpts of Remember This House – is that his critiques of American race relations in no way correlated to political or ideological affiliations. He simply wasn’t a joiner. And he agreed with only aspects of the methodologies practiced by King, Evers, and Malcolm X. He couldn’t convert to Islam like Malcolm X, nor could he become a Black Panther, for he understood that not all white people were racist. He also couldn’t conform to King’s Christian principles, for he saw that neither white nor black congregations truly heard the Commandment to love one another as God loved them.
And he definitely couldn’t be a part of the NAACP, as Evers was, for he felt that the organization, especially the northern chapter, was hopelessly entangled with the illusion of black class distinctions. However, none of this means that Baldwin was unmindful of their respective points of view, or that he wasn’t entitled to speak out against racism. While he certainly never advocated the Black Panthers’ belief in retaliatory violence against the white majority, he also understood that the same call to action taken by white people, be they Poles or the Irish, would be lauded as revolutionary rather than condemned as radical.
The point was made in another race-related Oscar-nominated documentary, Ava DuVernay’s sobering 13th, that the American consciousness of black stereotypes was largely shaped the twentieth century by D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. I Am Not Your Negro reveals that Baldwin was very much attuned to the ways in which film shapes racial consciousness; Peck illustrates Baldwin’s points with clips from films such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Defiant Ones. Baldwin goes on to say that the only cinematic “heroes” he was aware of were white, namely cowboys like John Wayne who fought against Indians – who, in his view, reflected not just American tribes but black people as well. How ironic that Baldwin was under attack by the very white majority that founded a country on the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
At a certain point in the film, Peck inserts footage of Barack and Michelle Obama parading down the street, all smiles and waves, presumably on the former’s inauguration day. But it isn’t a celebration of the progress made by African Americans in this country. If anything, it serves to exemplify Baldwin’s disappointment. Robert Kennedy, a liberal by most standards, claimed to see no reason why a black man couldn’t be elected President in forty year’s time; to Baldwin, this meant that it would take forty years before a black man was deemed good enough to hold the country’s highest office. Perhaps Kennedy simply chose his words poorly, but you can’t argue with history – despite the campaigns of George Edwin Taylor, Shirley Chisholm, and Jesse Jackson, the first black American President was not elected until the year 2008.
I Am Not Your Negro isn’t hopeful in the traditional sense of the word. It’s hopeful in the same way Baldwin himself was hopeful, namely with extreme reservations. Baldwin claimed that being alive and voicing his concerns negated any pessimism about the future. At the same time, he was keenly aware that an end to racism would be a painful process. It would require the white majority to look within themselves and figure out why they needed to place on black people the stigma of the N-word. His point is that white people invented that word and applied it to race of people because, for some reason, they needed it to exist. Once the reason for that need is found and deconstructed, racism could finally end. As of now, we have yet to find the reason.