Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, running at Images Cinema for a week starting on Friday, asks a hard question that even its writer, James Baldwin, struggles to answer: What is your duty in today’s political climate? A key moment happens midway through the documentary, when Baldwin writes about his personal background and place in the Civil Rights Movement as an African-American. He was not a Black Panther because he did not believe in their aggressive, anti-white stance. He did not join the NAACP because in Harlem, where he grew up, the organization was entangled with black class distinctions. Baldwin continues, seeming to disavow and distinguish himself from different groups active in the 1960’s, and there is a trace of bitter guilt tinging his words, delivered in a gravelly and guttural tone by Samuel L. Jackson:
“I did not have to deal with the criminal state of Mississippi hour by hour and day by day, to say nothing of night after night. I did not have to sweat cold sweat after decisions involving hundreds of thousands of lives. I was not responsible for raising money or deciding how to use it. I was not responsible for strategy controlling prayer meetings, marches, petitions, voting registration drives. I saw the sheriffs, the deputies, the storm troopers more or less in passing. I was never in town to stay. This was sometimes hard on my morale. But I had to accept as time wore on that part of my responsibility as a witness was to move as largely and as freely as possible. To write the story and to get it out.”
To write it and get it out. We get the sense that Baldwin was unsure about the agency of his art and found it hard to reconcile his less “active” role in the marches and protests. I Am Not Your Negro is a concise, poignant and lyrical documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. It stitches together the lives and deaths – murders – of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and is spliced with footage of oppression and protest from the past to the present to ultimately ask Baldwin’s question of why America created the Negro, created a separate class to pin down.
The film is brilliant largely because Baldwin’s writing is brilliant; it is a documentary imbued with personal significance. It is a maddening and melancholic recount of the deaths of three individuals Baldwin worked with and clashed with at times. Three friends. To have what seems like (but clearly is not) the “backseat” role, to be able to only bear witness to oppression carries a heavy weight – Baldwin laments that, as the eldest of them all, he was supposed to be the model and supposed to die first. You have to listen closely to his biting words because they are carefully selected – minimal and succinct, tinged with exhaustion. In one of several letters to his agent Jay Acton at the Spartan Literary Agency, Baldwin writes, “The country which is your birthplace has not evolved to include any place for the Negro.”
I Am Not Your Negro features clips of racists, publicly and vehemently full of hate, both verbally and physically assaulting black people at peaceful protests. Segregationist Leander Perez is filmed shouting, “The moment a Negro child walks into a public school, every decent, self-respecting, loving parent should take his white child out of that broken school.” An unidentified white woman follows up with an equally abhorrent fallacy: “God forgives murder and he forgives adultery, but he is very angry and actually curses all who do integrate.” In one breath, extreme violence toward blacks is condoned, even supported, just to keep them separate.
Racists like Perez and the segregationist woman are commonplace in recent films about the Civil Rights Movement. It’s easy to feel hate for these individuals – Tim Roth’s George Wallace in Selma, Stephen Root’s J. Edgar Hoover in All the Way – but in truth they are still characters in these films. In I Am Not Your Negro, they are as real and dangerous as can be, and their hate makes us uncomfortable because it has already happened. Baldwin expertly mediates between fiction and nonfiction, making the real layered and bleak.
After these segments, Baldwin references schoolgirl Dorothy Counts, one of the first black students admitted to a public high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photos show her trailed by white children and adults who revile and spit on her, even shoving her astray. Baldwin says that it is hard to see “history jeering at her back,” but perhaps what’s unsettling is that we realize we’re part of that history now.
I Am Not Your Negro is most successful in how it collapses past and present black oppression and struggle. The best and worst part of the documentary is that it’s timely. Peck’s decisions to have Baldwin’s writing narrated by Jackson over scenes in contemporary life – Harlem by 125th St., Times Square – slyly shows us nothing has really changed.
Peck transcends the documentary format of pure narration and archival footage with several edited scenes that make I Am Not Your Negro that much more memorable. In a dialogue-less, slow jazz scene of white women running through a suburb and a montage of white politicians saying “I’m sorry” after murders or mass killings, I Am Not Your Negro pointedly provides a contrast between American life and black American life.
In one scene, Baldwin writes, “The corpses of your brothers and sisters pile up around you.” Jackson makes a cocking noise as a little boy plays with a gun and blows out the smoke after it’s been fired. What’s next is jarring – I don’t think Baldwin ever expected or wanted his writing to apply to Tamir Rice, Darius Simmons, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Christopher McCray … and plenty others.
I Am Not Your Negro ends with Baldwin being interviewed on various talk shows. On the Dick Cavett Show in the late 1960s, a guest asks why he continues to focus on race, particularly on its negatives. The guest says that there are different ways to relate to each other and navigate around this racialized hatred.
Baldwin responds, “Once you turn your back on this society, you may die! It’s very difficult to sit at a typewriter and be afraid of the world around you.” In his role as a writer, Baldwin provided us with this transcript of a threatening time – I Am Not Your Negro shows he was insecure about his responsibilities, if only to let us know we can feel the same. And then get to work.