Home to roost: I Am Not Your Negro ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2017)

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Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

– James Baldwin, from The Fire Next Time (1963)

Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it’s one of the favorite things in the — and we have some good ones. […]I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things. Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed.

– President Trump, from his Black History Month speech, 2017

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed

– Frederick Douglass (born ca. 1818, died 1895)

While he hasn’t been dead as long as Frederick Douglass has, I have a feeling that the late James Baldwin, who is the subject of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro will also be “recognized more and more” (you’ll notice). Specifically, anyone with half a brain who watches the film will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of his thoughts.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage involving the Civil Rights Movement, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with voice-over narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, who reads excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House.

Baldwin’s book (which he began working on in 1979) was to be a statement on the black experience, parsed through the lives (and untimely deaths) of Civil Rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Given Baldwin’s literary chops, and the fact he was personal friends with all three, and that each of these extraordinary individuals was working toward the same end but through different means, one can envision a classic in the making.

But alas, it was not to be. By the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had completed only 30 pages. So the director has essentially set out to “complete” Remember This House (or at construct a viable facsimile), filling in the cracks with Baldwin’s own voice (via the TV interviews).

While occasionally arrhythmic to the film’s flow, Peck is largely on the money whenever he interjects contemporary images that connect the dots with the Black Lives Matter movement. Baldwin’s sharp sociopolitical observances have no expiration date, and speak for themselves. This is particularly evident in the television clips, where Baldwin (whose persona is an amalgam of Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce) always seems light years ahead of the hosts and fellow guests.

Peck also gets a lot of mileage (and truckloads of irony) from a wealth of TV and print advertising images that speak volumes as to how African-Americans have been viewed by our society over the decades. In this respect, Peck’s documentary recalls The Atomic Café; particularly when he digs up a 1950s corporate film with a rather unfortunate title (“Selling the Negro”) that offers up handy tips to marketers who want to reach African-American consumers.

Most fascinating to me are Baldwin’s deconstructions on traditionally lauded race-relation themed films like The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He posits that, no matter how well-meant these and similar films were, at the end of the day they were produced by white liberals, to be exclusively consumed by other white liberals, who could then pat themselves on the back for buying a ticket (unless I was reading him wrong). Even more provocatively, he sees little difference between them and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927).

Now that I think about it, Baldwin himself remains a bit of a cypher as credits roll, so it may have been unintentional misdirection to state at the top of my review that the author himself is the “subject”, particularly if you’re expecting a straight-ahead biography. Neither is it another retread “about” the Civil Rights Movement, although its history is woven throughout. It’s worth noting that Baldwin was not an active participant in the literal sense (which he admits in some excerpts), yet he was wholly present as an observer, chronicler and deeply insightful social commentator.

And indeed it is these insights and observations that stay with you after the lights come up. In a way it makes me sad that so many of Baldwin’s statements remain applicable to our current political climate, because it serves to remind that while we have made “some” progress in healing the racial divide since the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the all-too-easy and all-too-recent triumph of Trumpism indicates that the fear and ignorance that fed the ugliness of “those days” never really went away. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

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