Ten years in the making, Raoul Peck’s mesmerising critically acclaimed documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016), centres around James Baldwin, the American novelist, poet, essayist and civil rights activist, and his ‘street preaching’ prophetic, incisive views on race and the American Dream. What is especially notable about this extraordinary, far-ranging, and penetrating critique of American identity is the fact that it is based on a thirty page memoir written by Baldwin to his literary agent presenting his ‘fire-storm’ views on race, identity, politics and society. (The memoir itself was presented to Peck by the Baldwin estate in the fourth year of the film being made.) In fact, this signifies that the screenwriter is Baldwin himself as if he were alive today telling us how he sees things as they were then in his lifetime and now.
In other words, contrary to the traditional notion of history as the past, Baldwin, suggests in no uncertain, graphic and nuanced terms that it is ‘the present.’ It is as if the spectator him – or herself, were taken on a hallucinatory, multi-dimensional, and nightmarish time travel journey across America from Christopher Columbus time to the recent Black Lives Matter protests. Peck’s astute, imaginative, polemical film direction, narrated by Samuel Jackson’s direct, simple and uncluttered narration , cuts to the core of the American dream and race.
In another key moving sequence, we see Baldwin in 1965 at Cambridge University debating William F. Buckley the notion ‘Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?” We don’t even see Buckley’s face at all in this powerful piece of moving footage, Peck is not concerned with him at all, but with Baldwin rapping his blistering, poetic and insightful views on racism, American identity and history. It is as if from Baldwin’s nostrils cigarette smoke was not exhaling (as is the case with his standard portrait of himself) but fire, America alight with its horrendous, bewildering, ingrained contradictions, tensions and paradoxes. No-one dived deeper than Baldwin into the existential abyss of racism. And in such all–consuming , lyrical, perceptive and powerful terms. Even Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones), the radical playwright, poet and polemicist, who wrote one of the most compelling books on American culture and music, Blues People (1963), and who often described Baldwin as a darling of the white liberal establishment, praised the writer in his eulogy ‘as the creator of a contemporary American speech that we needed in order to talk to one another.’ (1)
Peck is such a talented, intelligent, knowing and persuasive documentarian. He knows how to maximise the aesthetic, cultural, historical and poetic aspects of his film clips (both black and white and colour) of America burning in racial violence – from the perspective of the extreme facial expressions of white Americans hounding, brutalising and lynching African-Americans to the shocking, disturbed and enraged reactions of the latter – and how to underscore the intense emotional colours and hues of his subject by constructing such a brilliant, atmospheric and dynamic soundtrack of America’s popular music from soul, the blues, jazz, rock and roll, r &b, and the country’s classic songbook.
From the very opening of the documentary with its simple black and white introductory sliding graphics accompanied by Jackson’s plain speaking narration, Peck has us in his directorial hands. The very first opening soundtrack is Buddy Guy’s withering ‘bad-ass” blues of 1991 “You Damn Right I have the Blues”. A choice that clearly and aptly captures the dynamic, emotional and violent roller-coaster journey of Baldwin’s as an African-American witness to his own country’s relentless historical trajectory of alienation, racism, imperialism, and power. When Guy sings ‘”You damn right I have the blues from my head to my shoes” it is as if unmistakably Baldwin himself – autobiographically speaking - is singing his existentially scorched testament of the American dream to us.
According to the novelist Darryl Pinckney, Baldwin, is one of the few remaining authors from that era that we still read on these matters, particularly now as there is a palpable emphasis on Baldwin’s overall critique of the American dream and racism, root and branch. We particularly remember him as that bewitching orator who courageously and frankly addresses the ravaging disease that is racism that has afflicted US society. The documentary is a trenchant multi-faceted work that speaks directly from Baldwin’s heart about the human struggle of surviving as an African-American in the twentieth century and beyond. In short, it is a polemical shuttling diorama of American culture, history and society told through the existential lens of Baldwin’s life. There are many fundamental historical sequences of the US civil rights movement and of the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Including significantly also of Baldwin’s personal reactions to these dreadful symbolic events of contemporary American history, civil unrest and racism.
Peck cleverly realises that the best approach to his subject is to focus on Baldwin’s sinuously dramatic voice rather than his biography or writings. It is a voice that holds us completely in a spell for 93 minutes. Undividedly so. The director focuses on Baldwin’s highly expressive face, and his clear and precisely resonating diction, and as well on his staccato speech rhythms. It is a moody, vulnerable and undulating voice straight out of the ghettoes of America. He sounds like an Old Testament prophet speaking of seldom addressed fragile, vulnerable and deep-seated things that white human reality cannot directly face. Of course, Baldwin’s speaking voice is heard through Jackson’s own steady clear voice as he reads elaborate passages from the author’s memoir intended to form the basis of his new proposed book “Remember This House”, a title that chillingly captures the prophetic urgency of Baldwin’s underlying desire that his readers confront the fundamental truth of the unsaid as it refers to racism , struggle and US society.
|Baldwin (l) and Medgar Evers
Baldwin’s incendiary memoir “The Devil Finds Work” (1976) deals with his childhood and youth and the films that created such a resonant life-long impression on him in terms of American identity and innocence. It is a work, that once you have read it, you will never forget the author’s searing prose style and the deep ironic critical insights into American culture, race and history. It is a work that has the sweeping polemical eloquence of Baldwin’s other visionary work of black rage “The Fire Next Time”. Both books offer ample proof that Baldwin belongs to the pantheon of the American essay tradition.
Peck, to illustrate Baldwin’s searching archetypal views on the illusions, stereotypes and myths of American identity, culture and race, provides a plethora of films that the author talks about and others added by the director himself. We encounter films like The Defiant Ones (1958), Raisin in the Sun (1961), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) or In the Heat of the Night (1967), amongst others, featuring Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, and Rod Steiger, all locked in the relentless turbulent and paranoid vortex of racism and violence. In another film we see Gary Cooper killing Indians a la the Wounded Knee Massacre and the actual black and white photographs of the massacred Indians clearly suggesting, in Baldwin’s ironic eloquence, that the Indians that Cooper is killing is the African- American. As Baldwin puts it so truthfully “It comes as a great shock to see that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians and, although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”
I Am Not Your Negro is a seamless political collage of Baldwin’s trenchant views on American culture, identity and racism and of his times seen through the exilic poetic prism of an outsider’s position. Peck is not interested in formal experimentation as far as the documentary’s themes and style are concerned, but rather, in creating a documentary as an expression of Baldwin’s moral compassion, empathy and vulnerability for his fellow African American contemporaries. Peck brilliantly edits and structures his vast cultural, historical and political material, and also exquisitely pacing the film so Baldwin’s assertive, rhythmic and powerful voice as vocally rendered by Jackson accentuates the author’s perennial existential perspective on identity and race. Peck’s documentary is invaluable as a moving clear-eye testament to Baldwin’s compassionate, lyrical, existential and penetrating critique of how American identity, racism and violence are so intricately woven together. More than anything else, Baldwin speaks his mind, the vulnerability cutting through the ideological lies that we tell each other when it comes to the continuing human struggle of the African-American of attempting to survive in a white world of cruelty, hostility and oppression.
(1). Darryl Pinckney, “Under the Spell of James Baldwin”, The New York Review of Books, March 23- April 5, 2017, p24.