In June 1968, James Baldwin appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. The host was genial, welcoming, and had questions.
“Why aren’t the Negroes optimistic?” he asked.
Two months prior, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated (and one week prior, Bobby Kennedy), but Cavett didn’t bring this up. Instead, he cited the social progress of recent years, the barriers that had fallen. Still, there was a kind of insight in his follow-up: “Is it at once getting much better and still hopeless?”
Baldwin rejected the premise of the question. For him, the “Negro problem” was America’s problem. “The real question is, what’s going to happen to this country?” he countered.
Eleven years later, Baldwin stirred himself to begin a project that had been weighing on his mind. Medgar Evers, murdered in 1963, Malcolm X, murdered in 1965, and King were men he knew. All were younger than him. He wanted to write about America through their lives. That meant revisiting painful memories, visiting their widows and children. Part of him didn’t want to do it. He found himself in “a somewhat divided frame of mind,” he wrote to his agent. “The summer has scarcely begun and I feel already that it’s almost over.”
It was 1979. Soon, Ronald Reagan would become the Republican presidential nominee and take his post-convention campaign to Philadelphia, Miss. — where the Klan had murdered the civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner — dog-whistling “states’ rights” all the way. Baldwin never got far with his project; he abandoned it after 30 pages.
It’s 2017. Raoul Peck, the Haitian director whose subjects have included Patrice Lumumba and the Rwandan genocide, has released a version of Baldwin’s project in film form, with the blessing of the writer’s estate. I Am Not Your Negro is montage and meditation, a dialogue between the archive and the present, a road movie without the road. Though a documentary, it dispenses entirely with narration in favor of Baldwin’s own words, as spoken in archival footage (with that incredible, expressive face), or read beautifully by Samuel L. Jackson.
It is also an argument, or a set of arguments: Baldwin maintains, for instance, that Malcolm and Martin, though different in temperament and starting ideologies, learned immensely from one another and were, towards the ends of their short lives, in many ways converging. The big thesis, however, is threefold: that white America invented and defined race to serve its own psychic and political needs; that (white) America should be judged not on its words, but on its actions; and that the fundamental duty to solve America’s problems lies with those who created them.
Inescapably, watching this film in the horrific early days of a Donald Trump presidency, when bigoted ideologies that have festered on the far right are now welcome in, and likely directing, the White House, is distressing. The film was made before Trump’s ascension, of course. (It had a limited release in December to qualify for this year’s Oscars, and has been nominated; it opened in general release today.) But the last few years had already produced plenty of widely seen evidence of America’s continuing sickness of anti-Black racism, and indeed, a furious montage of the confrontations at Ferguson and elsewhere occurs early in I Am Not Your Negro, before the film settles into weaving the emotional fabric between its past and present poles.
Baldwin’s own emotional state is at the center of the film; his surging anger drives its implicit plot. It begins when he ends his expatriation and returns to the US from Paris, compelled by images of dignified young Black students in the South protected by soldiers as they enter previously segregated schools, under the jeers of spitting white mobs hoisting Nazi flags. “I saw the photograph on every newspaper kiosk … in Paris,” Baldwin says. “It made me furious.” Paris was the sidelines; he had to come home.
Even so, as Baldwin travels through the country in the 1960s, associating with civil rights leaders and foot soldiers, the actor-observer split bothers him. He isn’t beaten or horse-whipped; he doesn’t do the hard labor of voter registration. “I was never in town to stay,” he says. “I had to accept, as time wore on, that part of my responsibility as a witness was to move as largely and freely as possible, to write the story and to get it out.”
By 1968, his fury is intense and laced with sorrow at the loss of the frontline fighters. On Cavett’s show, Baldwin tears into a Yale philosophy professor who, in today’s terms, tries to “All lives matter” him; race, the philosopher argues, is only one of mankind’s myriad distinctions and surely need not be the paramount focus. Later, in a text that Jackson reads, comes a sense of exhaustion. “In America, I was free only in battle, never free to rest, and he who finds no way to rest cannot long survive the battle.” Baldwin moved back to France in 1970 and died there in 1987.
In the seriousness and sadness of I Am Not Your Negro dwells a lyricism that Peck expresses in his choices of archival images and the way they’re intercut with contemporary scenes — Times Square, anonymous roadways in the rain, Southern homes and fields, all deepened by an elegant orchestral score. They evoke that bittersweet American beauty that keeps so many of the system’s most harsh and lucid critics loyal, in some ineffable way, to the land and its people. Baldwin too had returned to America, especially his beloved Harlem, out of an intense emotional draw: “Though I was a stranger, I was home.”
Some of that perverse patriotism may have been rooted in Hollywood: Baldwin was a cinephile, and his childhood film-going memories and adult observations of American movie mythmaking — especially in the treatment of race — give the documentary an additional layer of analysis. In They Won’t Forget (1927), a Black janitor is accused of raping a white woman, and the terror in the actor’s eyes lodges deep in Baldwin’s mind. In The Defiant Ones (1958), Sidney Poitier’s character jumps off the side of a running train rather than leave Tony Curtis behind. “The white liberal people were much relieved,” Baldwin notes of this plot point. “Black people yelled, ‘Get back on the train, you fool!’”
Baldwin was funny. He was sentimental, too: he feels deeply for the families that the assassinated heroes left behind, and a passage on Lorraine Hansberry and his sadness when she died so young — at 34 — is one that stays with the viewer alongside the urgent political and social content. Most of all, though, he was angry, and had the sharpness of mind and crystal-clear words to turn his anger into something gorgeous and fierce. If he was unable to finish his project on Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin, that too — the falling into silence — traces a kind of frontier where words, perhaps, no longer served the rage.
“I can’t be a pessimist, because I’m alive,” Baldwin says in footage that appears late in the film. “But” — there’s a catch in his voice — “the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or dark as the future of this country.”
He goes on: “What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place … The future of the country depends on that, whether it is able or not to ask that question.”
The question remains.
I Am Not Your Negro is playing in theaters across the US.