Arts & Events
Race in America is a tough persistent issue, and we often delude ourselves into thinking that we are progressing toward more inclusiveness and less racism. It took political courage for President Truman to integrate the armed forces in 1948, an act many never forgave. Martin Luther King famously stated that "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And indeed it does... sometimes, as when the Brown vs Board of Education decision (1954) held that school segregation was unconstitutional. Then the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s gained ground, often at a heavy cost to those determined to bring racial equality into everyday life. I can remember being shocked In 1965, when in Army training in Louisiana, seeing, for the first time in a local laundry, big signs for “White” and “Colored” above each of the two front doors. And I remember stories from some of the black soldiers in my platoon that were equally shocking. Measured against that, and measured against eight years of a black president, we appear to have come a long way. Yet today the goal of true equality seems more distant than ever. Even with the protests of Black Lives Matter, we seem increasingly slipping backward, in every sense. Some historians felt that after Obama was first elected, we had become a post-racial society. Clearly such is not the case.
James Baldwin, the black writer who gave us classics like Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), The Fire Next Time (1963) and many more essays and novels, traveled widely in the South witnessing first-hand both the triumphs and despair of the Civil Rights Movement and remained to the end of his life one of its most intellectual and influential spokespersons. He was a close friend of many major black leaders, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. After their murders in the 1960’s, Baldwin began work on a book about their lives and their impact on America. Although a prodigious writer, he never finished this work before his death from cancer in 1987 at his home in the south of France. Many film makers had sought access to Baldwin’s manuscripts and letters, but his estate declined - until now The result is an extraordinary film, I Am Not Your Negro, by Raoul Peck, a Haitian-born documentary film maker (Lumumba). Gay and black like Baldwin, Peck was given free rein by Baldwin’s sister. One of their discoveries was a 30-page manuscript for a book to be called Remember This House, about race in America and the lives of Dr. King, Malcolm X and Evers. Peck was determined that his film be in Baldwin’s own words, and that is what he has done, using archival clips of Baldwin in interviews and lectures for most of the film.
I Am Not Your Negro is packed with riveting interviews, mostly of Baldwin but also of other major figures of the era. So accustomed are we to reading Baldwin that to hear him speak is a revelation. Peck begins with Baldwin on The Dick Caveat show in 1968, eloquent, powerful and nothing less than perfectly articulate. Baldwin said that “The history of the Negro is the story of America. And it’s not pretty”. Peck uses chapters, marked by strong graphic black and white titles, to follow Baldwin’s life, particularly during the 1960’s. In a chapter entitled "Paying My Dues", Baldwin admits that after seeing photographs of a young black woman being harassed by a hostile white crowd as she is trying to enter a newly integrated school that he felt ashamed to be in France while needed in the US. He credits a white school teacher for paying attention to him as a ten year old, giving him books to read and discuss. She took him to plays and films, which changed his life. The FBI kept Baldwin under surveillance and produced a large dossier, which concluded that he was a dangerous individual. Of course Baldwin’s homosexuality only added to the suspicion. This is followed by a chilling clip of J Edgar Hoover encouraging citizens to report suspicious and un-American behavior. Baldwin ties racism against blacks to the treatment of the American Indians, and Peck uses Hollywood film clips to illustrate the point. Peck also uses many clips to show Hollywood’s demeaning view of blacks: submissive, childlike and sometimes dangerous. There is another clip that shows five or six little black girls, hopping around in white bunny outfits. At first it’s cute and funny, but then the poignancy sinks in: these black children are trying to become white, a theme echoed in a later section of the film. Baldwin tells whites that blacks wonder “What is our future in this country”? He talks about the “death of the heart“ of the white community, which has turned many into “moral monsters”.
Peck has very carefully selected archival footage and stills, some of the Civil Rights struggle. It’s almost unbearable to watch the ugliness of crowds shrieking at black students, police clubbing people, white crowds with hateful signs and hateful faces, then the faces of recent victims of police violence. I am familiar with many of the images normally seen in accounts of the struggle, but much of Peck’s footage was new to me. Peck uses Samuel Jackson to narrate Baldwin’s writing; Jackson is good but lacks Baldwin’s forcefulness.
This is a brilliant film and I loved what Peck has done. Never have I seen so much packed into 95 minutes, nor said that I would have been happy with another half hour. The coda, with its proud black faces, is as powerful as I have ever seen. Peck has given us a great film, a landmark. I believe we, as Americans, are obliged to see this tremendous portrait of James Baldwin and an era in America. I Am Not Your Negro is one of five nominations for best feature length documentary at the 2016 Academy Awards. Interestingly, a related film, 13th, about race and the criminal justice system, is also in competition. Screening at the Embarcadero, the Alamo Drafthouse (SF) and the California (Berkeley). See it on the big screen.