“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
This quote is just a sample of the insights and visionary thinking that James Baldwin produced when the racial divide between white and black Americans exploded during the 1960s. Baldwin’s words are those of a prophetic writer trying to raise the national consciousness, with a gift for stirring the kind of outrage that inspires people to action. I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary, asks you to spend 90 minutes with Baldwin, analyzing footage from Hollywood’s sanitized version of The American Dream to the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement of the last few years.
For those of us still wondering about the 2016 US presidential election and what happened, watching I Am Not Your Negro feels like coming back down to Earth after life on Mars. In Peck’s film, the stoic faces that represent the last 40 years are young and old, black and white, and it’s as if they’re asking you to confront race beyond the ease of avoiding their gaze. It seems more urgent than ever to look to the past to try and understand, “Are we on the cusp of another decade of turmoil?”
Excerpts of Baldwin’s letters, speeches and personal reflections soar in the unmistakable voice of Samuel L. Jackson and give everything from a bustling street in Harlem, where Baldwin grew up, to actual satellite images of Mars, a fierce energy. Blue-eyed Doris Day in one of her classic romantic comedy poses cut against a black man hanging by his neck in the South are just a few of the images that show how polarized the 60s were. Baldwin could see the cultural impact, for better or for worse, of the hatred, fear and denial that those images represent. Some of the most gratifying moments of Baldwin’s powerful mind on display are when he debates the likelihood of a black President of the United States, amazingly ironic in this age of post-Barack Obama.
Peck’s film also reveals the ambivalence Baldwin had about becoming well-known in academic and celebrity circles, but he didn’t shy away from controversy, and he formed strong allies in Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. But some of the most passionate supporters of civil rights and close friends such as Lorraine Hansberry, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy died before they could see any real progress. Much like the young men and women who inspired Black Lives Matter, Hansberry and others were all gone before the age of 40. Once you see Baldwin’s world-weary face channeling that kind of pain, it makes you wonder how the man lived through it all with his humanity intact.
I Am Not Your Negro premiered at RIDM on February 23 and is now playing at Cinéma du Parc and Cinéma AMC Forum.