“There are days — this is one of them — when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.” – James Baldwin, 1963.
This film, I am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is a testament to James Baldwin’s brilliance. It in one fell swoop places him within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and also as someone who was a latecomer to its activism (though he fought racism through his words while living in France). He was one of America’s leading intellectuals and social critics and found a way to cut through the baloney, the white ignorance of the time, the cluelessness, like a knife. At once, the film is a unique history of the CRM, of the past sixty years of race, and also it’s a warning for us today that we still have racial problems left festering.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
The film’s narrative is loosely based upon Baldwin’s attempt to write a history of the CRM using his friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. King, as touchstones. Apparently, Baldwin only got as far as 30 pages of notes before he gave up on the project in 1979. What shocked me (though I knew this fact in the back of my mind, being a history teacher) was the fact that all three men were killed before they hit the age of 40. As someone who is almost 50, I am both in awe and in shock of how much these three men had accomplished in such a short span.
The film begins with Baldwin’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968 as the host earnestly implores Baldwin as to where there might be a glimmer of hope in race relations. Baldwin smiles that toothy grin and kind of shakes his head as if to say he doesn’t know. But he does. What Dick Cavett asked him is probably indicative of what other white people have asked themselves during and since the CRM – when will Black people be satisfied with the advances that their race has made? When Cavett brings an older, white professor of philosophy to come on, all he does is whitesplain the problem of race in America to Baldwin. Below is Baldwin’s response:
At an interview with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963, James Baldwin and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (among others) were gathered together to discuss improving race relations, a “quiet, off-the-record, unpublicized get-together of prominent Negroes”. JFK was still thinking about 1964 and running again, so he couldn’t look like he was kowtowing to Black people for fear of losing the Southern vote, yet he still had to appear to be leader of ALL Americans. The meeting took place in late May, soon after the film footage of the Children’s Crusade was broadcast to the nation – blasting Black children with water from fire hoses and attacking protestors with dogs. This meeting, though just briefly mentioned in the film, seems like a typical Kennedy maneuver where the Kennedys do something on the surface but don’t seem to understand the deeper, underlying causes. The actors and activists at the meeting were told by Robert Kennedy that maybe in forty years there might be a Black president. Baldwin’s answer, two years later in a debate with William F. Buckley, conservative critic, is telling:
“From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency… We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.” – 1965
It reminds me of something that I had heard once that, when asked, how many more women did Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg feel need to be on the court in order to make women feel equal? Her answer was nine, with the rationale that the Supreme Court had been all male for 190 years, it’s time to make up some ground. In the same respect, maybe we need a string of minority presidents of women and people of color to help make America more equal.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
There was a telling scene, a powerful scene, when Baldwin was talking about growing up in Harlem and watching his friends die way too early. Then, the film cuts to snapshots of modern young Black Americans, all cut down before their 18th birthday, like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and ends with someone holding up a sign that says “We Live in a Police State” or something to that effect. There are shots of the Ferguson disturbances interspersed with shots of white police officers clubbing Black people on the streets of Oakland, California and Birmingham, Alabama, ramming home the message that though we whites might think this awful string of police brutality is relatively new in America, it’s not. Now, more things are just being caught on video than ever before.
“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.”
Baldwin’s social critiques of the nation in the film are just as prescient as they were fifty years ago, maybe even more so. Because the film is so dense, with layers of meaning and visuals and voice overs going on all at the same time, I feel like I would need to see this film two or three more times to get the entire message. But one scene struck me, as Baldwin decries the vacuousness of American life, about how that once we discover how pointless life is with an accumulation of stuff, we’ll go crazy. As he says this (with narration by Samuel L. Jackson), there is some colorful movie with white people dancing all around, and then he cuts to a scene from Gus Van Zant’s 2003 film, Elephant, about a Columbine-like school shooting.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
One of the things that Baldwin stresses the most, where I think he is most consistently portrayed in the film, is his undying belief that it is our humanity that ties us all together. Peck, the filmaker does an excellent job of contrasting how two different groups of people can see the same thing and view it differently, so I am certain that my film review would be markedly different than a Black film critic (I’m not calling myself a critic, I just love movies). And it is this underlying humanity and how we figure out who we are in America is what seems to fascinate Baldwin the most. This humanity is what ties us together, and because of it, we are inextricably woven as a fabric in one piece in American history. To separate the strands between white, black, brown, red, yellow, is to render the fabric useless.
For extra credit, see the film and answer three of the questions below (you must answer #2 as one of the three):
- How did films shape how James saw the world when he was younger? Also, how are films, especially ones with the great actor Sidney Poitier, used?
- How does this film act as a history of the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 – 1968? How is it not a history but yet the story of James Baldwin?
- One of the things that the film brings up is how white and black people see things differently, specifically using the pivotal scene in the movie, The Defiant Ones. How do you think your perception of this film is different than somebody of another color? Why?
- “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” Explain whether or not you agree with this quote and why.