By Nicholas Powers, Truthout.org Film Review
The genius of James Baldwin finds new life in I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. The Guardian calls it a “striking work of storytelling” and the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Get your copy of the DVD by making a donation to Truthout now!
“We are integrating into a burning house,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in a moment of doubt. A week later, April 4, 1968, he was shot and killed. Enraged people rioted. His friend and writer, James Baldwin, witnessed cities set ablaze and in the fire, saw the future of the US.
Baldwin died in 1987 but is resurrected for our troubled times in director Raoul Peck’s 2017 film I Am Not Your Negro. It traces Baldwin’s spiritual journey as he wrote on the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and King. The book he started, Remember This House, was never finished. It gathered dust until Peck spliced it with interviews, FBI notes, news reels and movies. Narrator Samuel L. Jackson gives the author’s prose a velveteen, somber voice-over. What emerges is more than a film; it is a mirror where the fires of Watts, Detroit and other cities after King’s death, reflect today’s flames in Ferguson and Baltimore.
“It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro,” Baldwin said in an early [episode] of “The Dick Cavett Show.” Eyebrows arched, he looked at Cavett, “The real question is what’s going to happen to this country.” The film cuts to cops arresting Black Lives Matters activists. Peck edits Baldwin speaking in the past, alongside today’s protests throughout I Am Not Your Negro. It drives the overall theme that our nation is again at a turning point. The US will rise or fall to the degree it heeds Baldwin’s warning. The film commands: Look beyond the self-serving stereotypes of Black people or collapse from the weight of your hypocrisy.
The struggle of real Black people versus racist caricature sets up the film. In the section, “Paying My Dues,” Baldwin recalls seeing Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old Black girl, walking through a howling white mob to integrate a school. Disgusted, he decides to report on the Civil Rights Movement. Peck follows that scene with racist images from commercials. Baldwin was an avid student of media and saw stereotypes in ads and Hollywood films. It taught him that, “My country men were my enemy … these stories are designed to reassure us that no crime was committed.” But it had been, and was being committed. Baldwin hopped between cities, following the movement, trying to warn the US of the “fire next time.”
Warning the nation is the work of the prophet. No wonder critics from Andrew O’Hehir in Salon to Richard Brody in The New Yorker use “prophetic” to describe Baldwin. They inadvertently pointed to an idea Baldwin took from his childhood religion of prophetic integration. Christopher Z. Hobson, in his graceful 2012 book, The Mount of Vision: African American Prophetic Tradition, 1800-1950, traced the line of Black leaders “calling” to the US through their reading of the Old Testament. Ezekiel warned the Israelites that they must turn from sin back to God or risk destruction. Jeremiah predicted the apocalypse. If one replaces the Israelites with the people of the US, Ezekiel with Baldwin and Jeremiah with Malcolm X, we see, more clearly, the prophetic tradition at work in Black America.
I Am Not Your Negro is deeply moving because it is, in essence, a sermon. In each section of the film, Baldwin brings that old-time religion into political language. It gave him prescient clarity about our racial conflict — how it began, how it was hidden and why it erupts. Black prophetic integrationism sees this crisis as the denial of humanity. Nathaniel Paul said in his 1827 speech that God “has made of one blood, all nations of men” — but, moving from this premise, Black people did not want to simply dissolve into the US’s “melting pot.” Instead, Hobson, writes, they sought integration, “not on that society’s present terms but on the basis of the changes needed to provide full freedom.” In other words, the poorest, most despised people in the nation saw themselves as having God’s authority to transform a racist country into a land where everyone could be free.
“There is scarcely any hope for the American Dream,” Baldwin said, eyeing a packed hall at Cambridge University. “The people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it. And when that happens it will be a grave moment for the West.” In this scene in the film, Baldwin is debating conservative William F. Buckley.
Baldwin was in full Ezekiel mode during this debate: Turn or be destroyed. Yet the film shows that beneath this public role as the US’s secular prophet, another, more private conflict, ground away at Baldwin: the vision he inherited from the church. The vision that guided the marchers also came with a terrible toll. His friends were being killed.
If prophetic integration drives the politics of I Am Not Your Negro, it also frames the personal cost. “Suffering is redemptive,” King said often, and most powerfully in 1963 at the March on Washington. Suffering is also inevitably personal. The film follows Baldwin as he reckons with the murders of three men he admired, even loved: Evers in ’63; Malcolm X in ’65; King in ’68. Each death is a morbid climax in I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin often received the news while he was far away, working on a novel or screenplay. The radio announcer breaks in. The phone rings with a devastating message. He collapses, goes numb.
Black America paid a price in the effort to transform the US into a true democracy. The price was not abstract; it was real people with real lives. Baldwin the novelist described the anguish in personal details, forcing us to know how prophetic integration meant sacrificing one’s life to save one’s humanity — and along the way, losing people dear to you. It is this secondary, private conflict of the artist within the activist that runs like a jagged cry in the film, culminating in King’s assassination. Baldwin writes of the funeral, “I was concentrating on holding myself together. I did not want to weep for Martin … I may have been afraid that if I began to weep, I would not be able to stop.”
I Am Not Your Negro also asks if all the blood spilled was worth it. In one section, titled, “Selling the Negro,” newly minted Black middle-class families eye shiny appliances. Baldwin’s critique is amplified by Peck’s use of stock footage of white suburban families, picking through store shelves and dancing in innocent glee. If this was the Promised Land, it would blaspheme the martyrs who brought us here. And yet, isn’t this whiteness the dream?
“The world is not white, it never was white, cannot be white,” Baldwin says, “White is a metaphor for power.” In the last scene, old 19th century photos of Black families blend into modern color video of Black families. A piano plays spare notes. We see their faces, united through time, staring into the camera, asking wearily the same question: “When? When can we feel at home?”
I Am Not Your Negro was made on a mere $1 million budget. It earned $7 million, which means not many people saw it. Yet, for many of those who watched it in the theater, often drawn by intense word of mouth, it felt like a revival. Maybe that is because it is tradition in times of crisis to look to the past for guidance. Here is Baldwin, telling us once more that our racial crisis endures because too much of white America simply refuses to see actual Black people. They prefer the sambo or mammy or ghetto “thug.” Baldwin doggedly, desperately urges again to turn from racism before it’s too late, to turn from fiery apocalypse to love.
Baldwin never finished his book, but Peck’s film gives it to us as the man’s last testament. Lost in the beauty of his voice is what we are too afraid to see now. The Civil Rights Movement was also the widening of the class divide in Black America — one that threatens to leave the prophetic integrationist vision, inside museums rather than as a living force that can save the nation.
We need it now. Across the world, hatred rises. Right-wing politics are winning. The resentment of shrinking majorities are propelling strongmen to high office. The military and police are being given carte blanche to flex violence. The fires of Ferguson and Baltimore will ignite elsewhere. Terrorist attacks in London, Libya, Baghdad and Paris have people’s teeth on edge. The wars in Syria and Yemen light up the night with bombs. At the center is the US, our power driving so much of this inferno.
Nicholas Powers is the author of The Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans to Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street, published by Upset Press. He is an associate professor of English at SUNY Old Westbury and has been writing for Truthout since 2011. His article, “Killing the Future: The Theft of Black Life” in the Truthout anthology Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? coalesces his years of reporting on police brutality.