I am Not Your Negro; documentary; 93 minutes; Rated PG-13
In 1979, James Baldwin, noted author, playwright and essayist, sent a detailed proposal to his agent — some 30 pages long — for a book he titled “Remember This House,” a work of nonfiction that was intended to connect three men: Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. Less than ten years later (1987), Baldwin died, never having written more that those 30 pages, which proved to be, in its own right, a powerful essay on race.
Director Raoul Peck used those pages (and some notes and essays) to craft not a biographical documentary about Baldwin, but instead a film about race using Baldwin’s transcendent words and interviews, on television and from countless daises and college podiums, to frame an issue that has resisted resolution since the first slaves were brought to Jamestown in 1619.
Our national identity is embedded in our response to what has been referred to by some scholars as a “Peculiar Institution,” which, as Baldwin explains, is part of our nation’s desire to create a fantasy that is only applicable to one segment of society, but not to all. Our denial of what was perpetrated for three centuries continues to haunt us, a truth that Baldwin returns to time after time in this powerful film. He refers to our unwillingness to grapple with the impact of slavery as our “moral monster,” beginning not only with the antebellum South, but during the decades following the Civil War when segregation and Jim Crow were codified. The war was over, the north won, but the attitudes toward black people were deeply and intractably entrenched.
Peck includes as part of the film stark black and white photos of “Negroes,” a word that Baldwin uses repeatedly, who were lynched, with impunity, to include children and men as well as women.
And what is chilling, to the core, are the looks on the faces of the men and women who were present at those hangings and bore witness. Their faces flash with a rictus smile, the rising tide of violence and death seemingly irresistible, something that refuses to touch their souls. Peck also reveals that same look, that same rage in the faces of men and women, in footage captured when schools in the South were desegregated and we see a single girl, surrounded by state marshals, making a harrowing journey from the street to the doors of the school building, her bravery beyond description. She is reviled and denigrated and threatened, and yet she puts one tentative foot in front of the other.
The faces of the protesting crowds are twisted with a hatred that could only be born out of the same impulses that killed Martin and Medgar, a murderous resistance to our constitutional commitment to civil rights, tempered by the aspirational belief that every person should be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. An idea so elegant and so profound that its beauty is often missed by large segments of our society.
Our national truth is that we have yet to make that journey toward equality, at least not fully. And Peck includes contemporary footage of Ferguson, Mo., demonstrating that our social fabric continues to be frayed, rooted in slavery which was formed out of kidnapping, bondage and prolonged incarceration, and the impact of that history continues to ripple through our still segregated, bifurcated society.
Slavery and all that followed, like a stone dropped into a wide pond, continues to be felt as the ripples move ever outward in concentric circles. The harm done to lives continues.
As an aside, Baldwin, for reasons never fully explored in “I am Not Your Negro,” chose to leave America and reside in France. But as the Civil Rights Movement began to take form, as men such as Martin Luther King Jr. took on its purpose and weight, Baldwin felt its gravitational pull and returned, if only to bear witness to all that was occurring in America as this momentous struggle coalesced. And continues to this day.